Musk’s Twitter: a haven of free speech or censor’s dream?


Credit: CNBC

   That Elon Musk’s purchase of the Twitter social media platform appears more likely, making it a private company again, he could eliminate the moderation of users and content and make “his” Twitter potentially serve both his interests and those of foreign actors – such as China.  Because China is his biggest customer of Tesla automobiles, the Communist Party of China (CPC) could soon have leverage over him and the 80-million users of Twitter.   

   Can we take him at his word that “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, [like] the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated” (qtd in Gilbert).  Or, should we be reticent to use his own private social media platform to dictate his own agenda, justifying his control as a benevolent censor of “his” concept of free speech?   

   Although he says his focus will be on free speech, he wants to defeat spam bots, to make algorithms open source to increase trust by Twitter users, and to authenticate all users as humans.  If his purchase of Twitter goes through for $44-billion,  Musk has stated that he will serve as the interim CEO with his focus on “hardcore software engineering, design, information security [infosec], and server hardware” (qtd in Gilbert).  

   He does not like Twitter’s lack of moderating spam bots, inability to maintain relevance in mainstream culture, and the “permanent ban” of controversial users such as Alex Jones and former President Trump due to their political affiliations.  One modification he wishes to bring as the new owner is to make Twitter the digital equivalent of a public forum by loosening content moderation policies. Will this enable him to censor anyone or any content he deems “inappropriate”?  Will he answer only to himself about his decisions?  

   Whether or not Musk reinstates former President Trump’s Twitter account remains to be seen.  However, even if Trump chooses to return after setting up his own service remains to be seen.  Trump might prefer his own website over Musk’s Twitter, and not choose to return, preferring his own.  

   Musk also plans on making algorithm changes, typically referred to as “open source,” a term for software used on Twitter that can be used and manipulated openly by different contributors.  With the use of algorithms, Musk seeks to avoid the de facto bias that affects public discourse, or at least a moderation of it.  In the same breath, he also sees the role of his new company as a tool for reshaping society with Twitter being based on free speech.  But, his plan puts free speech under the direct control of programmers and computer scientists who are based on the West Coast – but ultimately under his control.  For example, free speech to Musk does not extend to including broadcasts from Russia, which he intends to block.   

   Musk also intends to remove spam bots, used to promote scams such as pump-and-dump cryptocurrencies using Musk’s likeness on Twitter.  Having repeatedly asked Twitter executives  to solve the most annoying problem, Musk’s top priority will be to “eliminate[the numerous] spam and scam bots and the bot armies” (qtd in Gilbert), as the new owner of Twitter.    

   Even though Twitter has been working on the users’ requests that would enable fixing spelling errors and inaccurate links soon after posting, Musk also plans on adding this type of editing feature.  

   Although Musk considers himself to be a “free speech absolutist,” he will not allow Russian broadcasts on Twitter, unless it is “at gunpoint.”  Ironically, on Monday, the head of the Russian space agency, Dimitry Rogozin, did just that when Musk enabled Ukraine to access his Starlink satellite system.  Rogozin threatened to hold Musk accountable for “supplying fascist forces in Ukraine with military communication equipment” (qtd in Taylor).  

   Unlike Rogozin, will the 80 million users of Twitter hold Musk accountable for his decisions, not at gunpoint, but by leaving Twitter if Musk misuses his personal “new” social media platform of His Twitter, for His Twitter, and by His Twitter ?   Unfortunately, only time will tell what the users can come to expect from the self-proclaimed free speech absolutist.   

   In his tweet on May 10, Director Rob Reiner tweeted:  “By reinstating Trump, Elon Musk is condoning lies and disinformation. He’s clearly comfortable with someone inciting violence to overthrow our Government. The march towards Autocracy continues.”  Whether or not Musk’s claims of being a free speech absolutist are true, and as to whether or not he can better Twitter – or society, is yet to be determined.