Free speech, Twitter and Elon Musk

Tech tycoons are perfectly capable of making bad business decisions like the rest of us humble mortals. But do not blast them when they stand for free speech.

Cartoon: A man chasing the Twitter bird
Elon Musk: “If people want less free speech, they will ask the government to pass laws to that effect.” © GIS

Elon Musk, a visionary South African-born American entrepreneur in the automotive and space industries, has acquired, in a roller-coaster-like process, the ownership of the social medium Twitter.

Twitter is generally a loss-making enterprise. In 2018 and 2019, it turned profits, but two exceptional years could not outweigh the eight years of losing money. Twitter’s primary income comes from advertising, which appeared to be fading even before Mr. Musk’s disruptive acquisition.

The new owner had promised to eliminate “bot accounts” (set up by digital robots) and restore free speech norms on the platform. Indeed, Twitter had policies in place to not only block hate-mongering but also messages its operators considered untrue, such as on Covid-19 policies and environmental and contested political issues. Undeniably, “progressive” opinions were less likely to be blocked on Twitter than conservative ones.

Nothing wrong with this

Mr. Musk stated his policy as follows: “By freedom of expression, I mean only what is lawful. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask the government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, breaking the law is against the will of the people.” 

There is nothing to say against this. A free democratic society is resilient enough to deal with lies, unrealistic opinions and sheer stupidity. At the same time, limiting the freedom of speech can be deadly for such a society.

Still, Mr. Musk’s statement made some people nervous. Quite a few considered his remarks as opening the floodgates to hate speech. That is hardly the case, as hate speech is illegal. 

When the new boss tweeted, “the bird is free,” Thierry Breton, the European Commission’s market czar, responded indignantly: “In Europe, the bird will fly by our rules.” Does that indicate that the commission is planning new limitations on social media? Such a principalist attitude shows a similarity to an authoritarian mindset. If the commission finds itself challenged, it should instead respond by reducing its suffocating regulations preventing Europe from developing competitive high-tech businesses.

In Europe, public broadcasting, which generally has a leftist bias, reacted with rage to Mr. Musk’s plans. Some of the comments circulating on Twitter’s possibly more open policy were outrageous. In a parody run by German public broadcaster ARD, Mr. Musk was very clearly compared to Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Josef Goebbels. That was rightfully criticized. Anna Staroselski, president of the Jewish Student Union in Germany, said in an interview that one does not have to like Musk’s Twitter acquisition. However, comparing his efforts to stand up for freedom of expression to a regime that killed for disagreeable opinions was “not only oblivious to history but shabby.”

What we must tolerate

Why is it so terrible that Mr. Musk gained control of Twitter? The site is very popular for short messages; nearly all political leaders and celebrities use it. It is also an ideal instrument for populist influencers. However, there is no good reason for a free society to fear a damaging influence of even an eccentric tycoon. Mr. Musk has merely upset the previous balance of opinions running on Twitter.

Free societies and democracies need free speech and respect for dissenting views as long as they do not violate the law. Unwelcome and even stupid statements have to be tolerated. Denying climate change may be considered unwise, but it is not illegal and must be accepted. Also, anti-vaccination messages were banned on Twitter. Now we know that some skepticism was justified even if the overall outcome may have been positive.

The above does not mean that all of Mr. Musk’s actions are above criticism. While Twitter’s headcount was evidently bloated, the manner in which he fired and alienated so many employees (some of whom he later had to beg to come back) shows rather alarming overconfidence in the new boss. It is manifestly not true that even the most successful tech entrepreneurs are always right. Mark Zuckerberg’s epic overinvestment in his “metaverse” bet is another example that pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

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