Free Speech Is Too Important To Be Entrusted to Elon Musk

Liberals who minimize the importance of free speech on Twitter are dead wrong. But we shouldn’t have to hope that a billionaire with a track record of suppressing his critics will live up to his free speech rhetoric.

Twitter logo and Elon Musk's Twitter account displayed on a screen on October 30, 2022, following Musk's purchase of the platform. (Jakub Porzycki / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now that Elon Musk’s long-anticipated takeover of Twitter has finally gone through, many liberals are angry for all the wrong reasons. They seem to be worried that Musk will allow too much free speech on the platform and that this will enable bigotry and “misinformation.”

As a democratic socialist, I reject that view root and branch. Empowering ordinary people to run society in their own interests is the whole point of the socialist project — and that’s flatly incompatible with the technocratic liberal view that ordinary people can’t be trusted to decide for themselves what to believe.

And socialists obviously reject the view that free speech only applies to governments and that private companies should be able to do whatever they want. If I didn’t think private regimes of power could be dangerous, I wouldn’t be a socialist in the first place.

A better concern about Twitter becoming the personal property of Musk is that he can’t be trusted to practice what he preaches. Musk has a sketchy history of trying to shut down his own critics. He’s also deeply connected to the national security state, giving him a vested interest in enabling the United States’s giant surveillance regime — historically one of the biggest threats to free expression here and abroad.

Letting billionaires buy and sell vitally important sources of information is bad for democracy. It’s also a risky bet for the free speech norms that Musk claims to venerate. The most effective way to safeguard those norms at the big social media companies would be to remove them from control by rich people whose “content moderation” policies aren’t restricted by the First Amendment. We need to take our digital public square into public ownership.

Has Free Speech Caused “Untold Death and Suffering”?

Writer and “defense analyst” Brynn Tannehill spends a lot of her time sounding the alarm about conservative authoritarianism. That’s a reasonable thing to worry about. The American right is disturbingly authoritarian.

When it comes to Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, though, Tannehill’s critique is that he won’t be authoritarian enough. In an article a few days ago in the New Republic, Tannehill claimed that “Musk’s idea of free speech” will “help ruin America.” That “idea of free speech” seems to simply be that free speech norms are important on social media, and people should be free to make controversial claims — including ones that may be offensive or inaccurate.

She claims that “free speech has caused untold death and suffering when used to disseminate hate or spread disinformation” and cites the popularity of Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Weimar Germany. According to Tannehill, these books were “key contributors to the fall of German democracy, the rise of the Third Reich, and the Holocaust itself.”

Tannehill’s grasp of some of the historical facts is shaky at best. For example, Mein Kampf wasn’t even close to having been popular enough in Weimar Germany to be a “key” contributor to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. As William Shirer notes in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Mein Kampf was so poorly written that even many dedicated Nazis would privately admit that however many times they tried to read it they were unable “to get through to the end of its 782 turgid pages.” The sales figures were tiny in the first several years after it was published, and it only became a bestseller after Hitler rose to power and owning a copy — though not necessarily reading it — was a way of signaling enthusiasm for the new regime.

Should We Trust Benevolent Censors to Stamp Out “Misinformation”?

Apparently unaware of the long history of left-wing free speech advocacy, from Karl Marx’s days as a crusading newspaper editor fighting censors in Germany to the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley that helped give birth to the New Left, Tannehill associates this “idea of free speech” with libertarianism. She calls the view that “truth will inevitably conquer demonstrably false narratives” a “libertarian fantasy.”

It’s true enough that such claims of inevitability are silly. But as left-wing free speech advocates have always recognized, that’s a very different question from whether the consequences of trusting benevolent censors to determine which narratives are false will be better or worse than the consequences of letting the rest of us decide for ourselves.

It’s easy to say, in the words of Tip O’Neill, that everyone is entitled to their “own opinion” but not “their own facts,” but in practice every political debate is at least partially a debate about facts. Think about the disagreements between supporters and opponents of a higher minimum wage about whether minimum-wage hikes lead to increased unemployment, or the disagreements between supporters and opponents of the invasion of Iraq about weapons of mass destruction.

