I’ve recently written about the problems with social media in provoking speech and conformity, as well as the cult phenomenon that social media companies capitalize on. Elon Musk’s recent purchase of Twitter seems an apropos time to address the direct suppression of free speech.
Among Musk’s poorly thought out misadventures, he recently and rightfully reinstated the Twitter accounts of several journalists who had been critical of him in the past, whom he had previously rage-banned without warning. What’s really appalling to me isn’t that he suspended them in the first place (which was deeply troubling), but rather the guise under which he reinstated them. Like many of his twit-decisions, Musk started with a Twitter poll, regarded as having roughly the same credibility as a Russian election. This was followed with a decree that “the people have spoken”, referring to the disenfranchised twelve year olds, Russian trolls, and bots that vote on Twitter. Musk uses this business strategy, which cost $44 billion in research, whenever he wants to make a public policy decision that doesn’t involve putting people out of work. This policy-related polling seems almost an attempt to make the Twitterverse feel empowered by the new CEO.
Yet while Musk might have his users believe that they are now participants in the free speech narrative, the very concept of free speech itself is at odds with – even downright hostile to the notion of crowd-sourced policy. The Bill of Rights was designed intentionally to “prevent a sheep and two wolves from voting on what’s for dinner”. It seems to elude Musk that the right of free speech exists at a level higher than himself; that, rather than handing it out by vote, he is a mere steward of it with the responsibility of defending it. The Twitterverse at large has not and should not be empowered to make decisions about what speech to permit, because doing so destroys free speech. Failing to understand the requirements of such a basic human right is a dangerous thing for someone dictating policy of any system that depends on it. Musk, rather, seems to lack either the capacity or the restraint to make responsible decisions about free speech, or how to distinguish free speech from misinformation (today’s “Fire!” in a crowded theatre). Musk’s inability to handle such a delicate instrument of civil society is truly terrifying given the sheer amount of unilateral power he now has over public discourse.
Twitter was already a sick animal when Musk took over not long ago; the idea of giving a popular vote on speech policy to all users is not just the adolescent prank it looks like, but stands to set a dangerous norm across all social media platforms unless users push back on such an offensive thing. A society that believes the people should be allowed to choose what speech is acceptable is a society that burns books and compels conformity. Musk is simply taking the first step by normalizing this type of behavior among the online community. Anyone who is a free speech advocate should be condemning, not participating in it. If Musk doesn’t start to apply his brain here rather than his ego, Twitter 2.0 could very easily resemble German Student Union 1.0. Empowering children over others was how things started to go wrong back then too.
I had struggled to propose a solution to this problem, at least as far as Twitter is concerned, and then awoke to the most appropriate and fitting news on the subject: Musk created another poll, in which Twitter users voted he resign his post as CEO. It seems he occasionally does poll before putting people out of a job.