Pro: Elon Musk’s Purchase of Twitter Benefits Free Speech
Instances like smoking marijuana on a podcast in 2018 have consistently kept business magnate Elon Musk in the news. Most recently, his purchase of Twitter has sparked worldwide debate surrounding whether it will benefit free speech and the app as a whole. Despite the controversy surrounding Musk, his purchase of Twitter will prove beneficial for both.
Twitter has amassed countless problems that have contributed to its falling popularity. One is a lack of innovation, as Twitter functions almost exactly the same as it did when it was created. Another arguably more important problem with Twitter comes from hate speech. Over the years, Twitter has accumulated thousands of users who use the app solely to tweet racist, sexist and vulgar comments. Twitter has tried to prevent this by creating and enforcing a policy against hate speech, but this is often unsuccessful at properly filtering Tweets. While many accounts using hate speech are not banned, some users who tweet about the pandemic are censored, demonstrating the flaws in Twitter’s filtering systems. These issues have significantly influenced the platform, with many celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg, Toni Braxton and Shonda Rhimes leaving Twitter, citing hate speech as the primary problem. Because Twitter was originally created for people to converse with and follow celebrities, countless celebrities leaving the app has undoubtedly contributed to its falling popularity. Once a contemporary of YouTube and Facebook, Twitter has fallen behind in both popularity and revenue. The current state of Twitter leaves much room for improvement, but Musk’s leadership and innovation can help revitalize the platform.
Musk looks to solve these problems with new policies surrounding hate speech as well as ideas for future updates. While Musk has tweeted that he considers himself a “free speech absolutist,” even he can admit that Twitter must be moderated. The app’s influence on public opinion allows it to be exploited by those who wish to spread misinformation — therefore, it is impossible to allow total free speech. Musk realizes this and has shown his commitment to preventing misinformation by continuing a temporary Twitter ban on Georgia representative Majorie Taylor Greene, who posted false information about COVID-19 vaccines on her page. Though Greene’s account was reinstated in November, this temporary deactivation reveals Musk’s acknowledgment of social media’s power in sharing and shaping information — a power he will not allow to fall into the wrong hands, a clear improvement over the management.
Musk also has many ideas about ways to improve Twitter and generate more revenue. These ideas will generate interest and bring users back to the platform, which has been suffering from a lack of new functionality.
Though Musk’s takeover has generally been successful, Twitter has experienced some issues. The Washington Post reported that since Musk took over as owner, the amount of hate speech has risen above past levels. However, while it may take some time for Musk to adjust to this new platform, which is quite different from his other business ventures, his plan to strike a balance between upholding free speech and moderation of hate speech will ultimately make the app more profitable and user-friendly.
Con: Elon Musk’s Purchase of Twitter Harms Free Speech
On Oct. 27, Elon Musk completed his purchase of Twitter for $44 billion, according to CNN. The controversy of former President Donald Trump’s Twitter ban, among many others, instigated criticism of previous censorship on Twitter, but Musk declared his intention to uphold free speech on the platform. Musk’s vision of reduced censorship, however, has already begun to create a hostile environment, and because he has privatized the company, there is no guarantee that he will remain unbiased in his management of free speech.
Private ownership of a social media platform can threaten freedom of speech in several ways. When Twitter was a publicly traded company, SEC regulations required quarterly earning reports to be released to the public for transparency. By taking the company private, Musk now has no obligation to share information about Twitter’s management. Therefore, there is plenty of room for financial incentives to affect free speech on Twitter. Outside pressures such as political views, industry interests or personal motives could easily sway freedom of speech regulations on the platform when information about Twitter’s management is unavailable.
In a Tweet on Oct. 28, Musk announced the creation of a “content moderation council” and declared that no “major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes.” In response to a request to reinstate Jordan Peterson, a controversial psychologist who has come under fire for his far-right views, however, Musk tweeted, “anyone suspended for minor & dubious reasons will be freed from Twitter jail” just hours later. This policy announcement shows no matter the promises he makes about sharing moderation control, Musk has the power to take any action he wants.
A similar instance of Musk taking decision-making into his own hands was on Nov. 6, when he suspended comedian Kathy Griffin’s Twitter account after her mocking impersonation of him. Shortly after, he tweeted, “going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying ‘parody’ will be permanently banned.” This decision shows his total authority over the platform’s policies and lack of impartiality in his approach to censorship.
Furthermore, in a March 5 Tweet, Musk claimed to be a “free speech absolutist,” but his reduction of censorship does not necessarily mean Twitter will become a place where all feel welcome to express themselves. According to a study conducted by Montclair State University, trolls greatly increased hate speech on the platform in response to Musk’s ownership of the app. Musk’s approach to free speech seems to have allowed people to feel freer to be hateful without consequences, and the effect is a more hostile environment for all users. A decrease in censorship will lead to an increase in hate speech, fostering an unsafe space that will reduce users’ willingness to express themselves.
This purchase changes the precedent of ownership of all social media platforms and creates uncertainty in the future of free speech on social media. Twitter, according to The Observer, reaches roughly 450 million monthly active users and has great political influence, so its privatization is a significant and influential change for social media as a whole. This could lead to other billionaires or figures of influence purchasing different platforms, further depriving the public of their rights to free speech.