If Twitter had existed in 2002 and 2003 — and it had the kind of aggressive “content moderation” policies advocated by Tannehill — who do you suppose would have been more likely to be censored for “spreading misinformation”? Users who agreed with the US government (and the New York Times) that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, or users who accused Bush administration officials of conspiring to mislead the public?

Or imagine that in a few years some equivalent of Amazon Labor Union founder Chris Smalls succeeds in organizing one of Musk’s Tesla factories. This person accuses Tesla of some particularly horrifying and dangerous labor practice. Tesla accuses the union leader of spreading misinformation.

Would you hope, in that situation, that Twitter’s “content moderation” policies gave either Tesla or the unionists the power to crack down hard on “misinformation” — or that Twitter had gotten out of the business of trying to adjudicate which narratives were true and which were false?

Can Musk Be Trusted To Protect Free Speech?

A depressing amount of Musk-buying-Twitter Discourse consists of Musk fans celebrating the return of free speech to the platform on the one hand, and, on the other, Musk detractors comparing the prospect of Musk instituting looser speech norms to the scene in Ghostbusters where all the ghosts are set free to wreak havoc. What’s left out of all of this is that very little about Musk’s record should give us any reason to be confident that he’ll be true to his word.

For one thing, as Yasha Levine has pointed out, Musk’s reputation as a free speech “outsider” doesn’t survive a glance at his business activities as a military contractor. This is a guy who’s been “raking in hundreds of millions of dollars fitting out tech for the most secretive and ‘strategically important’ intelligence agencies in America.” He’s being paid by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to equip Ukraine with Starlink terminals during the war with Russia. (He tried to pass it off as charity but USAID seems to have paid $900 a piece over market value for the terminals.) He has a “nearly $300 million military contract to launch a classified American spy satellite.” He “signed a $149 million deal to track missiles — aka to spy on the sky.” And of course his company SpaceX is doing billions in business with NASA.

If you trust someone in Musk’s position to say “no” when the national security state encourages him to censor whistleblowers and investigative journalists who are embarrassing them in the future, all I can say is that you have a heartwarming level of trust in the moral character of an oligarch.

Then there’s Musk’s personal history of — to put it gently — not handling criticism well. He’s paid a private investigator $50,000 to dig up dirt on someone who committed the grave crime of saying that Musk had been involved in a dumb “PR stunt.” He’s illegally fired union organizers — and fired, hacked, and spied on corporate whistleblowers who have embarrassed him. He’s tried to dox critics. He’s even asked the Chinese government to censor social media posts critical of Tesla.

Beyond all the reasons to distrust this particular oligarch, there’s a much larger issue here about letting a single wealthy individual have this much control over the flow of information. When Twitter first accepted Musk’s offer back in April, I said: “It’s absurd that we live in the kind of capitalist hellscape where the only hope for reasonable norms protecting free speech online is that we get lucky and the right kind of billionaire purchases our digital public square.”

The real solution is to take our digital public square into public ownership. That wouldn’t mean Twitter would be a free-for-all where you could post literally anything at any time — any more than you can approach the microphone at your local city council meeting and start screaming obscenities at the top of your lungs. But it would mean that Twitter administrators would have a legal obligation to prove that they weren’t cracking down on the political content of speech in ways that — in the context of a publicly owned Twitter — would violate the First Amendment.

As Edward Snowden has pointed out, many content moderation problems could be handled by users themselves if companies like Twitter gave them better tools for filtering the content they see. But even critics of the companies as passionate about the value of free speech as I am can concede that crafting reasonable rules to prevent harassment, doxing, the abuse of children, and so on can pose real and complicated challenges.

In a future where the big social media companies were brought under public ownership, I would expect messy battles would be fought over these issues in both courts of law and the “court” of public opinion. But however messy that would be, I would infinitely prefer that to leaving these questions up to the whims of an individual billionaire. Free speech matters far too much to be entrusted to Elon Musk.