The Eccentric Billionaire’s Embrace of Free Speech as a “Bedrock” Principle of Democracy Is Threatening to Fans of Online Content Moderation
4/26/22 – – Many people were shocked yesterday when Twitter’s board of directors announced its approval of Elon Musk’s $44 billion offer to buy the company. Some dismayed pundits and politicians went so far as to label the change in control of the social-media platform a threat to the survival of democracy.
The angst being expressed is not over the economics of the deal. The Wall Street Journal today reported that Twitter’s bankers advised the board that Musk’s all-cash $54.20-per-share offer was fair and warned that the company “could struggle to get there on its own.” Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson has advised shareholders to ”take the money and run.”
What’s making some people nervous is Musk’s interpretation of the fundamental American principle of free speech. While the First Amendment to the US Constitution does not apply to the policies of private companies, Musk made his position clear in a statement released yesterday by Twitter: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated . . . Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”
Musk believes that Twitter’s “content moderation” policies have stifled important public debate and silenced legitimate voices, especially those on the right of the political spectrum. Troubled by this “viewpoint discrimination,” he’s promising to open the platform’s aperture when it comes to freedom of expression, while adhering to the elements of Twitter’s code of conduct that prohibit illegal forms of speech. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”
Musk’s acquisition has ignited a passionate debate over the role of free speech in democracies.
Last week, former US President Barack Obama delivered a speech at Stanford University (“Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm”) in which he pointed to the last decades of the 20th century as a time when the limited reporting of just three major TV networks in America fortified “a sense of shared culture and when it came to the news, at least, citizens across the political spectrum, tended to use a shared set of facts.” Remembering a simpler time before the internet, he laments today’s “sheer proliferation of content, and the splintering of information and audiences. That’s made democracy more complicated.”
Making things less “complicated” and getting to a “shared set of facts” is made more difficult, according to President Obama, by “misinformation.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us who is responsible for or by what process — other than open public discourse — we can reliably determine what is true and what is false.
Washington Post opinion writer and CNN contributor Max Boot shares the former president’s concerns: “I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter. He seems to believe that on social media anything goes. For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.”
Our Founding Fathers would disagree.
No fans of “content moderation,” they understood that discourse would be “complicated” in a free society, but trusted citizens’ ability to sort things out, calling for more speech, not less.
Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Printers are educated in the belief that when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.”
Thomas Jefferson advised that, “Reason and free inquiry are the only effective agents against error.”
And General George Washington in a 1783 address to his officers famously warned: “For if men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of Mankind, reason is of no use to us — the freedom of speech may be taken away — and, dumb and silent, we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.”
How do Twitter employees feel about all this? According to reporting in today’s Washington Post, while some are cautiously optimistic about the future of the company, most are apoplectic. They fear for their jobs and that Musk “would attempt to break down safeguards to protect everyday users that staff had built over many years.” They pointed out that, “Engineering teams have spent years building tools to fight spam, disinformation and hate speech under an initiative known as healthy conversations.”
So, I think one’s take on whether Musk’s purchase is a crisis or victory for democracy comes down to one’s definition of “healthy conversations.”
Parag Agrawal, who as of this writing is still Twitter’s CEO, was asked in an interview with Technology Review if “protecting free speech” was one of Twitter’s core values. Here’s how he responded: “Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation.”
If, as expected, Twitter’s shareholders approve Musk’s offer, it will be his definition of “healthy conversations” — as complicated and messy as that might be — that will direct Twitter’s future. All things considered, I think the Founding Fathers would see this as a clear victory for democracy.
One last thought: My favorite commentary on Musk’s offer for Twitter was authored by former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, who insisted, “We need regulation of social media platforms to prevent rich people from controlling our channels of communication.” She took her stand in an Op-Ed in the April 8 Washington Post. Yes, the publication owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who according to the latest Forbes billionaires list is the second-richest person on the planet, behind only Elon Musk
UPDATE: 4/27/22 – – The Wall Street Journal today published an excellent opinion piece (“How Elon Musk Can Liberate Twitter”) by Vivek Ramaswamy, author of the bestselling, provocative “Woke, Inc.: Inside corporate America’s Social Justice Scam,” and Jed Rubenfeld. Here’s a summary of the authors’ thesis:
There is no silver bullet to resolve the irreducible challenges of operating a user-friendly social media company that also protects free speech. But these principles offer a starting point for a pragmatic path forward: Conceive Twitter as a limited public forum, stop censoring viewpoints, and promote user choice over centralized content moderation.