Elon Musk, who has 81 million followers on Twitter, recently raised the question, “Is Twitter dying?” Musk describes himself as a “free speech absolutist,” meaning he is opposed to any limits on what people may say online. He has said that he believes Facebook is moving in the wrong path on this issue. Having served as chief executive officer of two large publicly traded businesses, Musk has faced criticism and even legal action because of his impetuous tweets, which have deceived investors and caused the stock values of his firms to fluctuate.
After purchasing a 9.2 percent interest in the firm, he has risen to become Twitter’s biggest shareholder. The transaction has sparked a flurry of discussion about why Musk purchased such a substantial interest in the company and what the company’s future has in store. Following Musk’s decision to withdraw his candidacy for a position on Twitter’s board of directors over the weekend, the company’s CEO, Parag Agrawal, wrote in a note to employees that the decision was “for the best,” and he urged them to “tune out the noise” surrounding the company’s recent changes.
Nonetheless, it’s tough to tune out Elon Musk, which demonstrates the influence he has as a well-known tech entrepreneur and the richest man on the planet. As seen by his most recent tweets, Musk seems to be implying that he intends to leverage his investment in Twitter to transform the social media platform into the ultimate stronghold of free expression. On March 25, before the announcement of his investment became public, he organized a Twitter poll in which he asked if the platform “rigorously adhered” to the concept of free expression. His audience overwhelmingly rejected his proposal. “Given that Twitter functions as the de facto public town square, failure to adhere to free speech norms profoundly weakens democracy,” he said in a follow-up tweet on the following day. Is there anything that should be done?”
It seems that the major announcement he was building up to was that he had spent around $3 billion buying up shares in order to exert control over how the site should be handled. Following the public disclosure of his ownership last week, Musk used his newfound authority by asking in another poll, “Do you want an edit button?”
Despite the fact that Musk has portrayed his mission as noble — one that is not being pursued for narrow, self-interested goals, but rather for the benefit of the general public – his actions have raised questions about his motivations. He would loosen the restrictions placed on the social media site by the regulations and provide its users with the services they’ve been clamoring for. However, at the heart of this drama is the fact that he has his own grievances about what he considers to be constraints on his freedom of expression. And, unlike the majority of individuals on the planet, Musk can command the attention of Twitter by spending just a small portion of his $250 billion fortune; billionaires like him have a shortcut to being the most powerful voice in any room. His significant prominence on Twitter as one of the most followed accounts before his being the company’s largest stakeholder, and he had an almost mythological reputation as an innovative genius from Silicon Valley before becoming the company’s most valuable shareholder. As a result, it’s difficult to understand how the Twitter acquisition is consistent with democratic norms.
“[Twitter] is a worldwide platform,” said David Kaye, a law professor at UC Irvine and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression. For someone with a lot of money to simply walk in and say, ‘Look, I’m going to buy a piece of this company and therefore my voice in how your rules are adopted and enforced is going to have more power than anybody else,’ — I think that is regressive after years of [Twitter] attempting to establish reasonable rules.
What makes Musk’s position even more remarkable is the fact that Twitter’s other top owners are institutional investors such as Vanguard Group and BlackRock, rather than individual investors. And, as a result of Musk’s decision not to join the Twitter board of directors, he is no longer prohibited from acquiring majority ownership in the firm. At the very least, he has the ability to threaten such action. The type of unstated power that Musk may acquire is seen in the chart below.
So, what precisely is it that Musk has a problem with when it comes to Twitter’s regulations on free expression? In recent years, in the wake of a pandemic that highlighted the life-or-death stakes of misinformation, as well as the political chaos and violence fueled by election disinformation, Twitter has taken a more proactive approach to content moderation, flagging misleading tweets and, in some cases, removing them entirely. “Twitter has moved away from the concept that it is the free speech wing of the free speech party, and has evolved into a more realistic custodian of expression on the site,” Kaye said.
Most prominently, former President Donald Trump was suspended from his position after a series of tweets encouraging violence and misinformation in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election were published. Musk, on the other hand, has not spoken publicly on Trump’s order. To yet, none of Musk’s tweets have been tampered with by the social media platform itself.
Musk’s genuine free speech woes have to do with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United States, in which he is engaged in a dispute about what he, as the public face of a big publicly traded firm like Tesla, can and cannot say in front of investors. Earlier this year, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against Musk after he tweeted that he had secured funding to take Tesla private — which is why investors are currently suing him, claiming that the claim was false and that they lost money as a result of Tesla stock prices fluctuating following his tweet. Musk accepted a deal with the Securities and Exchange Commission, paying a $20 million fine and being disqualified from serving as Tesla’s chairman for three years. Importantly, the settlement stipulated that when Musk’s tweets included information about the firm, they would be subjected to corporate review.
