Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter might be on the rocks, but if it does eventually go through, will he change the platform for the better? What’s his stance on intellectual freedom? Does he actually care about free speech?
Twitter, undeniably, has a history of censorship. There’s no more famous example than the banning of Donald Trump after the events of January 6th, 2021. As unfavorably as I view the former President, there’s much to be said about silencing a world leader and the message it sends to governments everywhere (Angela Merkel, ex-prime minister of a country with its own recent history of laws that regulate speech, thought it necessary to criticize the decision to ban Trump). While the First Amendment grants private corporations the right to moderate their content, what if that same private company disproportionately shapes public discourse?
One might be able to write all of this off as a one time decision, made under extenuating circumstances. But this isn’t the only example of Twitter bending to political pressure: Prior to the 2020 election, they removed any mention of the Hunter Biden laptop scandal, going as far as to suspend the New York Post, who first reported on the story. Although Twitter eventually changed its mind, the damage had already been done; it eventually came out that the laptop did, in fact, belong to Biden, but who cares now, a year and a half after the fact? Twitter, for what it’s worth, also routinely bans what it calls “misinformation” from the Left.
One can see, then, how Musk might have a point when he questions whether or not Twitter “rigorously adheres to this principle [of free speech].” It clearly doesn’t. But do his proposed remedies do anything to fix the problem? He lists the following changes he would make to the platform:
First, the good: No one appreciates spam, so eliminating the bots would be a welcome development. Making the algorithm open source, too, would be positive, as it might go a long way in reassuring users that their data isn’t being used in malicious ways.
Now, the bad: Doing away with anonymity, in theory, forces people to take responsibility for what they say. However, it could, simultaneously, silence those who might feel uncomfortable exposing their identities online; I’m thinking of various political movements that used Twitter to organize against corrupt governments. Twitter is, after all, a global platform and not everyone is able to affix a signature to their dissent.
Aside from the question of anonymity, there’s not much I disagree with when it comes to Musk’s proposals; his vision of Twitter as the “digital town square” seems like an appealing one to me, and his emphasis on free speech seems genuine. Why, then, do I still feel pessimistic?
My problem with the potential acquisition stems not from Musk specifically, but from the more general trend he represents: the ultra-wealthy continuing to gobble up communication platforms. Why should a billionaire be trusted with oversight of the “digital town square”? Why should individuals be able to own what is (arguably) public infrastructure? These are the questions the Left–of which I consider myself a member–avoids when we reduce the conversation to the level of the individual.
Michael Kirby is an Assistant Professor/Reader Services Librarian at Kingsborough Community College. He received his MLS from Queens College, the City University of New York and serves as the 2021-2022 Publications and Communications Chair of the Intellectual Freedom Round Table.