Elon Musk’s intention to buy Twitter has raised a very interesting political and philosophical issue: freedom of speech is becoming a value of the political right. This is peculiar since the principle was firstly applied in Athens, BC, and was consecrated by the Illuminists as a democratic, anti-oppression right and tool. Will Elon Musk give up some of Twitter’s content restrictions? Maybe. But if he does, will he create something better than what Twitter is today? Possibly not.
Musk triggered a wave of concern from the beginning when he repeatedly mentioned free speech as his main reason for the Twitter acquisition. Understandably: it is what various right-wing celebrities invoke when they put in circulation their “alternative facts” theories, disinformation, and propaganda, on social networks. In the social networks era, “free speech” was weaponized and became a political tool for destabilizing elections and public opinion. Doesn’t the most successful businessman in the world understand such concerns? Time Magazine has a convincing piece about the fact he would be less inclined to do so because of his cultural mindset and business background. “Tech titans often have a different understanding of speech than the rest of the world because most trained as engineers, not as writers or readers, and a lack of a humanities education might make them less attuned to the social and political nuances of speech,” Charlotte Alter wrote. In a sense, to engineers and computer scientists, disinformation is still information.
Silicon Valley, which was born from a contrarian ethos, fancies itself as an empowering tool for the somehow educated masses, and it has been so to a great extent. So free speech is its natural cause. But also, it is a natural cause for a tech billionaire as a person because it seems to be a self-sufficient principle, like primitive notions in math: something that is totally contained by a formula and can be used to build something much bigger upon. Nothing more complicated than that.
It has been remarked more than once that the big problem of dominant social networks like Twitter and Facebook is that they are at the same time platforms and publishers. They were built primarily as platforms to allow and catalyze freedom of expression. They are the successors of phpBB forums, which in their turn originated in the Bulletin Board Systems of the eighties: communication and exchange of ideas for as many as possible. Nowadays, this means that billions of users must be empowered and taken care of, with very diverse functionalities and perfect usability. All of them allowing expression. And by the way, allowing and empowering expression is good for business, too, since social networks’ success means high numbers of users.
We do know now where this leads. All the functionalities and amplifying features of social networks can be – and are – extensively used by propaganda and disinformation. Does this justify thorough content moderation, up to a degree higher than anti-discrimination and anti-hate laws require?
Both Facebook and Twitter tended to accept it does – with decisions such as Donald Trump’s exclusion from both networks, for example, or the stupid and ineffective moderation system Facebook is striving to enhance. So social networks became something other than (totally) free expression platforms. They became publishing platforms because of filtering fake news, at least in intention.
While any free speech platform is tautologically concerned with free speech, a publisher is in charge of the truth – or its best approximation, in the sense that Phil Graham famously defined media as “the first rough draft of history.” Classic media professionals are very much aware that a media channel – be it a newspaper, TV newsroom, or anything else – contains strong and well-proven selection mechanisms that leave aside a substantial amount of the facts and statements gathered to build a finished product, such as tomorrow’s newspaper or the prime-time newscast. From their point of view, this is not censorship or any excessive limitation of free speech. To media professionals, canceling Donald Trump’s Twitter account is the same as leaving out the disputable allegations of any politician from a serious legacy media channel – except for the importance of such a decision. The more serious and reputable the channel is, the less likely it will allow questionable voices or unverified facts.
Like it or not – traditional media became a selection mechanism, a sieve for irrelevance, bias, and disinformation, more than a springboard for promoting startling new truths. There are brilliant and enlightening investigative journalism pieces and columns in newspapers these days. But there is much less news – in the original sense, of something totally new. Most of it originates somewhere else: on social networks or in press releases. It is only checked, refined, and contextualized by the media itself.
It has already been said many times that newsrooms have lost their monopoly on information. There are fewer scoops. Journalists ceased to be news hunter-gatherers and became information farmers. Curation, aggregation, and contextualization became more important than the ability to scoop extraordinary or noteworthy facts from the unknown.
Any farming activity involves a significant amount of pruning. It matters even more than the ability to pick up the right plant, which is easy to find. More than it mattered in the gathering era, anyway. So, today’s media professionals are more inclined to reject information than in times when they had to hunt for it. Not that everything is propaganda or disinformation, there’s simply a much higher amount of facts available. Most of it irrelevant in terms of newsworthiness. And now, it’s right on the journalists’ screens: official emails, videos prepared by politicians and companies, social networks. What matters is making sense of it, throwing away the vast irrelevancy, and doing it according to the human attention span.
