The wealthiest man in the world has offered US$43 billion for Twitter, and it isn’t going over well. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has said that he wants to turn the social-media platform into a private company and an “inclusive arena for free speech.” At the TED conference in Vancouver last Thursday, Musk elaborated that “Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have … both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.” For all this, he’s incurred a massive backlash over the past week—not just from Twitter’s corporate board, which is working to prevent his takeover, but from many of America’s establishment journalists and progressive media voices. The Washington Post editorial board warned that Musk might backtrack on Twitter’s efforts to counter misinformation and harassment. Axios’ Felix Salmon claimed that Musk “used to be compared to Marvel’s Iron Man” and is now “increasingly behaving like a movie supervillain.” Jeff Jarvis, a prominent journalism professor at the City University of New York, even described the atmosphere on Twitter, on the day Musk spoke at TED, as being “like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany”—an analogy similar to one common on Twitter when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency in 2016. What’s at stake here?
Gilad Edelman is a senior writer for Wired, who covers technology, politics, and the law. Edelman sees Musk’s bid as drawing him further into an era-defining argument over how to balance free speech with responsible regulation of content online, now that social media has transformed political discourse in the U.S. and around the world. Conservatives who believe Twitter is censorious and biased against them will view Musk’s statements about free speech more favorably, while progressives who see content moderation as crucial to stopping the spread of harmful speech will be warier. Yet as Edelman sees it, the debate about Musk and his bid point to a more complicated reality: Twitter’s power to shape American democracy, which so many U.S. journalists and media figures worry about, comes largely from their own presence and influence on the site.
Graham Vyse: Musk is offering to buy Twitter for $43 billion—a lot of money, even for Elon Musk. How can we understand his motives?
Gilad Edelman: I want to be careful with that. When you look at his public behavior, it’s hard to distinguish between what’s serious and what’s trolling or otherwise seeking attention. He talks a lot about the importance of free speech on Twitter, and he’s suggested that the platform’s content-moderation policies are overly restrictive and unfairly applied. While he doesn’t talk about this in partisan terms, his complaints sound a lot like the complaints that conservatives make—about Twitter being biased against them in the application of its rules. We don’t have much specific information about how Musk thinks those rules and their application ought to change, but in an interview last week at the TED conference he said social-media platforms have to follow the law. He seemed to be saying that, if Twitter were under his control, the platform would allow everything that’s legal.
That’s not a serious position to take, because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows things like overtly racist speech, graphic pornography, and advocacy of violence—as long as it’s not an incitement to violence. These things are all perfectly legal, but the vast majority of people don’t want to see them on a social-media platform. Most people aren’t saying, “Why aren’t I allowed to call for genocide against the Jews on YouTube?” Simply allowing everything that’s legal to exist on Twitter isn’t just a silly perspective on free speech online; it would also be a terrible business strategy. If that’s what Musk is advocating, then, perhaps ironically, it could give Twitter some grounds for rejecting his bid, because it could make the company less valuable.
Vyse: What do Twitter’s current content-moderation policies look like, and how sustainable are they?