Musk’s Interest in Social Media Platform Sparks Debate about Free Speech

Artwork by CHS Art Club

Dimitrios Donas ’23

On April 4th, 2022, it was announced that Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of tech companies such as Tesla and SpaceX, had purchased a 9.2% stake in Twitter. Musk’s recent acquisition makes him the largest individual shareholder of the social media giant, as well as the second-largest share-holder overall. Following the news of Musk’s $2.64 billion purchase, Twitter’s stock soared by 27%.

Musk, an eccentric billionaire who has drawn comparisons to the fictional Tony Stark, is known to be a vocal critic of social media’s censorship of controversial figures and unpopular opinons. For this reason, Musk’s purchase led many to speculate that he would use his newfound influence to push an agenda that would, most likely, favor greater tolerance towards those with controversial views.

Then, 10 days after his initial acquisition, Musk offered to buy the entirety of Twitter for $44 billion, with the intention of taking the company private. On April 25th, Twitter stated that they had agreed to accept the offer. The following day, Musk tweeted the following from his account: “By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”

Based on the viewpoint expressed in his tweet, it is clear that Musk plans to take Twitter in a new direction by offering expanded free speech. The news of Musk’s purchase resulted in a frenzy. Responses came from both sides of the aisle, with the right rejoicing and the left voicing their concern. In particular, Republicans hope that Musk’s purchase will pave the way for Donald Trump’s re-instatement to the platform following his January 2021 ban; the former president, however, has maintained that he is not focused on Twitter, but instead choosing to focus on his own platform, Truth Social. Many within the Democratic base, meanwhile, argue that Musk’s exclusive ownership of Twitter will place too much power into the billionaire’s hands, allowing him to dictate the ways in which the social media giant operates.

Prior to Musk’s pending purchase, Twitter was owned by individual shareholders, as well as by numerous corporations such as the Vanguard Group INC, Morgan Stanley, and Kingdom Holding Company, a joint-stock company owned by the Saudis.

In essence, Twitter was predominantly owned by large companies that had the ability to significantly influence their companies’ internal affairs to benefit their interests.

For instance, one can see the clear conflict of interest brought about by the Saudi’s 5.2% stake in Twitter. Individuals such as Prince Al Waleed, part owner of the Kingdom Holding Company, may push the company’s board to act in favor of his own agenda. For this reason, Musk’s taking complete ownership of Twitter should not be problematic, as the balance of power will shift from one group of wealthy executives to a single billionaire. What will change however, is theinterests of those who are in positions of power within the platform. As a social media giant, Twitter is a platform where everyone can express their views and opinions. As of late, Twitter has come under fire for censoring certain information that may push viewpoints contrary to those that the company would like to communicate. In a particularly alarming occurrence, Twitter tem-

porarily shut down the account of the New York Post following their release of a story covering Hunter Biden’s laptop. Twitter was willing to censor the New York Post, a credible and respected conservative news source, just days before a presidential election, conveying the message that the company’s motives go beyond the desire to protect users from disinformation. (Currently, Hunter Biden is under federal investigation.) For this reason, a debate regarding the status of free speech on private companies, as well the status of Twitter’s internal agendas and biases, has ensued. While Musk’s purchase of Twitter is seen as a beacon of hope for proponents of free speech on the internet, many are critical of this concept. In a CNN panel, analyst Brian Stelter stated, “Some Twitter users might love the idea [that] there’s going to be absolutely no moderation and no rules at all. Others might not want to be anywhere near that.”

Though Stelter’s concern is valid, it is important to clarify that free speech is different from “absolutely no moderation.” Direct incitement of violence is not protected by free speech. Online, this manifests itself as actions such as doxxing, or the sharing of an individual’s personal information against their will. In fact, Twitter tolerated this behavior when Antifa members leaked the addresses, phone numbers, etc. of numerous ICE agents. Based on these events, as well as on the basic definition of free speech under the 1st Amendment, it can be inferred that under Musk, Twitter will not become an unrestricted breeding ground for hate speech and threats of violence; rather, the rules of Twitter in regards to free speech will be evenly enforced across the political spectrum.

In the latest turn in the saga, Musk has announced that his purchase is “on hold” until the company can provide clarity on the true extent to which bot accounts operate on the platform.It is suspected that foreign governments employ the use of “troll farms,” where bot accounts are created with the purpose of promoting propaganda with the power to influence a rival nation’s domestic affairs. Free speech would obviously not extend to fraudulent bot accounts—meaning that it is important for Twitter’s executives to be well-informed about the presence of these accounts if they wish for the company to operate in the best interest of its users. Twitter has maintained that only about 5% of accounts are bots, though they have yet to prove this statistic to a hesitant Musk.

Nonetheless, Musk’s pursuit of Twitter continues to be a key development in the debate over free speech on the internet.