Elon Musk gaining control of Twitter and becoming a “benevolent dictator” who acts as protector of free speech would be a welcome development, says the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Certainly, it’s a “deplorable situation” that so much power rests on the personal predilections of a single individual, said Nadine Strossen, who led the ACLU from 1991 to 2008. Yet she said she would greatly favour a free speech advocate acquiring power over one of the social media companies.
“That would be wonderful.”
The problem, however, is that Strossen remains skeptical whether Musk, the world’s richest person, and self-described “free speech absolutist” would actually honour his commitment to the cause.
“As to whether it’s likely that he is going to resist the enormous pressures to deviate from that pledge, I don’t know him personally, but human nature throughout history and around the world suggests that it’s extremely unlikely, if not impossible, that that’s going to happen,” she said.
Strossen is among a number of free speech advocates and social media analysts questioning whether Musk, if he gains control of Twitter, will make it the free speech forum he has advocated — or if he understands the challenges that he would face.
Musk has been an outspoken critic of Twitter’s policies, saying they are too restrictive when it comes to moderating content. Last week, he launched a $43-billion takeover bid for the social media platform.
“I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk, the CEO of Tesla, said during a TED conference in Vancouver on April 14, following his takeover bid announcement.
“Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have the, both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”
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Musk could have a positive influence on free speech with Twitter, said Scott Wilkens, who focuses on freedom of speech online and government regulation of social media platforms at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute.
Wilkens said he has been encouraged by Musk’s comments that he wants to make public the algorithms that prioritize what one sees in their Twitter feed.
“I think that kind of transparency is very healthy for free speech,” Wilkens said.
But Wilkens also expressed concern over a single person controlling a company like Twitter — particularly someone with that much power. He also said he worried about what that private control might mean for free speech, as opposed to having a publicly traded company that is answerable to shareholders in charge.
“That’s certainly a concern, because we just don’t know what Elon Musk might do as far as free speech is concerned,” he said.
Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment specialist for the Freedom Forum, a Maryland-based free speech advocacy group, said part of the problem is that Musk is no “First Amendment scholar.”
“He has acknowledged in various interviews that there are limits consistent with the First Amendment. So right there, that’s moderation; it may be moderation to the broadest extent of the law, but then he becomes the one interpreting the law.”
‘Let the tweet exist’
During his TED conference, Musk said in the case of a “grey area” involving a questionable or controversial tweet, “I would say let the tweet exist,” but “perhaps you’d not want to necessarily promote that tweet.”
He said he doesn’t have all the answers, but that he wants to be “very reluctant to delete things.”
Musk, though, may not realize that the concept of unlocking Twitter and allowing all legal speech on the platform is “really complicated,” said Kate Klonick, a St. John’s University assistant professor of law who focuses on law and technology and private platform governance of online speech.
Musk, for example, has said one of his top priorities would be to eliminate spam from Twitter.
But to allow all legal speech technically allowed under the First Amendment onto the platform, “you would have to allow all spam to stay up on the platform,” Klonick said in an interview with NPR. “You would have to allow all pornography to stay up on the platform, all forms of hate speech,” she said.
“And so all of that would stay up, at least within the U.S., [and] it could make the platform functionally unusable.”
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Scott Nover, a tech reporter for Quartz magazine and author of the recent article “Elon Musk’s Twitter bid isn’t about free speech” said throughout the history of major social media platforms, executives have stated that they wanted them to be free speech havens.
For example, Dick Costolo, the former CEO of Twitter, once said that Twitter belongs “to the free speech wing of the free speech party.”
But eventually, those platforms enact rules limiting what can be posted on their forums.
“Every social media platform, in order to grow its business, which is advertising, has tightened its restrictions on what people can and cannot say,” Nover said.
Meanwhile some have pointed out that Musk himself hasn’t always lived up to the ideals of free speech absolutism. Last year, Musk tried to get a 19-year-old Twitter user to delete an account that tracked his private jet comings and goings. And a former employee of Tesla was reportedly fired for posting a critical YouTube review of the company’s full self-driving software.
“Elon Musk internally, within his own world, is not a huge champion of unfettered free speech,” Nover said.