There’s a new sheriff on Twitter, and in the space of a week, former sheriff Jack Dorsey suddenly seems irrelevant with his mere 6 million followers and measly 2% share of stock.
Dorsey has long been the scourge of the ideological right, even before Texas Sen. Ted Cruz angrily asked him “Who the hell elected you?” during a 2020 Senate committee hearing on social media censorship.
In comparison, Elon Musk rides into Twitter’s boardroom wearing a white hat, enjoying nearly worldwide acclaim for providing generators and internet service to Ukraine. Suddenly the majority shareholder of Twitter, Musk is seen by some conservatives as the platform’s savior in waiting, and they are beseeching him to do everything from letting users edit their tweets to reversing former President Donald Trump’s banishment and even stopping “the Great Reset.”
There are at least two problems. One, Musk doesn’t have that kind of power, despite his 80 million Twitter followers and 9.2% share of the company. And two, despite occasionally talking like a conservative, he isn’t one — not even close.
“To be clear, I am not a conservative,” he tweeted in 2018. “Am registered independent & politically moderate. Doesn’t mean I’m moderate about all issues.”
One issue that Musk is not moderate about is censorship, which puts him in the camp of Cruz and Utah Sen. Mike Lee when it comes to restrictions on speech on Twitter and other social media platforms. “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free-speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy,” Musk recently tweeted.
That and other comments suggest that Musk might be inclined to restore the accounts of Trump and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who have been kicked off the platform.
And given that he follows The Babylon Bee on Twitter and has done a sit-down interview with CEO Seth Dillon and other leaders of the satirical website, it seems likely that Musk would also reactivate the Bee’s account, if given the power.
The account was locked last month for a tweet making fun of Rachel Levine, the transgender assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In fact, the Washington Examiner has reported that the Bee’s suspension might have been the “last straw” for Musk, who had reached out to confirm the suspension. “He even mused on that call with us that he might need to buy Twitter,” Dillon told the Examiner.
But Musk didn’t buy Twitter, only about $2.9 billion in shares, which is why he can’t unilaterally restore anyone’s accounts; he would have to convince the board and other shareholders to go along with that or acquire more of the company.
Musk’s interest in free speech is likely not so much fueled by the suspension of prominent conservative accounts, but by his own legal tussle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which accused Musk of manipulating stock prices with a tweet about Tesla. Three years ago, he agreed to a settlement in the case that, among other things, required approval of his tweets by a lawyer.
But now, according to the Los Angeles Times, “Musk’s lawyer is now asking a U.S. District Court judge in Manhattan to throw out the settlement, contending that the SEC is harassing him and infringing on his 1st Amendment rights.”
The number of blue checks on here who have delighted in Tweeting, “Twitter is a private company, if you don’t like it, leave!” who are suddenly shaken to their core by @elonmusk becoming the largest @twitter shareholder is absolutely glorious.— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) April 5, 2022
Meanwhile, Musk has steadily gained fans in conservative circles, with his advocacy for large families, his defense of the Canadian trucker protests, his disdain for “wokeness” and his push for more domestic oil and natural gas production because of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
In embracing him, conservatives have to look past his decidedly un-conservative lifestyle, such as continuing to have children outside of marriage, and doing and saying things that are generally beyond the boundaries of propriety. As Politico senior media writer Jack Schafer recently wrote, “His default setting is outrageous.”
Even more outrageous to many Americans, however, is the idea of a sitting U.S. president being thrown off a social-media platform on which the Taliban spokesman still tweets.
At age 16 — ancient in internet years — corporate Twitter has at times seemed in danger of calcifying into an institutional pearl-clutcher that allows dubious accounts to proliferate while verified accounts are suspended for voicing unpopular opinions. The company makes clear that while freedom of speech is a fundamental human right, speaking your mind on Twitter is not, if you venture outside what the company considers “healthy conversations.”
To be fair, the company has been building the plane as it flies, and Dorsey has said Twitter was wrong to shut off the New York Post’s reporting about Hunter Biden’s laptop in October 2020. His earnest justification for banning Trump acknowledged the decision set “a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”
For now, as an individual on the Twitter board, Musk doesn’t hold all the power, but he has everyone’s attention, including the company’s CEO, Parag Agrawal, who cryptically tweeted, in response to Musk asking his followers if they want an edit button, “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.”
In short, conservatives have real reasons to hope the platform will be more accommodating of their jokes and views, with Musk promising that “significant changes” are coming. Everyone else can just hope that Musk’s sense of humor survives what’s ahead.