The trouble with the Elon Musk Twitter controversy is that at its heart there is an almost universally shared hypocrisy: people care about freedom of speech when it comes to the things that they like or agree with, and stop caring or become outright hostile to it when it comes to the things they don’t.
So you have the billionaire Musk buying Twitter to reinstate the accounts of the conservative satirical website he likes and other right-wing voices, while at literally the same time banning a spate of left-wing accounts whose views — among other things, support for rioting and vandalism — he doesn’t care for. The latest move by the self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” was to suspend an account that regularly tweeted out the publicly accessible flight activity of his private jet (which Musk claimed was tantamount to doxing and putting out “basically assassination coordinates”), before suspending a string of journalists — from the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, the Intercept, among others — who not only tweeted about the flight data, but have also needled or reported critically on him.
Meanwhile, on the other side, liberals are up in arms over this latest move, as they should be — even though they spent the whole of Musk’s time at Twitter so far demanding that he censor more, and mostly ignoring his purge of leftist accounts. In fact, we’re barely a week out from watching journalists tie themselves in knots to dismiss or even justify Twitter’s outrageous 2020 decision to lock the New York Post out of its own account and throttle the sharing of its Hunter Biden laptop story. One of the planks of that dismissal was the idea that since the government didn’t play a role in the decision (even though it did), this act of press censorship shouldn’t disturb us — a technicality we’re suddenly not hearing anymore now that those affected aren’t a right-leaning paper and its reporting critical of the Democratic presidential candidate.
“It is inexcusable for Twitter to ban journalists including my colleagues, and we all should sincerely rethink our presence here,” the Washington Post’s Tony Romm tweeted after Musk’s latest suspension spree.
“I think what everyone’s wondering is — it’s highly unusual for journalists at the Washington Post and the New York Times to be — to have their Twitter accounts suspended . . . so what’s the deal there?” one reporter asked Musk in a call with other journalists.
I completely agree. But it was inexcusable for Twitter to throttle reporting and ban dissident voices long before this. And the fact that it’s highly unusual for reporters at prominent mainstream outlets to be censored, while the targeting of independent left-wing journalists has been met with a collective yawn for years, is as much a part of the problem as the figure of Musk himself.
There’s no coherent reason why we should be okay with Twitter executives doing what they did to the New York Post — scrambling to find a justification for the suppression only after the fact, as we learned from internal emails — but view this latest move as unacceptable and dangerous. Both are part of the same outrage: of unaccountable private actors using their power to selectively and capriciously suppress voices they don’t like, harming public discourse and endangering press freedoms in the process.
But there is a silver lining to what’s just happened. Now that we have a high-profile case of tech censorship affecting establishment journalists from newspapers admired by liberals, it seems the side of the political spectrum that’s been most dismissive about free speech concerns has finally awakened to how unacceptable the current state of things is. A little over a week ago, the conventional wisdom was that the trouble with Musk was that he was too supportive of free speech. Now, it’s that he’s not supportive enough. However much laced with hypocrisy, that’s a good development.
The strongest argument for maximizing free speech and minimizing restrictions on it has always been a self-interested one: because the temptations are so strong for those in authority to abuse their power to censor, the best way to make sure the views you support don’t get suppressed is to have the strictest possible limits on that censorship while grinning and bearing the airing of views you don’t support.
That’s the logic that informs the expansive way Americans have long thought about the First Amendment, understanding that if the government is allowed to punish people for speech or to smother reporting it doesn’t like, that power can easily be misused by partisan actors and megalomaniacs. It’s also what informs our treatment of utilities like the postal service and telecommunications, which we don’t empower to block objectionable mail or phone calls, even though we know these services will be used for a variety of illegal and immoral activity. And it’s the same logic that should guide us here, as we try to strike a balance between making sure platforms like Twitter serve as the proverbial public square while preventing them from devolving into abusive cesspools.
But first things first: let’s deal with the censorship issue, since that’s one that now unites both conservatives and liberals. We’ve gotten a hint of how Twitter’s censorship regime works thanks to the so-called Twitter Files, but it’s high time we got a more detailed view. There ought to be a bipartisan coalition now that can haul Musk and other tech executives before Congress to grill them, under oath, about how exactly their “content moderation” policies work, investigate the ins and outs and any bias or abuse that’s involved in applying these policies, or even use legislation to make such records public and set ground rules for policing speech going forward.
Beyond that, Congress should at long last take a serious look at the idea long pushed by the Left of putting Twitter under public ownership and treating it like a utility. Twitter’s usefulness as a central, one-stop hub of news, debate, information, and communication means it will likely live on, but even if it doesn’t, the problems it’s experiencing will crop up in any other privately owned and moderated platform. Many of these thorny issues would still be live under public ownership, but the public would at least have some semblance of control over how Twitter is run, as well as the ability to set and tweak its policies, and, if nothing else, keep the platform out of the hands of another thin-skinned tyrant with too much time and money.
Hypocrisy is par for the course when it comes to the subject of free speech, from all sides. What’s more important here is that Musk’s heavy-handed actions could be a turning point in this debate, convincing those who have looked at critics of tech censorship with suspicion that they might actually have a point, and that it might actually pay off to take steps to ensure journalists and dissidents, whatever their views, aren’t suppressed. Let’s make sure that it is.