Elon Musk said he wants to make Twitter a platform for free speech. Here’s why that might be harder than you think
Is ‘free speech absolutism’ compatible with one of the world’s largest social platforms?
Elon Musk’s $44 billion takeover of Twitter has prompted visceral reactions across the political spectrum.
On the other hand, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the deal is the “biggest development for free speech in decades” and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said she hopes to get her personal Twitter account restored — after she had it permanently suspended for spreading COVID-19 misinformation. Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson simply tweeted, “We’re back.”
But despite Musk’s status as a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” some are less convinced that his ownership of Twitter will bring about the downward spiral liberals fear, or the renaissance conservatives hope for.
Are we overreacting about the future of Twitter?
Although Musk has floated improvements for the platform — like suggesting Twitter allow users to edit their tweets or offer end-to-end encryption on direct messages — his stance on free speech and content moderation is what has stirred much of the public into a tizzy.
Twitter’s future under Musk is more complicated than those on the left and right seem to believe, said Jim Tabery, professor of philosophy at the University of Utah. When it comes down to it, it’s all about the money and — even for the world’s richest person — $44 billion is hardly chump change.
“I suspect — if you want me to make a prediction — that Twitter is going to change very little over the course of the next 12 months,” Tabery told the Deseret News. “Yes, you’ve got somebody who is taking control who is out there as a big proponent of free speech, but it’s very easy to say that stuff in the abstract.”
Tabery argues that Twitter’s success as a social media platform is in part based on its willingness to moderate, and even under Musk, the company’s interests would still be best served by making the site welcoming and accessible to as many people as possible.
Decisions like banning former President Donald Trump “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection or Twitter’s rule against sharing false COVID-19 information are not political calculations, they are business and public relations strategies made by a for-profit company.
“There are lots of reasons to think that a tsunami is not coming,” he said. “On one side, (people are) imagining this sort of idyllic future where Twitter is suddenly a conservative haven, and liberals imagining this awful scenario. ... I don’t think that we’re going to get much traction out of predicting that Twitter’s going to suddenly turn into some really radical new social space. I think the market has kind of dialed it in where it’s at.”
Even if Musk is willing to risk taking a loss in order to make Twitter less restrictive of content shared by users, any major changes could make the platform dramatically less popular and influential, as evidenced by other websites that have already tried the same thing, Tabery said.
‘It’s nothing that technology can solve’
The internet has no shortage of options for free speech absolutists, but none have managed to replicate Twitter’s brand. That’s no accident, Tabery said, because those so-called “free speech havens” quickly become filled with extreme — often violent — content, rendering them all but inhospitable to casual internet users.
Take 8chan for example. The site was started as a free speech utopia, but in 2019, its founder, Fredrick Brennan, called for it to be shut down after three separate mass shootings were announced in advance on the platform, according to The New York Times.
“I think (8chan) is the closest we’ve seen to this sort of genuine, hands-off, anything goes environment. And it’s a cesspool, right?” said Tabery. “If people think Elon is going to finally let Twitter turn into 8chan ... if you’ve got Twitter stock, run for the hills, because that is not a good business model.”
“It’s not like by bringing in Elon, there’s suddenly going to be this anything goes, Wild West phenomenon. There are still going to be boundaries,” he continued. “To the extent that he’s a savvy businessman — and all indications are that he is — he’s not going to let it get completely taken over by neo-Nazis, white nationalists and the sort of people promoting the virtues of genocide. If you want this thing to be successful, you still need those guardrails up to monitor what society is willing to tolerate in a space like that.”
Alternative social media sites like Parler, Gab or Trump’s Truth Social will continue to exist — and Tabery said he wouldn’t be surprised to see more liberal sites pop up in the future — but free-reign platforms will likely continue to face an uphill battle in being popular with mainstream Americans.
However small their numbers are, Tabery said, there will continue to be a minority of users who want to share pornography and racist or violent content, which would threaten Twitter’s bottom line.
“There’s no AI or machine learning algorithm that Elon is going to discover that’s going to determine whether or not it’s OK to post pictures of lynchings and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this again?’ That’s a social problem, and it’s nothing that technology can solve,” he said.
Whoever is in charge of Twitter is faced with the ongoing, murky issue of where to draw the line on content moderation. Musk has tweeted that he plans to moderate free speech according to “that which matches the law,” but Tabery points out that legal free speech includes types of expression that would be problematic for such a wide audience.
By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2022
I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.
If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect.
Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.
Twitter’s current rules against certain types of speech don’t violate anyone’s First Amendment rights, he said, because it’s a private company that is trying to appeal to as many consumers as possible.
“There is all sorts of absolutely heinous stuff out there, that the Supreme Court has decided is not illegal,” he said. “I just do not think that Musk has thought through this in the way that people who have actually had to regulate this stuff have thought through it.
“It is very easy to say in the abstract that you’re pro free speech, and then you get one of these videos up there — whether it’s pornography, images of child abuse — and then you have to decide what to do. ... I suspect Elon is in for a rude awakening.”
Musk has insinuated that Twitter has a “left-wing bias” and tweeted a chart showing how he believes his political leanings have changed as the left has grown more extreme.
Nate Silver, founder and editor of FiveThirtyEight, pointed out that both extremes have moved relative to the center, citing Gallup survey data that shows both Democrats and Republicans are more likely to identify as liberal or conservative, respectively.
“Folks, it’s not that hard, the left has moved to the left in the U.S. *and* the right has moved to the right,” Silver said in a tweet.
He suggests that left-leaning “thought leaders” on Twitter are increasingly liberal, though, which would explain Musk’s perception of the platform. Musk said his platform would ideally upset the “far right and the far left equally.”
According to Tabery, it’s plausible that Musk would reinstate some of Twitter’s exiles, including Trump, in lieu of making more drastic changes. While the terms of service and content moderation guidelines would likely remain the same, Musk might give Trump and others another chance to follow the platform rules, as a way to “bury old hatchets,” he said.