However, even if Musk is back as chairman, and even a $20 million punishment is little for someone with Musk’s fortune, it’s evident that he is still disturbed by the SEC’s restrictions on tweeting. Musk filed a court petition in early March, claiming that he had been coerced to agree to the SEC deal and that the arrangement should be terminated. He alleged in a letter to the judge who presided over the settlement that Musk had been subjected to SEC harassment and that the SEC’s actions had been “designed to limit his exercise of First Amendment rights.”
Free speech proponents, on the other hand, are not entirely in agreement. According to Kaye, “He has unfettered access to the media; he has unfettered access to whatever forum he could possibly want.” “He is in no way, shape, or form a victim of any kind.” He has a public voice that is almost unfathomable in terms of its lack of restraint when contrasted to nearly any other individual on the face of the earth.”
Furthermore, Musk might be subjected to increased SEC investigation for delaying the disclosure of his almost 10% ownership in Twitter; documents reveal that he has been consistently purchasing shares of the company since late January. Beyond passing the 5 percent investment threshold, Musk was required to make a report with the SEC within 10 days, but he only filed his statement 11 days after the deadline. As John C. Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University put it: “The point here is not simply that he filed late, which is a misdemeanor similar to jaywalking,” but rather that he deceived shareholders who may have purchased or sold at a better price if the information had been provided earlier. Those who sold their assets may be able to recover their losses in a securities class action.”
While holding a position of authority, one that comes with its own set of duties and obligations as well as the potential to do damage to others around you, being held responsible for what you say is not the same as having your speech muzzled. According to Coffee, Musk has a record of making “reckless assertions that had not been evaluated,” and he should have realized that his remarks about his aspirations for Twitter needed to be authorized or at the very least reported to management.
In other words, the issue seems to be that Musk is unable or unwilling to realize the extent to which he genuinely has the freedom and ability to speak. Twitter can be used by anyone with access to the internet; however, the difference between billionaires and the rest of us is that billionaires like Musk can use their wealth to have a greater say in matters such as who wins elections, what kinds of laws are passed, and even how we should respond to a pandemic. Moreover, if you are a popular person with millions of Twitter followers, even a simple response to a critic might result in a barrage of abuse being directed at you.
The actual threats to freedom of expression
Perhaps Musk’s current free speech campaign is just semi-serious in nature. Maybe it’s simply a prank on the Securities and Exchange Commission. However, whatever of his true reasons, his insistence on becoming the billionaire champion of internet expression has a meaningful influence – and therefore belies his claims that his First Amendment rights are being curtailed.
According to Evan Greer, head of Fight for the Future, a non-profit organization that campaigns for digital rights, “this is a major distraction.” According to Elon Musk, “it’s terrible, really, that individuals like Elon Musk, who are mostly trolling about [the free speech problem], have muddled the matter so much because I believe it has resulted in some quite negative views.” The term “free speech” has been linked with those who wish to spew hate speech, or with privileged people who are just whining about their voices being silenced, according to her.
“The fact is that freedom of expression is under threat. At the moment, there are laws in effect throughout the nation that make teaching illegal, prohibit the publication of certain literature, and penalize parents for giving their children health care,” Greer said.
As Greer said, “If we have to be concerned about what Elon Musk thinks about content control, we’ve already got a problem.” “There are far too few companies that wield far too much power over what can be seen, heard, and done on the internet, and the fact that the richest man on the planet can essentially buy the ability to influence our online discourse demonstrates that we have a fundamental structural problem with the way social media is currently organized,” says the author.
A single action by Musk has given him control of an important, shared online place, which he refers to as a “de facto public town square.” As a result, he now has some degree of power over you as long as you use Twitter, which means you’ll have to listen to him in some capacity. What will Musk do in his role as the most significant stakeholder on Twitter? Are there any rules of public openness that he will adhere to in terms of how he will impact the platform? We just do not know at this time. However, there is a chance that Musk will not be required to share anything.
This is how the ultra-rich appear to regard influence: that it is something that can be purchased, and that there is no guilt in doing so, even if the loudness of your discourse risks drowning out others around you.
An opinion piece published in the Washington Post by former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao stated that Musk’s purchase of influence over Twitter was unfair to the company’s hundreds of millions of users who do not have access to that level of power. “We need social media sites to be regulated in order to prevent wealthy individuals from dominating our avenues of communication,” she writes.
By taking a firmer stance against speech that harms and intimidates people, Kaye believes that Twitter is making an effort to create space for a diversity of voices — and that the kind of absolute, unrestricted speech Musk appears to be calling for is a fantasy that will only drive people away from the platform. According to Kaye, “no one who is functioning in good faith genuinely wants Twitter to be a sewer.” “It’s really ludicrous. “To be honest, that would put Twitter out of business.”