Fresh off his bid to buy Twitter for $41 billion in what has been described as a "hostile takeover", Elon Musk appeared at TED2022 yesterday where inevitably the talk turned to Twitter, what he'd change, and as a self-described "free of speech absolutionist", what he thinks that means.
During the live TED event, that also took in Tesla and the future of the world, Chris Anderson, the head of TED, questioned Musk on what freedom of speech would be like on Twitter under his ownership. Some suspect he wants a loosening of restrictions on what can be said on the public platform while others think the world's richest man being in charge of what people can and can't say on what is essentially a public platform but is technically a private company is not ideal.
For Musk's part, he said didn’t know why he wanted to buy Twitter. When Anderson, pointed out an earlier conversation between the two of them where Musk told him he did not want to run Twitter, Musk muddled through an answer stating that Twitter is important for the functioning of democracies.
Despite Musk not seeming confident that he will be able to acquire Twitter, the goal, he said, is to make Twitter a public platform that is trusted and broadly inclusive. A noble intention, however, it's not clear that Musk has thought this through, or even understands what freedom of speech is.
"A good sign as to whether there is free speech is, is someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like? If that is the case, we have free speech. It’s damn annoying when someone you don’t like says something you don’t like. That is the sign of a healthy, functioning free speech situation," he said.
But when Anderson asked Musk about his declaration of being a “free speech absolutist” he backtracked on his previous declarations, agreeing that tweets cannot break the law. Musk himself has been sued for defamation due to something he said on Twitter before.
Free speech is the principle that individuals or even communities should be free to express their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction from governments. The supposed lack of freedom of speech and "cancel culture" has been the focus of many social media campaigns – especially in right-wing circles – following Twitter's (and subsequently other social media platforms') ban of Donald Trump. However, freedom of speech is not absolute, and it doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.
Examples of limitations to freedom of speech inscribed in law are perjury, libel, slander, hate speech, and revealing state secrets. As a businessman, Musk will likely appreciate that things such as copyright violations, trade secrets, and non-disclosure agreements are not covered by freedom of speech either.
But Musk gets to the crux of his argument when he discussed the algorithm. He wants Twitter to show that no tweet is being promoted or demoted artificially by the algorithm and he wants that to be accessible to everyone.
When Anderson broached the subject of tweets reported for saying things that breach Twitter's current rules, Musk said that the tweets should be allowed to stay published on the site, and if it’s a gray area they should not be promoted further, contradicting himself from his earlier point on the artificial manipulation of tweets.
Reporting posts has been an extremely contentious area for social media platforms. The function, aimed at protecting people’s rights and curbing the spread of misinformation, has often been weaponized to target the very same individuals and organizations it had been tasked to protect. The use of just algorithms for moderation has found biases against underrepresented groups, such as Black people. But not having any rules at all can have real-world consequences. Tweets by former president Donald Trump against Muslims have been linked to increased violence toward Muslims, for example.
“I'm not saying that I have all the answers here but I do think that we want to be just, very reluctant to delete things and just be very cautious with permanent bans. You know timeouts, I think are better than permanent bans,” Musk said in the talk.
However reluctant he appears to delete things, Musk himself has been forced to delete a tweet by the National Labor Relations Board following the firing of an employee who was a union advocate at Tesla in 2019. He may be anti-delete but he seems pro the controversial edit button idea. Howver, how he would implement rules on that was even less clear.