Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter – good for free speech?

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?

There are still risks to even talking about voting in the USA today


A George Floyd protest in Los Angeles, USA. Credit: Mike Von/ Unsplash

A George Floyd protest in Los Angeles, USA. Credit: Mike Von/ Unsplash

“Blacks known merely to talk about voting in certain towns in Alabama or Mississippi could get fired or have their businesses wrecked.”

This was six decades ago but harassment of black voters continues in today’s USA, writes acclaimed author Darryl Pinckney in his book Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy. Originally published in 2016, the book has been republished this October with a new essay reflecting on Juneteenth, racial justice and protest in the context of Covid-19 and the death of George Floyd.

Pinckney, speaking to Index just days before the US elections on 3 November, says harassment can take several forms.

“You can have a boss who thinks you’re going to vote the way he doesn’t like, so he will tell you things that aren’t true. If you don’t have the resources or the imagination to look it up yourself you will believe him. [The boss might say] that if you owe child support and you to the polls they will arrest you when they have your name. And so you won’t go.”

Pinckney adds: “Election day is not a [public] holiday. It would be difficult to document but some bosses tell people ‘If you’re not back in an hour you’re fired’. You can’t wait in line – you’ll lose your job.”

Intimidation, he says, also happens at the polling station, all of which has contributed to low voter turnout in 2016, particularly amongst black people living in the key swing states. It’s for this reason, as Index reported earlier this year, that many organisations have emerged dedicated to improving transparency and information around how to vote.

As news comes in that already 70 million people have voted early, we may finally be seeing a positive shift, or at least a return to 2012 when Pinckney says an “enormous black voting block” contributed to Barack Obama’s second term win.

“There’s much better information today,” said Pinckney. “People are so alert to the possibilities of intimidation and voter suppression.”

“Early voter turnout is so overwhelming, probably for a number of factors, one being not trusting the process entirely so wanting to get in there. People are standing in line, two hours, three hours, five hours,” he said.

Pinckney believes that the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd have also played a role in this early voter turnout. We discuss how several years ago Index published an article from one of the leaders of Occupy Wall Street in which he was concerned that the movement would not have a lasting impact (compared to the rights movements of the 60s and 70s, he felt that the ease of gathering a crowd today due to the internet actually worked against its long-term goals). Pinckney believes that this year’s protests have managed to bypass this problem somewhat.

“The huge early voter turnout and maybe a higher youth vote than ever is a direct result of signing people up at the George Floyd protests. People were turning the protests into a registration drive,” he said, adding:

“The walk from the street to the voting booth got a lot shorter this summer.”

While Pinckney doesn’t know what exactly will happen this coming Tuesday, he says that he lives “with an optimist and so I have latched onto his wagon”.

“You have to not be a prisoner of history and know that history is manmade.”

Pinckney has written before about “Afro-Pessimism”, the deliberate withdrawal of political and social consciousness by black people. Today the situation feels different.

“I think that the Black Lives Matter movement and the police protests and by extension this examination of the part racism plays and how society is constructed is very much not Afro-Pessimism,” he said.

“A kind of activism is in the air.”

At the end of Blackballed Pinckney writes that there “are new names to learn: Li Wenliang, and then Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Shu Kei, Nathan Law, Isaac Cheng. We must act out our freedom, one masked, unnamed girl said in English to a camera during demonstrations on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China.”

What made Pinckney chose to highlight those who have been persecuted by the Chinese government as a note to end on?

“The George Floyd protests were global. But look who is really up against it, look who is putting themselves and everything, their lives, on the line. These really innocent-looking people in Hong Kong. They’re up against this authoritarian state. You must remember them and their names.”

He adds:

“That kind of state is around the corner for a lot of us if we don’t say something now.”

Darryl Pinckney is the author of High Cotton, Black Deutschland, Out There and Busted in New York and Other Essays. His 2016 book Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy has just been republished with a new essay for October 2020. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Author sues reviewer over comments on Amazon

A father of three from Nuneaton, UK, appeared in the High Court yesterday to face libel allegations over a book review he wrote on Amazon.

Vaughan Jones, 28, appeared at the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday for a hearing to defend himself against the libel suit from online entrepreneur Chris McGrath.

McGrath, author of “The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know,” undertook libel action against Jones, after he published a review of the book on Amazon, and comments regarding the book and Mr McGrath himself on Richard Dawkins’s website during September and October 2010. Jones also outed McGrath as the author of the book, which had been written under the pseudonym “Scrooby”.

McGrath is not only suing Jones for his allegedly defamatory comments, but Amazon, Richard Dawkins himself, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

Presided over by His Honour Judge Maloney QC, Jones was joined by legal representation for Amazon and the Richard Dawkins Foundation to ascertain if there is a case to answer.

Entrepreneur turned author McGrath believes that Amazon and the Richard Dawkins Foundation did not respond appropriately to the alleged defamatory statements on the respective websites, and thus they are also liable for a defamation suit.

John Kampfner, the Chief Executive of Index on Censorship, said: “That a family man from Nuneaton can face a potentially ruinous libel action for a book review on Amazon shows how archaic and expensive our libel law is.”

Kampfner added that the Libel Reform Campaign, which is underway with English Pen and Sense about Science, is hoping to commit to a bill in the next Queen’s speech to reform the chilling effect libel has on freedom of speech.

The hearing continues today