Musk’s purchase of social-media platform raises questions about free speech vs. responsible speech
One of the first facts every American student learns about the United States government is that the very First Amendment of the Constitution protects their right to say things.
Recent events surrounding a $44 billion midlife crisis and a certain government official having his Twitter account taken away makes this simple fact seem a bit more complicated than third grade material.
Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is largely motivated, he says, by a desire to ensure free speech, which he claims is being strangled on Twitter. Twitter bans users that violate their terms of service.
The questions become, does free speech apply to social media, and is Elon Musk’s purchase a bad thing?
Well, the answer to the first question is “no”. The First Amendment is a limitation on the government. As Twitter is a private company it has no direct legal responsibility to ensure freedom of speech on its platform.
However, that isn’t a very satisfactory answer. While legally there is no direct legal application, surely the sentiment behind the First Amendment still applies? Well, the answer to that is also “no”.
Even in sentiment, Twitter banning people from their platform isn’t a violation of free speech.
While it is true that Twitter is a predominant form of communication, if someone is banned from the platform they can still voice their opinions using other avenues. Their freedom of speech is still intact.
Furthermore, Twitter is legally quite similar to how a newspaper stand works. They as a private company can decide what content they decide to sell their customers. Being banned from Twitter may feel bad, but it is not a violation of human rights.
The answer to the second question is also probably “no”. Since his purchase of the platform, Elon Musk has unbanned everyone from neo-Nazis to white supremacists in the name of free speech.
Also since his purchase, racist, homophobic and misogynistic hate speech has gone up 202%, 58% and 33% respectively, according to research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate. The billionaire has also rolled back Twitter’s misinformation policy.
Despite this being done in the name of free speech, Elon Musk has done multiple other things to snuff it out. He has fired about half (7,500) of Twitter’s employees, a significant number of which were fired for speaking out in criticism of their new employer.
He is also censoring left wing voices, such as a January 6th researcher Chad Loder, on the platform while claiming political neutrality.
Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is less an enabling of free speech through the removal of content moderation and more the replacement of content moderation with content manipulation.
Free speech on the internet is complicated, but Musk’s actions have not helped, and his stated motivation is simplistic at best. The current purchase of Twitter is not a revolution but the actions of an upset individual who happens to have billions of dollars at his disposal, a problem unto itself (see “Musk and War”, page 1).
Most likely, the best solution would be to give less influence to social media over how we think as a nation. The platforms were never originally designed to be used as a news source or debate space and they do not make for good ones.