RealClearPolitics by Kaley Leetaru
What might Elon Musk’s new 9.2% stake in Twitter mean for its future and for the broader social media landscape? Could Musk lead Twitter to relax its content-moderation policies or even restore the accounts of those famously banned from the platform – one in particular? Or, could tech platforms look to the government for support in enforcing their speech policies?
Twitter once touted itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” and famously refused Congress’s request to remove Islamic State propaganda from its platform, arguing that even terrorists must be permitted “to share freely their views.” From these early roots, Twitter has tacked aggressively in the opposite direction, pivoting toward “healthy conversations” and quietly revising its rules to enforce ever-greater restrictions on acceptable expression.
In contrast, self-described “free speech absolutist” Musk suggested last month that “given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.” Concerns over Musk’s potential to weaken Twitter’s content-moderation policies have already forced the company to schedule an employee town hall with the billionaire magnate in an attempt to quell growing apprehension within the ranks.
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Musk criticized Twitter when it removed then-President Trump’s account, raising questions about whether he might push the company to restore Trump’s access, especially if Trump became the 2024 Republican nominee. The prospect of Trump’s return to social media led CNN to warn that such a move would have significant implications for “the future of the country.”
Speculation has focused on the possibility that Musk’s new stake could give him influence over the company’s approach to censorship. “What could possibly go wrong with an oligarch determining what constitutes free speech?” asked Robert Reich. “Musk’s appointment to Twitter’s board shows that we need regulation of social-media platforms to prevent rich people from controlling our channels of communication,” Ellen Pao argued in the Washington Post. A Bloomberg columnist warned that Musk’s investment was “worrisome,” to have “a free speech absolutist who isn’t absolutely in favor of free speech at the helm of – or even close to – a media company.”
However, these warnings do not assume that social media companies will become an oligarchy ruled over by billionaires. The decision to ban Trump from Twitter was made not by a blue-ribbon panel of global speech experts but by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who decided on his own that Trump must be removed from the platform. Similarly, it was Mark Zuckerberg, rather than Facebook’s vaunted Oversight Board, who ruled that Trump could not remain on his platform. As NBC News put it at the time, “with a few unilateral decisions, a small group of tech executives deprived the president of the United States of his most influential broadcasting tools.”
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Thus, the controversy over Musk’s potential influence is not really about a billionaire replacing community consensus with his personal opinions. It is about a billionaire’s ability to influence, or even reverse, the decisions of other billionaires who have until now faced little oversight or dissent.
The backlash to Musk’s arrival is rooted in Silicon Valley’s sudden realization that its near-absolute control over the digital public square could be threatened by those holding different views. Social media platforms have largely embraced a communications model favored by Democrats – one that emphasizes fact-checking operations, hate-speech enforcement, bans on what is deemed “misinformation,” and fostering of “healthy conversation.” Given the near-absolute immunity these platforms enjoy under Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act, Republicans have been largely powerless to influence digital speech rules.
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Musk’s Twitter stake offers a wakeup call to Silicon Valley that a sufficiently wealthy libertarian or conservative voice could purchase a stake in a major platform and leverage those same immunities to reshape what is permissible online. With Musk as a model, a future Donald Trump facing a Twitter ban could gather a team of investors to purchase a board seat (Musk was granted one but ultimately turned it down) – and force himself back on the platform.
Musk could also be pushing for greater prosaic reforms. Noting that top Twitter accounts with the most followers tend to be older ones that rarely tweet anymore, he recently asked whether the platform was “dying,” suggesting an interest in rebuilding its user base. An outspoken proponent of an open-source patent philosophy, he polled his followers about whether Twitter’s core ranking algorithms should be open-sourced and available for public inspection, suggesting an interest in greater transparency.
In the end, regardless of whether he winds up leading a revolution at Twitter, Musk’s presence will likely lead to a reckoning in Silicon Valley about the power it currently holds over free speech in the digital public square.
Real Clear Wire granted permission to syndicate.
RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.
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