A few days ago, Elon Musk asked his 81 million followers: “Is Twitter dying?†
Musk calls himself a “free speech absolutist”– contrary to any restrictions on what anyone can say online – and he has indicated that he thinks the social media platform is heading in the wrong direction on this matter. Musk, as CEO of two major public companies, has faced backlash and even legal repercussions for his impulsive tweets that misled investors and rocked his companies’ stock prices.
Now he is Twitter’s largest shareholder after purchasing a 9.2 percent stake in the company. The move has sparked swirling speculation about why Musk bought such a large stake and what the future holds for Twitter. After Musk retreated, his plans to join the board of directors of the company over the weekend, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal said in a note to the company that the decision was “the best”, and urged employees to “mute the noise of the recent changes”.
But it’s hard to knock out Elon Musk, underscoring the reach he has as a famous tech entrepreneur and richest man in the world. If his recent tweets mean anything, Musk suggests he will try to use his share of Twitter to make it the ultimate bastion of unimpeded speech. On March 25, before the news of his investment had come out, created a Twitter poll asking if the platform was “strictly adhering” to the principle of freedom of expression. Overwhelmingly, his audience voted no. The next day huh tweeted“Since Twitter acts as the de facto public town square, failure to adhere to the principles of free speech fundamentally undermines democracy. What needs to be done?”
The big revelation he was looking for, it seems, was that he… spent about $3 billion buying shares to influence how the site should be administered. Musk used his newfound power after his bet went public last week and asked for… another poll“Do you want an edit button?”
The Power Musk Doesn’t Talk About
Musk seems to portray his mission as a noble one – undertaken not for narrow, self-serving goals, but for the people. He would make the social media platform less regulatory and give users the features they’ve long wanted. But the crux of this saga is the fact that he has his own complaints about what he considers limitations on his speech. And unlike most people on Earth, Musk can grab Twitter’s attention by spending a tiny fraction of his money. $250 Billion Wealth† billionaires like him have a shortcut to becoming the loudest voice in any room. Even before he became Twitter’s largest shareholder, he had a huge presence on the platform as one of its most followed accounts, and enjoyed an almost mythical status as a genius innovator in Silicon Valley. So it’s hard to see the Twitter purchase adhering to democratic principles.
†[Twitter] is a global platform,” said David Kaye, a UC Irvine professor of rights and former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression. “So for someone with a lot of money to just come in and say, ‘Look, I’m going to buy some of this business, and therefore my vote on how your rules are passed and enforced will have more power than anyone else’s. ‘ — I think that’s regressive after years of [Twitter] try to make sensible rules.”
What makes Musk’s status even more exceptional is that Twitter’s other top shareholders are fund managers such as Vanguard Group and BlackRock, not individuals. And now that Musk no longer plans to join the Twitter board, he won’t be restricted from buying a majority stake in the company either. He can at least threaten it. That’s the kind of unspoken power Musk can buy.
So what exactly is Musk objecting to when it comes to Twitter’s policies on speech? In recent years, amid a pandemic that has emphasized the life-and-death stakes of misinformation, as well as the political chaos and violence fueled by election misinformation, Twitter has taken a more proactive approach to content moderation, using misleading flag and even delete tweets in some cases. “Twitter has moved away from the idea that it is free speech from the free speech party and is a more realistic guardian of speech on the platform,” Kaye said.
The most notable example of the shift is the suspension of former President Donald Trump after he posted a series of tweets supporting violence and disinformation surrounding the 2020 presidential election. But Musk has not spoken publicly about Trump’s ban. To date, Twitter itself has not interfered with any of Musk’s tweets.
Musk’s de facto torment for free speech involves the US Securities and Exchange Commission, in a battle over what he, as the public face of a major publicly traded company like Tesla, can or cannot say in view of investors. In 2018, the SEC filed a complaint against Musk after he tweeted that he had… insured financing to take Tesla private – therefore investors are currently suing him, saying the allegation was not true and that they lost money due to Tesla’s fluctuating stock prices after he tweeted. Musk reached a settlement with the SEC, paid a $20 million fine and was banned from being Tesla chairman for three years. Crucially, the settlement also required Musk’s tweets to be reviewed internally if they involved company information.
