So what is Elon Musk’s definition of free speech, exactly, and how does that relate to what you can and can’t say in your tweets?
The question of what should be allowed has become a central point of contention after Musk launched a $43.5 billion takeover push for the social media platform, ostensibly on the back of Twitter’s ongoing restrictions and moderation decisions.
In the lead-up to his Twitter takeover push, Musk noted that free speech is a central element of a functioning democracy.
Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.
What should be done? https://t.co/aPS9ycji37
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 26, 2022
Musk reiterated the same in his official statement on his takeover offer:
“I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.”
Musk has, of course, faced several legal challenges over his tweets, from his suggestion that he might take Twitter private at $420 to baselessly accusing a cave diver of being a pedophile. As such, Musk is well aware of the potential consequences of the free speech that he’s advocating for – while at the same time, Musk has also sought to restrict others from saying what they like about him and his company via social platforms.
Last year, Musk tried to stop a Twitter user from sharing details of his travels on his private jet, while just recently, Tesla launched legal action against a car reviewer who criticized the Tesla Model 3’s auto-braking system.
So on balance, Musk has experienced both sides of what ‘free speech’ can bring, in a negative sense. Which makes it all the more strange that he’s so passionately advocating for the same. Freedom of speech, of course, doesn’t equate to freedom from consequence, but Musk knows, or should know by now, that there needs to be some limits to avoid real world harm.
Which is likely the element that Musk is overlooking, because despite these incidents, and the financial costs that have come with them, they haven’t impacted his life in any significant way as yet.
But they have for others. Vernon Unsworth, the cave diver that Musk had accused of being a pedophile, fears that his name and reputation will be forever tarnished through linkage to the false accusation (Musk even hired a private detective to dig up dirt on Unsworth as part of the case). Xiaogang Xuezhang, the TikTok car reviewer who criticized Tesla, says that Musk’s company released his personal information, and paid for social media campaigns that magnify the lawsuit against him, in an effort to discredit and make an example of him.
You can bet that if Musk were in either of their situations, he’d likely have a different perspective on the dangers of free speech. But that’s the thing, Elon Musk doesn’t have to worry about such in the same way, because he’s so insanely rich that the consequences are not the same, and never will be.
Which is why his stance on ‘free speech’ needs to be viewed with a level of caution, no matter how you feel about the basic principle of the matter. Indeed, when Unsworth’s lawsuit against Musk eventually went in Musk’s favor (due to the technicality that Musk didn’t specifically mention Unsworth in the offending tweet), Musk said that his ‘faith in humanity is restored’. Elon Musk sees no fault in labeling someone a pedophile, and broadcasting that to the world, despite having no evidence to suggest such. He believes that this should be his right, which is what he’s pushing for on Twitter.
But there is another side to Musk’s push, which relates to open algorithms, and enabling users to better understand the inner workings of social platforms so that they can make more informed choices about their in-app experiences.
“Any changes to people’s tweets – if they’re emphasised or de-emphasised – that action should be made apparent, so anyone can see that that action has been taken so there’s no sort of behind-the-scenes manipulation, either algorithmically or manually.”
This is an interesting suggestion, which Twitter itself is already exploring through its ‘Bluesky’ initiative. The idea that regular users could have a better understanding of such systems makes sense, though the complexities may well be lost on us non-coders and regular folk (i.e. the vast majority of Twitter users) who just want to check out the latest tweets.
Though there are some more interesting ideas around this. Nathan Baschez recently outlined how, by open sourcing Twitter’s algorithmic parameters, developers could create new, custom algorithms that users could choose from in order to personalize their tweet experience.
“For example I’d want to try an algorithm that attempts to prioritize nuanced conversations about important topics. Maybe someone else would want algorithms to find mind-expanding threads, savage dunks, or thirst traps of hot new snax.”
There are complexities with this too. I suspect, for example, that if TikTok were to open up the black box of its algorithm, you would find some very questionable qualifiers in its entity registration process. The platform has faced criticism in the past over its efforts to suppress posts from users with bad teeth, big bellies, physical disabilities, and more.
That suggests that TikTok actually has these elements as entities within its algorithmic qualifiers, and based on that, you can imagine the potential depth of specific body types, looks, ethnicities and more that it attaches as labels to each video clip.
There’s a reason why TikTok’s ‘For You’ feed is so addictive, but if you found out why that is, I’m not sure that you’d feel as comfortable using the app – and I’m not sure that its systems would stand up to scrutiny when matched against discrimination laws in various regions.
TikTok keeps a lot of these details in-house, and US authorities have noted that getting information out of the Chinese-owned company is not as straightforward as dealing with US-based platforms. But there is a reason why some analysts believe that TikTok will eventually be forced to change its algorithm, the secret sauce of its success.
Open sourcing Twitter’s algorithms could lead to similar concerns, with developers then able to build discriminatory, divisive algorithm systems that could highlight, say, people’s political leanings, essentially targeting them for the same, or could showcase less savory elements of the app in a brighter light.
People should have the choice, as Musk says, but at the same time, I’m not sure that giving users the option to choose an algorithm that eliminates ‘libtard bias’ would actually be good for society.
Which is the key question. Twitter has evolved its moderation systems over time in response to actual, real world harms, and concerns that reach beyond the platform itself. As in the cases of Vernon Unsworth and Xiaogang Xuezhang, these are not just words, such comments and accusations lead to actual, real impacts on their real lives, which could limit their future opportunities, and lessen their quality of life as a result. Elon Musk won’t feel that. He’s the richest man in the world, and even what would be significant financial penalties for anyone else are an anecdote for him, a joke that he can respond to with a few memes.
Even if you’re an advocate for free speech, there needs to be parameters, and if you don’t realize it now, maybe consider what would happen to your life if Elon accused you of being a pedophile, and shared that with his 84 million Twitter followers.
That’d be tough to shake, right? That could make it harder for you to get a job, to coach your kids’ soccer team, Elon setting his army of supporters onto you could cause real world harm, beyond the words themselves.
Elon Musk doesn’t see it that way, because he doesn’t consider such consequences through the same lens as you or I.
The question is, does ‘free speech’ mean the same thing to you as it does to Elon Musk?