I am not a diehard Elon Musk fan, nor am I confident that his recent attempt to carry out a hostile takeover of Twitter will improve the prospects of freedom of speech on social media. Many conservatives seem to have an interesting habit of fawning over Musk everytime he agitates the left. The “based meme man billionaire” version of Musk, a man who regularly drops bombs on Twitter’s left-wing and fights for “free speech absolutism” is a desirable narrative, but nevertheless highly romanticized.
Elon Musk is one of the richest people in the world. The battle over Twitter right now, regardless of where you stand on the matter, is ultimately a battle between super-rich people who all see Twitter not just as a social media website, but an incredibly powerful tool that can influence how vast swaths of people view the world.
We can speculate all day long about how one billionaire owning all of Twitter is potentially despotic (and maybe it is), but that certainly doesn’t take away from the fact that Twitter is already despotic.
The milquetoast warnings about ‘evil billionaire’ Elon Musk’s takeover attempt don’t really bode well. They’re issued by the blue check marks who support the website’s censorious status quo already maintained by the billionaires before Elon Musk’s investment.
Perhaps the absurdity of this position is best exemplified in a recent op-ed in The Guardian by Robert Reich, a left-wing economist and author. He writes:
“Musk says he wants to ‘free’ the internet. But what he really aims to do is make it even less accountable than it is now, when it’s often impossible to discover who is making the decisions about how algorithms are designed, who is filling social media with lies, who’s poisoning our minds with pseudo-science and propaganda, and who’s deciding which versions of events go viral and which stay under wraps.”
According to Reich, a despotic internet results not from a censorious group of societal elites who wish to muffle and label those who disagree with them under the broad guise of “pseudo-science and propaganda,” but rather from a more public square-oriented space with a renewed wariness of censorship.
A stronger commitment by Twitter to conform to the ideal of the public square threatens the current power dynamic on the website. It may certainly be more chaotic in the eyes of the blue check marks, but I doubt they have any genuine concern about the rise of illegal activity, such as doxxing or the posting of illegal content. What they’re really concerned about, and what that chaos of a free platform will ultimately bring, is an instability to their current oligopoly on information. It will take away their ability to act as the self-appointed Ministry of Truth on a platform of 313 million users.
We’d also do well to allow for nuance when discussing the merit of “free speech absolutism” as it relates to Twitter. The Robert Reichs of the world seem to believe that if Twitter conforms to Elon Musk’s view of what it should be (or rather, what we think his view is), the website will become just as toxic as the notorious anonymous imageboard forums such as 4chan or 8chan.
This is an extremely lazy charge. The conservative objection to big tech censorship rests in this core premise: a good federal government is not “limited” in that it can only do nothing, but rather that it is restrained and prudent. It intervenes only when the rights of the people are violated by both public and private entities. Large tech goliaths like Twitter should not get to trample over the First Amendment simply by virtue of being a private company when they comprise such a large portion of online American discourse. Twitter wants to act as a public square moderator, all the while retaining the benefits of a private company. It can’t be both.
As for the concerns of doxxing and beheading videos suddenly running rampant on Twitter should Elon Musk get his way, I have seen no rational proponent of free speech online advocating for anything beyond the reasonable constraints already applied by law. Legal repercussions for genuine instances of illicit activity are far more bipartisan than Reich apparently believes.
There is also a valid conversation to be had regarding the true effectiveness of censorious content moderation on social media websites, and whether it really does help to curb things like political and religious extremism from “underground” fringe websites. Proponents of content moderation are said to combat echo chambers such as these, but all it has seemed to do is exacerbate this paradigm. Ideas deemed “hateful” or “bigoted” are almost immediately censored off mainstream social media, but ideas themselves, no matter how hateful they may be, cannot be destroyed.
Fringe websites that harbor ideas akin to political or religious extremism or bigotry have always relied on the false narrative of persecution: they don’t like you, which is why they censored you, so come to our space where your ideas will be continuously validated by likeminded individuals. Instead of having their ideas discredited and disproven in an open public square, genuinely hateful ideologies are censored and hence incentivized to fester elsewhere among those who will likely always agree.
Perhaps the sketchy anonymous imageboard forums wouldn’t be so viciously potent with the alt-righties had we not decided to exile them to the digital gulag.
This paradigm becomes even worse when the so-called effort to “combat hate speech” becomes a euphemism for silencing those with whom you disagree. Hate speech is an inherently subjective charge, and there is certainly nothing more despotic for free speech than an oligarchy of technology companies, all of whom control the vast majority of discourse online, whimsically deciding what does and does not constitute hate speech.
You would think that, for all Robert Reich’s fears regarding Elon Musk’s coronation as Emperor of the Internet should he successfully acquire Twitter, that he would be wary of the current paradigm that plagues social media as it currently stands.
But he isn’t, because that paradigm actively caters to his side of the aisle, and he is all the more incentivized to actively support it if that means maintaining his false sense of moral supremacy over those with whom he disagrees.
Robert Reich doesn’t really care about the dangers of billionaires owning Twitter. If he did, then perhaps he would direct some of his outrage toward Alwaleed bin Talal, a Saudi Arabian prince who sits on Twitter’s board of directors. A super rich nobleman from a country notorious for its harsh treatment of journalists and dissidents having sway on the board of an American social media company doesn’t seem to bother Reich, why?
His cognitive dissonance ultimately leads him to conclude that the “dream of every dictator, strongman, demagogue and modern-day robber baron on Earth,” is a free speech internet. Of course, that’s why Vladimir Putin banned all Western media from Russia and arrested thousands of his own citizens for protesting against his incursion into Ukraine.
Mental gymnastics like these are common among the real demagogues who regularly gaslight their opponents for pointing out their totalitarian antics in front of the whole world to see.
Twitter’s new CEO, Parag Agrawal, is even on record stating that the social media company should “focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how times have changed.” He added, “Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard. And so increasingly, our role is moving towards how we recommend content…how we direct people’s attention.”
One billionaire owning Twitter may not be the right course of action, but it did vindicate a key conservative hypothesis: that Twitter is a left-wing website that actively censors opinions it finds politically inconvenient for its narrative.