But while Musk is chairman again, and even a $20 million fine is insignificant for someone so wealthy, it’s clear that he still suffers from the SEC’s restrictions on tweeting. Musk filed a court file in early March asking to end the SEC agreement, saying he was forced to agree. A letter his attorney wrote to the judge presiding over the settlement alleged that the SEC… Musk “harassment” was “calculated to cool his exercise of First Amendment rights.”
Proponents of freedom of expression disagree. “He has unrestricted access to the media; he has unlimited access to any platform he could wish for,” says Kaye. “He is not a victim in any way, shape or form. He is a public voice that is practically unimaginable in his lack of limitations compared to almost every other person on the planet.”
Musk may also be under re-examination by the SEC for: delaying the disclosure of its nearly 10 percent Twitter stake† records show that he has been regular Buying Twitter shares since the end of January† Musk was due to file a disclosure within 10 days of crossing the 5 percent threshold, but he disclosed: 11 days after his deadline† “The point here isn’t just the late filing,” said John C. Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University who himself described the delay as akin to a crime like jaywalking, “but that he misled shareholders who might have bought and certainly could have sold at a higher price if this information had been made public.Those who sold could sue for their lost profits.”
Being responsible for what you say when you are in a position of power, one that carries responsibilities and obligations and has the potential to harm others, is not the same as having your speech censored. “He should have acknowledged that his statements about his plans for Twitter needed to be approved or at least disclosed to management,” Coffee said, noting that Musk had a pattern of making “reckless statements that have not been reviewed.” .”
In other words, the problem seems to be that Musk cannot or will not see how much freedom and power he actually has to speak. Anyone with internet access can tweet, but what sets billionaires like Musk apart is that they can use their money to have a greater say in who will win the elections?which species laws are passed, or even how to deal with a pandemic. And if you’re a public figure with millions of Twitter followers, even a simple reply to a critic can send you a torrent of harassment on their way†
The real dangers to free speech
Perhaps Musk’s current crusade for free speech is only semi-serious. Maybe it’s just a way to taunt the SEC. But whatever his real motivations are, his insistence on being the billionaire champion of online speech is making a real impact — undermining his complaints about his First Amendment rights.
“This is a huge distraction,” said Evan Greer, director of Fight for the future, a non-profit organization that advocates for digital rights. “Honestly, it’s a shame that people like Elon Musk, who are largely trolling, [the free speech] problem, have confused it so much, because I think it has led to really harmful perceptions.” Some progressives have come to treat “freedom of speech” as a dirty subject associated with people who want to spew hateful language, or with privileged people who only cry because their voices are being suppressed, she said.
“The reality is that freedom of expression is at risk. There are currently laws across the country that criminalize teachers for teaching, ban books and criminalize parents for providing health care to their children,” Greer said.
“If we have to worry about what Elon Musk thinks about content moderation, we already have a problem,” Greer continued. “Too few companies have too much power over what can be seen, heard and done online, and the fact that the richest man on Earth can essentially buy the power to influence our online discourse shows that we have a have a fundamental structural problem. with the way social media is now organised.”
With a single move, Musk has bought influence over an important, shared online space — what he called a “de facto public town square” — meaning that as long as you continue to use Twitter, you have to listen to him in some way. What will Musk do as main shareholder of Twitter? Will he commit to standards of public transparency about how he will influence the platform? We simply don’t know yet. But the danger is that Musk doesn’t have to reveal much.
Musk’s Twitter share shows how the ultra-wealthy seem to see influence: that you can buy it, and there’s no shame in doing so, even if the excessive volume of your speech threatens to drown out others.
in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao argued that Musk’s influence on Twitter was unfair to the hundreds of millions of users who don’t have that kind of access. “We need regulation of social media platforms to prevent rich people from controlling our communication channels,” she wrote.
Kaye believes Twitter has tried to accommodate a diversity of voices by taking a firmer stance against speech that harms and intimidates people — and the kind of absolute, unrestricted speech Musk seems to be asking for is a fantasy that only would chase people from the platform.
“No one acting in good faith really wants Twitter to become a cesspool,” Kaye said. “It’s just absurd. Frankly, it would kill Twitter.”