Action Snark: The $43 billion cost of a “platform for free speech around the globe”

Billionaire Elon Musk will spend $43 billion to acquire Twitter, the first step in taking the company private, according to multiple media reports released Monday morning.

What this means is in the eye of the beholder.

Business Today’s take, in part:

Musk wants to maintain this “free speech” status for Twitter so that he can, for all practical purposes, continue s%$t posting on the platform without consequences. If he owns the platform, he also does not need to listen to governments’ grievances. For example, what would Musk do if the Indian government demanded (again) that certain tweets be deleted and accounts blocked?

The New Yorker looked at this in a similar way, but with more of an “old boys’ club” vibe:

His acquisition quest appears to be less about increasing the company’s profits—“This is not a way to sort of make money,” he has said—than preserving Twitter’s capacity for chaos as a tool for himself and others to continue influencing their vast audiences without interference. “I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk said, during a TED-conference interview in Vancouver, on April 14th. “Having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.”

The once-and-future-king question for Donald Trump’s return to Twitter was the focal point of this Bloomberg look:

Musk has said he prefers to stay out of politics, but there are good reasons to suspect a Musk-owned Twitter would reactivate President Trump’s account. Beyond saying at TED that he wants to be “very cautious with permanent bans,” Musk applauded the former president two years ago when Trump supported Tesla’s plans to reopen a California car factory during the Covid-19 lockdown. And in a few recent tweets, Musk appears to embrace the right-wing, Fox News-bingeing perspective on various cultural flashpoints. (“The woke mind virus is making Netflix unwatchable,” Musk tweeted last week.)

Time magazine might be rethinking the 2021 Person of the Year award they tossed at the tech billionaire, if this is their take on the problems with this supposed “free speech” move:

But many on the frontlines of the fight for democratic spaces online have questioned whether Musk’s move – if it is indeed serious, and if he can raise the required cash, and if the offer is accepted by the Twitter board – would undermine, rather than bolster, democracy. Employees of the platform and other experts have also spoken publicly about their fears that Musk may try to erode Twitter’s recent moves to protect marginalized users and tackle harassment and misinformation.

Since the explosion of social media usage more than a decade ago, researchers and technologists have forged an understanding of the ways that the design of social media sites has an impact on civic discourse and, ultimately, democratic processes. One of their key findings: sites that privilege free speech above all else tend to result in spaces where civic discourse is drowned out by harassment, restricting participation to a privileged few.

What is lost in all of this, at least for the moment, is the full understanding of what free speech is, how it works and why our traditional checks against some of the worst abuses will be lost in this move.

First, and we’ve only said this 10,242 times on this site, free speech is not the ability to say whatever you want, however you want and without consequence. From at least the U.S. perspective, it’s the ability to express yourself without fear of government interference. Private definitions of “free speech” vary widely based on who is making the definition and how speech is policed, censored or punished. I’m sure if you asked a citizen living under a dictatorial regime right now about free speech, that person would say, “Oh we totally have free speech here. We just have to watch what we say about XYZ.” Thus, the problem with this blanket term.

Second, people feeling like they’re given unfettered speech freedom are unlikely to think before they use it. This reminds me of the documentary I saw on the old “Action Park,” where the owners basically built a bunch of insanely dangerous rides and activities and told people, “You’re in control. Go for it.”

Thus, all sorts of things that Twitter’s guardrails used to prevent will now be unleashed in the name of free speech, leading to a ridiculous number of harmful things that none of us can stop, but most of us can foresee. When someone disagrees with someone else about anything from the political prowess of Joe Biden to the length of the foul lines at Milwaukee’s old County Stadium, we’re going to see the rage machine start to redline the engine. Suddenly, we’re all wondering how six people got stabbed to death in real life because nobody wanted to say, “Look, it was 315 down the line and stop calling that guy a lib-tard.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we have Musk in a position where his wealth overrides the free-speech system as it was intended to operate. In most cases, free speech carries with it responsibilities and consequences: We need to act responsibly in what we say about people, for fear of suffering legal consequences.

Thus, if some kid writes on Twitter that I’m taking money for grades, and this really gains traction and I get in trouble, I can sue that kid. If I prove the kid was negligent in his speech (or in some cases he knowingly lied), I can recoup financial losses and a court can assign punitive financial penalties to that kid. In short, free speech, when done poorly, can cost you.

Now, look at Musk. First, he’s probably got a function argument that he’s protected under Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which tends to hold platforms blameless for user content.

Second, let’s say he screws that up and encourages bad action on the platform, what’s the penalty? If you sue him, he’s got enough money to legally bury in motions and documents you before you get anywhere near a courtroom.

If you manage to survive all that and win, a ridiculously high bar to clear, then what? He buries you in appeals until you go broke. IF you manage to get through all of that and still win an financial award from him, it’s not really a consequence for him.

This guy has what people who report on rich folks call “F— You Money.” It’s the level of wealth that essentially allows you to tell everyone around you “F— you” and not care. He literally had enough money to send himself to space because Earth is so last century… You think he’s going to worry what you’ll do to him if Twitter lead to the end of modern civilization? Gimme a break.

It’ll be interesting to see what all this leads to, much in the same way it’s interesting when you find that you left a Tupperware container full of noodle salad in your backpack in the back of your closet since freshman year. God alone knows what we’re dealing with, but it’s probably not something we’re all going to be thrilled with.


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