Elon Musk’s bid to take over Twitter starts with platitudes about free speech. He says he’s a “free speech absolutist.” “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy,” he says in the news release about his takeover of the company, “and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
Don’t fall for it. All he’s trying to do is get support from conservatives who were sad to see Donald Trump and Alex Jones thrown off Twitter for abuse and glorifying violence.
Let’s start by clarifying what this kind of free speech has to do with the First Amendment, which is . . . not much. The First Amendment simply stops Congress from creating laws that block free speech – it doesn’t prevent private companies from having their own rules. Musk’s own company Tesla, for example, has required laid off employees to refrain from disparaging the company, which is perfectly legal.
In the same way, Twitter is free to enforce its own rules about which tweets – and which Twitter users — are allowed and which are banned. There is nothing in the constitution, or in “Section 230,” the law that shields social networks from liability, that prevents such social networks from having limits on what they allow on their platforms.
But as Musk said on stage at a technology event, he wants Twitter to post as much speech as possible. “It’s really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they’re able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.” In other words, if speech is not actually illegal, Musk wants it to be okay on Twitter.
This is a very dumb idea. As the technology blogger Mike Masnick explains, this “shows how very, very little Musk understands” about content moderation.
Twitter is already about as permissive as it’s possible to get and still have a functioning social network. Even so, it currently prohibits copyright violations, impersonation, harassment, abuse, incitements to violence, glorification of violence, threats, terrorism, media depicting attacks, sexual exploitation of children, publication of people’s private information (like social security numbers), encouragement of suicide, or sexual images posted without the subject’s permission.
I’d like to hear exactly which of these policies Musk wants to undo. Is he in favor of allowing depictions of violence, or does he just want you to be able to persuade others to kill themselves?
One controversial Twitter policy regards hate speech. You’re not allowed to use Twitter to attack people based on their race, gender, or sexual identity. Maybe this is where Musk wants to loosen things up. He has, after all, used Twitter to misgender trans people and promoted memes ridiculing them.
But consider why these policies exist. The banned content elements, like harassment, hate speech and posting others’ private information, create an environment hostile to the very thing that Elon Musk claims to want to preserve: the “digital town square.” Would you go to a town square where at any moment people would feel free to shout you down based on your skin color, encourage you to kill yourself, tell everyone your mobile phone number and home address, and show everyone naked pictures of you?
Of course not. That sounds like a nasty and horrible place. And that’s exactly what would happen to Twitter if a “free speech absolutist” starts dismantling its policies. Twitter users would bolt in disgust, and as the traffic declined, the advertising revenues would as well. Social networks that don’t rein in harassment tend to become havens for trolls and criminals.
So let’s admit it. If you use social networks, you want restrictions in place that keep the environment free of the most horrifying elements of human degradation and hate. You don’t want completely free speech. And neither does Elon Musk – since such changes would destroy what he just agreed to pay $44 billion to own.
Musk’s free speech absolutism is just posturing to make you – and conservative members of Congress – believe that he’s pushing back against the policies that got Donald Trump and Alex Jones thrown off the network. Absolutist free speech kills social networks. If Elon Musk really doesn’t understand that, he’s about to waste a mind-boggling amount of money to learn it.