Why Elon Musk’s Free Speech Crusade for Twitter Could Stumble


Elon Musk taking over Twitter and becoming a “benevolent dictator” who acts as a protector of free speech would be a welcome development, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union said.

Admittedly, this is a “deplorable situation” that so much power rests on the personal predilections of a single individual, said Nadine Strossen, who led the ACLU from 1991 to 2008. Still, she said she would be greatly in favor of an advocate for free speech gains power over one of the social media companies.

“That would be wonderful.”

The problem, however, is that Strossen remains skeptical whether Musk, the world’s richest person and self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” would actually honor his commitment to the cause.

“As to whether he is likely to resist enormous pressure to deviate from this commitment, I do not know him personally, but human nature throughout history and around the world suggests that he is extremely unlikely, if not impossible, that’s going to happen,” she said.

Nadine Strossen, former head of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she would be greatly in favor of a free speech advocate gaining power over one of the world’s largest social media companies. . (New York School of Law)

Strossen is among a number of free speech advocates and social media analysts who question whether Musk, if he takes over Twitter, will make it the free speech forum that he advocated – or if he understands the challenges he would face.

outspoken criticism

Musk has been a vocal critic of Twitter’s policies, saying they are too restrictive on content moderation. Last week, he launched a $43 billion takeover bid on the social media platform.

“I think it’s very important that there is an inclusive arena for free speech,” Tesla CEO Musk said at a TED talk in Vancouver on April 14, following the announcement of its takeover bid.

“Twitter has become a kind of de facto public square, so it’s very important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the confines of the law.”

Musk could have a positive influence on free speech with Twitter, said Scott Wilkens, who focuses on free speech online and government regulation of social media platforms at the Knight First Amendment Institute at the University of Columbia.

Transparency of algorithms

Wilkens said he was encouraged by Musk’s comments that he wanted to publicize the algorithms that prioritize what is seen in their Twitter feed.

“I think that kind of transparency is very healthy for free speech,” Wilkens said.

But Wilkens also expressed concern that only one person controls a company like Twitter — especially someone with so much power. He also said he was concerned about what this private control might mean for free speech, as opposed to a publicly traded company answerable to shareholders.

“It’s certainly a concern, because we just don’t know what Elon Musk might do in terms of free speech,” he said.

Musk has been a vocal critic of Twitter’s policies, saying they are too restrictive on content moderation. Last week, he launched a $43 billion takeover bid on the social media platform. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment scholar for the Freedom Forum, a Maryland-based free speech advocacy group, said part of the problem is that Musk is not a “First Amendment scholar.”

He has acknowledged in various interviews that there are limits consistent with the First Amendment. So there, it’s moderation; it may be moderation to the fullest extent of the law, but then he becomes the interpreter of the law.”

“Let the tweet exist”

During his TED talk, Musk said in the event of a “grey area” involving a questionable or controversial tweet, “I would say the tweet exists,” but “maybe you wouldn’t necessarily want to promote that tweet.” .

He said he didn’t have all the answers, but wanted to be “very reluctant to delete things”.

Musk, however, may not realize that the concept of unlocking Twitter and allowing all legal speech on the platform is “really complicated,” said Kate Klonick, assistant professor of law at the St. John’s University, which focuses on law and technology and private platform governance. speech online.

“Functionally unusable”

Musk, for example, has said that one of his top priorities will be eliminating spam from Twitter.

But to allow all technically permitted legal speech under the First Amendment on the platform, “you’d have to allow all spam to stay on the platform,” Klonick said in an interview with NPR. “You should allow all pornography to remain on the platform, all forms of hate speech,” she said.

“And so all of that would stay in place, at least in the United States, [and] this could render the platform functionally unusable.”

WATCH | Elon Musk Makes $43 Billion Bid to Buy Twitter in Hostile Takeover

Elon Musk Makes $43 Billion Bid to Buy Twitter in Hostile Takeover

To the surprise of many, Elon Musk offered to buy Twitter in a deal worth over US$43 billion. Musk explained his offer was about “the future of civilization,” during an appearance in Vancouver. 1:58

Scott Nover, tech reporter for Quartz magazine and author of the recent article “Elon Musk’s Twitter offer isn’t about free speechsaid throughout the history of major social media platforms, executives have said they want them to be havens for free speech.

For example, Dick Costolo, the former CEO of Twitter, once said that Twitter belongs to “the free speech wing of the free speech party”.

But ultimately, these platforms enact rules limiting what can be posted on their forums.

“Every social media platform, in order to grow their business, which is advertising, has tightened their restrictions on what people can and can’t say,” Nover said.

Meanwhile, some have pointed out that Musk himself has not always lived up to the ideals of free speech absolutism. Last year, Musk tried to get a 19-year-old Twitter user to be removed an account that tracked the whereabouts of his private jet. And a former Tesla employee was would have been fired for posting a YouTube review of the company’s comprehensive self-driving software.

“Elon Musk internally, in his own world, is not a great champion of unfettered free speech,” Nover said.