NEWS
Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter - good for free speech?

The tech entrepreneur has made it clear that free speech is at the forefront of his decision to buy the social media platform. We explore just what this means

27 Apr 2022
BY MARK FRARY

On 25 April, Twitter announced that it has entered into a definitive agreement to be acquired by an entity wholly owned by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk in a transaction valued at approximately US$44 billion. He had previously announced that he had amassed a 9% stake in the social media platform.

Ooh, that’s a lot of money.

Elon Musk is not short of a few dollars. He made $175 million from selling his stake in PayPal when it was sold to eBay. He was an early investor in electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, of which he is now CEO, and he founded rocket company SpaceX. His net worth is estimated at US$264.4 billion, making him the richest person in the world.

Why has he bought Twitter?

Musk is one of Twitter’s biggest users, with 86.2 million followers. He has hinted that he might want to buy it for several years. That said, he has had a love-hate relationship with the platform. In 2018, he suggested on Twitter that he had enough funding to take Tesla private but was subsequently fined $20 million as it had affected the market in Tesla shares, something frowned upon by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Why is everyone talking about free speech?

Elon Musk clearly wants Twitter to reconsider its approach to free speech. In the press release on the acquisition, Musk’s only statement was: “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. 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.”

What does Elon Musk think free speech is?

Elon Musk describes himself as a “free speech absolutist”, posting that he would not remove access to Russian news sources through his satellite internet company Starlink “except at gunpoint”.

Clarifying his position on Tuesday evening, Musk tweeted, “By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”

What about the freedom to criticise him and his companies?

He clearly does not want everyone to have free speech, most notably disgruntled Tesla employees and whistleblowers.

Isn’t Twitter quite hot on free expression anyway?

Twitter says in its policy on freedom of expression that “defending and respecting the user’s voice is one of our core values” and that this commitment is based on the the United States Bill of Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as being informed by a number of additional sources including the members of its Trust and Safety Council, relationships with advocates and activists around the globe, and by works such as United Nations Principles on Business and Human Rights.

In its policy on hateful conduct, Twitter says, “Free expression is a human right – we believe that everyone has a voice, and the right to use it. Our role is to serve the public conversation, which requires representation of a diverse range of perspectives.

We recognize that if people experience abuse on Twitter, it can jeopardize their ability to express themselves…  For this reason, we prohibit behavior that targets individuals or groups with abuse based on their perceived membership in a protected category.”

What’s this he’s saying about authenticating humans? Sounds a bit weird.

It seems clear that while Musk is keen to allow “lawful” free speech, he is less keen on the ability for people to remain anonymous on the platform.

In its transparency report, Twitter says that “anonymous and pseudonymous speech is important to Twitter”.

Anonymity is particularly valuable for dissidents and for others who fear attack if they reveal their true identity.

Some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes want social media users to have to identify themselves. That should raise a red flag.

Will Musk’s acquisition see Twitter veer to the right?

Musk has been hard to pin down on his political views, with most seeing him as a social libertarian.

One of the criticisms often aimed at Twitter is that it and its staff are too woke.

However, Twitter’s own research shows that mainstream right-wing parties benefit at least as much, and often substantially more, from algorithmic personalisation as their left-wing counterparts.

It also found that content from US media outlets with a strong right-leaning bias are amplified marginally more than content from left-leaning sources.

The million-dollar question: Will Musk ask Twitter to reinstate Donald Trump’s Twitter account?

On 8 January 2021, Twitter announced that it would permanently ban former President Donald Trump from Twitter “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” following the storming of the US Capitol by his supporters.

Musk might try as part of his commitment to free speech to allow Trump back on but Trump himself says he won’t rejoin even though his own Truth Social platform appears to be struggling to make an impact.

And finally, will Musk’s acquisition give China greater influence over Twitter?

Musk’s fellow rocket-loving gazillionaire Jeff Bezos jumped on Twitter to ask whether Musk’s acquisition of Twitter would give the Chinese government “a bit of leverage over the town square?”.

The Amazon founder asked the question in response to another tweet by New York Times reporter Mike Forysthe that pointed out that China was Tesla’s second biggest market after the USA in 2021 and that Chinese battery makers are major suppliers for Tesla’s electric vehicles.

Bezos answered his own question, saying “probably not” and that a “more likely outcome…is complexity in China for Tesla, rather than censorship at Twitter”.

Thousands of Twitter users helpfully pointed out to Bezos that people could ask the same question of him following his acquisition of the Washington Post in 2013. User Sankrant Sanu wrote: “How much leverage does China have over Washington Post given the percentage of goods sold on Amazon that are dependent on that country for supply?”

Mark Frary

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