Elon Musk Won’t Protect Free Speech Online

Instead of counting on an allegedly benevolent billionaire like Elon Musk to guard free speech online by buying companies like Twitter, we should just take our digital public square out of rich people’s hands and into public ownership.

Billionaire Elon Musk reached a deal on Monday to buy Twitter for $44 billion. (Patrick Pleul / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

What’s the state of online free speech after Twitter’s decision to sell itself to billionaire Elon Musk, who has promised to restore stronger free speech norms on the platform? Many centrist commentators seem alarmed at the thought that ordinary, working-class people will be too free to express themselves as they please and access a broad range of points of view so they can make up their own minds about what’s right and what’s wrong.

I have the opposite concerns. I worry that we won’t be able to count on Musk to stick to his stated principles when they come into conflict with his profits. More importantly, it’s absurd that we live in the kind of capitalist hellscape where the only hope for reasonable norms protecting free speech online is that we get lucky and the right kind of billionaire purchases our digital public square. It’s as if we lived in a kind of libertarian dystopia where every inch of every city was private property, and we could only hold protest marches on sidewalks that happened to have been bought by billionaires who were personally friendly to free speech.

Should Trump Be Allowed to Tweet?

Let’s start with the concerns of those who think there’s going to be too much free speech rather than too little on a Musk-run Twitter. One particular case that seems to worry some liberals and leftists is that Musk might restore Donald Trump’s personal Twitter account and that this will help him win the 2024 election.

This concern is misguided on both pragmatic and principled levels. As a matter of immediate practicality, my Jacobin colleague Branko Marcetic has convincingly argued that cable television was a vastly larger factor in Trump’s 2016 victory than social media. Nor has his Twitter ban paid off in terms of declining popularity for the demagogue. Most recent polls show that, well over a year after Trump lost his account, he’s on track to either beat Joe Biden in the 2024 election or at best lose by a smaller margin than he lost by in 2020, when he was tweeting every day.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this analysis is wrong and Trump’s Twitter account really would be a major short-term advantage for him. Even on pragmatic grounds, this shouldn’t be enough for us to line up behind the corporate censors. Strategically, left-wing support for the Trump ban — and for a stricter regime of “content moderation” in general — is shortsighted.

Like other social media platforms, Twitter has every profit incentive to oppose the Left’s agenda. Whichever billionaire happens to be running the show at any given time won’t want any of their wealth to be redistributed or any of their power to be taken away. And they have every reason to want to stay on the good side of the federal government.

To tweak a question I’ve asked elsewhere, if Twitter had existed in 2002, who do you think would have been more likely to be banned for spreading “disinformation”: users who agreed with the president and the New York Times that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or users who suspected that Bush administration officials were conspiring to lie to the public?

If the Left ever captured the American presidency, the new president would be immediately facing a prolonged and vicious battle against the entirety of the media, corporate America in general, the defense and intelligence “communities,” and the establishments of both major parties. Democratic socialists should be extremely uncomfortable with the idea that a sitting president can have lines of communication with the general public cut over vague charges of incitement.

Here’s the scenario I posed at the time: Imagine a general strike encouraged by a future president Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She speaks to a massive rally of strikers and gives a speech as rabble-rousing (and as vague) as the one Trump gave on January 6. Cops fight with strikers — a regular occurrence throughout the history of organized labor — and AOC is accused of incitement. Wouldn’t you hope that whatever the rules were for adjudicating this complaint were transparent, included plenty of due process, and erred on the side of protecting free speech?

Why Free Speech Is an Important Socialist Value

As a question of principle, the case for socialists supporting broad free speech protections is even more straightforward than the tactical and strategic case. Unlike libertarians, who believe that only the kind of “coercion” that emanates from government can limit freedom, and any content moderation decision made by a private company falls into the category Robert Nozick called “capitalistic acts between consenting adults,” we understand that private property can itself be an important source of unfreedom. That’s why, for example, we fight for broader free speech protections at the workplace, where most adults have to spend half their waking hours most days of the week.

And unlike centrist liberals, who think that “social justice” is a matter of the best and brightest members of every group rising to the top and coming up with technocratic solutions to social problems, the heart and soul of our politics is about empowering ordinary, working-class people to govern themselves. That means trusting them to hear every point of view and make up their own minds.

That doesn’t mean Twitter has to be a free-for-all of doxing, harassment, and child porn. But there’s a massive space in between that and its current level of censoriousness, and we should support speech norms on Twitter and every other platform that tends to err of the side of free speech. The question we’re confronted with now is whether we trust Elon Musk to navigate to that space — and whether we should have to count on an allegedly benevolent oligarch to make such decisions.

Can Elon Be Counted on to Keep His Word?

It’s very easy to support the free speech of people you basically agree with, or whose views you at least think aren’t all that bad. I’m not worried about the free speech of market-loving, libertarian Bitcoin enthusiasts, for example, under Elon’s stewardship of Twitter. I’m not even worried about the free speech of deranged right-wing conspiracy theorists with whom Elon might personally disagree. Letting back banned QAnon accounts, or former president Trump himself, would be very on-brand.

I’ll be a lot more interested to see if, for example, he restores several “Antifa” accounts, with a combined total of seventy-one thousand followers, that were banned early last year. Were they really inciting violence in a more direct and unambiguous way than Donald Trump? I’ll similarly be interested to see if he’ll hold strong on free speech if he realizes that his economic interests will be served by making it harder for Tesla union organizers, or whistleblowers calling attention to allegations of shockingly racist practices at the company, to get their message out.

Of course, all this is speculative. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that I’m wrong to suspect that Musk might not act on his stated principles. The deeper question is whether we should have to pin our hopes on a single wealthy individual doing the right thing.

It would be far better if we simply took our digital public square into public ownership so that, like literal public squares, broadly applicable free speech laws apply there.

That doesn’t mean there would be no rules. Just as you might be kicked out of a city council meeting for trying to use the public comments section to scream racial slurs at other members of the public or read off their phone numbers and home addresses, a publicly owned Twitter could probably fend off any First Amendment challenges to reasonable rules against harassment, doxing, unambiguous incitement of violence, and so on.

I don’t deny that there would continue to be room for reasonable people to disagree over exactly how strict such rules should be. Nor is there any guarantee that the right balance would always be struck. I would be infinitely more comfortable with such decisions being made in the public sector, where they can be subject to democratic debate and deliberation, than I am with just placing our faith in the whims of one deeply unimpressive oligarch. Free speech matters far too much to be entrusted to such people.