To the extent that Musk has an “engineer bias,” most commentators on his Twitter acquisition have a “journalist bias.” In virtue of their background, free expression is not in any way a simple mathematical primitive notion but a very subtle principle. The media, as we know it, was born from the same ideal as the social networks, free speech: to allow expression, become a voice for the people, and scrutinize or challenge political decisions with analyses, perspectives, and facts. The “guard dog of democracy” role of the media is essentially a left-wing idea because it opposes authoritarianism and arbitrary political decisions. Free speech is its intrinsic component since empowering voices to speak against rulers is part of the guardian role.
Still, it has become a right-wing cause lately. The left is derided in terms such as “cancel culture” or “woke,” which are limitations of expression.
This doesn’t mean that “journalist bias,” i.e., a complex application of the free speech principle, is entirely wrong. It is operational, but it is only so in the field of traditional media, where there is little pressure for expression from the participants in the medium, and there are well-tested mechanisms of facts and truth selection. This doesn’t apply to social networks. Twitter’s decision to ban Donald Trump was controversial, but the issue is more pervasive on Facebook, where the various moderation attempts were constantly criticized and mocked.
In other terms, social networks include a strong contradiction – the conciliation of free speech (the platform role), which is more and more about untruth now, with truth (the publisher role). And so, the ideal of freedom of expression became a paradox.
Biologically, at 50, Elon Musk can only fall back on some of what he has learned to feel in his youth. He grew up in the seventies, in the still very racist South Africa, to move to the very liberal Canada and then to Silicon Valley. Such an existence can only make you viscerally aware of political issues such as free speech. His commitment to the cause, as seen in the tweets after the acquisition announcement, is probably strong, honest, and built on simple convictions and conceptions, the kind that characterize early youth. So, if he gets Twitter, which he probably will, he will not care too much about the worries about raising some of the restrictions, as he doesn’t care too much about the backlash the announcement already generated. Musk is also a very determined person. He couldn’t have built Tesla and SpaceX if he weren’t. His business failures are few, and they are more failures in terms of the very high goals he has publicly advertised, such as one million Tesla cars in 2020. So, he probably won’t give up the free speech ideal anytime soon.
Assuming things will go that way, in a few months, when Musk will probably get in charge, we might enter a bi-polar social networks world: Facebook continuing its moderation efforts and Twitter pursuing “free speech” – more precisely, loose moderation. Musk’s problem is, however, that the world already stands on unfathomable (dis)information deposits. Today, the moderation/curation of content and the selection of truth are obviously more important than the promotion of any kind of speech in social and political terms. Musk doesn’t seem totally aware of that, according to the sources around him, and seems determined to prove the opposite. So probably, he has a bigger problem than he imagined on his hands, the more so as the political factor is more and more justified, and encouraged by the public, to take steps to regulate the online activity or exclude propaganda outlets such as RT or Sputnik from the Western world.
Will fake news be used as an excuse for excessive moderation, on a political level, even in regulating terms? There’s a real danger about that, and Musk seems to be concerned with it. But we have, at the same time, too much and too little moderation. And public pressure tends to favor the latter opinion.
Musk himself will likely be able to adapt to the reality once it becomes apparent – he did so with other businesses in the past. Twitter may not end up in a carnage of disinformation and hate, if only because it is too valuable. But free speech itself will undoubtedly become more of a dilemma soon.
On 17 January 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte issued a decree that suppressed 50 of the 63 political newspapers in Paris. In September 1803, he issued another one that sent every book on sale to an evaluation commission. This is as close as one can get to the plain definition of censorship. However, the public was fed up with the excesses of the great pamphleteers such as Marat of Desmoulins, and applauded Napoleon. It seems now like a forlorn and obscure anecdote, but today, the public is again happy with restrictions, and politicians are always interested in limiting free speech. Musk probably knows nothing about Napoleon’s policies in terms of freedom of speech, but maybe his cause is more valuable than we are thinking. The issue is there’s a good chance free speech will become more of a lost bet.