Musk takes Twitter amid a media firestorm and the changing meanings of free speech

The Twitter board officially approves the sale to the world’s richest man, and the media responds by arguing openly for censorship, turning recently held positions regarding free speech upside down, claiming free speech is racist, and pretending there is transparency in the current social media content moderation regime.

Sometimes, you think the media simply has to be lying, propping up strawmen they know don’t really exist or even outright making stuff up.  Others, you wonder if they are just plain delusional, unable to come to grips with anything resembling the real world, stuck in some fantasy land of their own making where the rules of reality don’t apply.  Rarely, it’s a combination of both at once. The news that billionaire Elon Musk might well be Twitter’s new owner by the end of the year, after the board approved the sale in principle earlier this week, is definitely one of those times.  It’s no secret that the media and much of the chattering classes was adamantly opposed to the purchase, arguing that Mr. Musk was unfit to head the social media platform based on his at times erratic behavior, fears about what free speech might mean on this scale, and the power he might wield from this new perch.  These are all fair topics for debate.  We should not assume the richest man in the world will spend close to $50 billion out of the goodness of his heart, or that he has all the answers.  Free speech means free debate, an airing of all positions in the public sphere, and everyone has a right to their opinion.

Some opinions are so obtuse, misguided, and outright farcical, however, that one has to wonder if they are indeed given in good faith or just plain made up in an attempt to score some odd political or other point, and so there was Brian Stelter of CNN carrying on about the potential dangers of a completely open platform, as if Mr. Musk was planning the social media version of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.  In a downright laughable exchange, he soberly informed a panel discussion on the topic, “That’s an example of a broader question for Twitter, which is, if you get invited to something where there are no rules, where there is total freedom for everybody, do you actually want to go to that party or are you going to decide to stay home?  That’s a question for Twitter users.  Some Twitter users might love the idea that there’s going to be absolutely no moderation and no rules at all.  Others might want to be nowhere near that.  Am I crazy Matt?”  He asked his colleague, Matt Egan.  “No, no, your right, and what happens to the advertising, I mean if there is no moderation or little moderation do the advertisers stay away, what does that do to the business prospects for Twitter itself,” Mr. Egan replied with no hint of sarcasm or apparent awareness of the world around him.   Back on planet Earth, however, literally no one, not Mr. Musk, nor any conservative commentator that I’m aware of, is recommending a platform completely without rules, nor does “free speech,” “free expression,” or any of the terms commonly used to describe our preferred social media state imply anything of the sort.

It has been established for over a century that the first amendment right isn’t absolute, ever since  Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made the famous analogy, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”  Everyone understands that you cannot log onto Twitter and inform your followers that you’ve just planted a bomb outside the White House or are moving ahead with your plan to assassinate the President with no repercussions.  Likewise, there are laws that prevent threatening speech, incitement, harassment, revenge porn, and other types of speech that we as a society, through our elected lawmakers, have deemed unacceptable.  There is no fair minded person who is arguing that social media companies don’t have a right or even an obligation to remove unlawful speech.  On the contrary, we are referring to freedom of a very particular kind of speech that enjoys the strongest protection under the First Amendment:  Political speech.  The right to state your opinion on an issue without fear of censorship even if you are misinformed or downright wrong.

We endorse this principle for two reasons.  First, no one has direct access to the truth, what is labeled misinformation one day, can become conventional wisdom the next.  We’ve seen this time and again throughout the pandemic, from claims the virus arose in a lab that were dismissed as conspiracy theories to the belief that the vaccine can stop the spread.  We’ve also seen it over the same period on political topics like the Hunter Biden laptop story, which was suppressed by Facebook as misinformation pending verification and Twitter as hacked information, neither of which turned out to be remotely true.  This is not to pick on the fact checkers or their social media masters, whether or not I personally believe they have a progressive bias.  It’s simply a reality that many, many topics are a matter of opinion and speculation rather than provable truths, and therefore they are impossible to fact check at the time, even if we assume those performing the service have the possible best intentions and their only goal is to determine the veracity of any given statement.

Second, we believe that free speech is self correcting.  The answer to our problems is more speech, not less.  We are well aware that a lie travels around the world before the truth has its boots on to borrow from Winston Churchill, but ultimately we believe the truth prevails through continuous dialogue.  Putting this another way, the suppression of speech leads to more disinformation rather than less. Critics of Elon Musk, like former Labor Secretary to President Bill Clinton, Robert Reich believe that misinformation is a classic tool of demagogues and dictators, and thus control over content is an imperative to protect the people from political or cultural manipulation.  Recently, he wrote, “The Russian people know little about Putin’s war on Ukraine because Putin has blocked their access to the truth, substituting propaganda and lies.”  There is no doubt this is true.  Controlling the flow of information has long been a primary tool of the autocrat.  What the people don’t know is less likely to threaten their power, and hence history must be rewritten by those in power, an idea popular since Plato in Ancient Greece

Mr. Reich’s ultimate conclusion, however, is precisely backward.  He writes that a free internet would be dangerous because, “In reality, that world would be dominated by the richest and most powerful people in the world, who wouldn’t be accountable to anyone for facts, truth, science or the common good.  That’s Musk’s dream. And Trump’s. And Putin’s. And the dream of every dictator, strongman, demagogue and modern-day robber baron on Earth. For the rest of us, it would be a brave new nightmare.” But how can anyone hope to counter President Putin’s misinformation if they are prevented from speaking up and sharing what they perceive as the truth?   If the Russian equivalent of Twitter permitted open debate, Putin’s critics would be able to speak their mind right then and there, countering his lies.  Likewise, progressives love to bemoan former President Trump’s use of Twitter, claiming he spread lies on the platform to further his nefarious goals, but they neglect to tell you that those perceived lies can and would be debated by liberals on that same platform.  Content moderation and suppression, however, only work one way by definition:  The autocrat or company or whoever suppresses speech is in charge, and you have no means to counter it.  What Mr. Reich is really calling for is a world where people who think like him control the content, for much the same reasons as the autocrats he decries.

Ironically, the often cited analogy by Justice Holmes was actually made in a case where the government restricted free speech and ultimately jailed a member of the Socialist Party of America.  The case in question was US vs Schenk, and the question before the court was whether Charles Schenk, the Socialist Party of America’s Secretary, could be convicted for distributing a pamphlet opposing the draft during World War I.  Justice Holmes was asserting that there are limits on free speech in order to ultimately punish political speech.  The Court determined that the pamphlet caused a “clear and present danger” under the Espionage Act and Mr. Schenk ended up in prison.  They reached two similar decisions that same year, arguing that government control and security was more important than free speech protections.  It wasn’t until 1969 that the Supreme Court changed direction in Brandenberg v. Ohio.  In that decision, they protected the inflammatory speech of even the KKK, claiming speech in general must be permitted unless it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”  That remains the current standard and, once upon time, even left leaning publications like The Atlantic argued in favor of more speech, not less.  In 2012, they wrote, “In the last few years, the quote has reared its head on countless occasions. In September, commentators pointed to it when questioning whether the controversial anti-Muslim video should be censored. Before that, it was invoked when a crazy pastor threatened to burn Qurans. Before that, the analogy was twisted to call for charges against WikiLeaks for publishing classified information. The list goes on.”  At the time, the author, Trevor Timm, concluded with another way to phrase my own argument here, “The truth prevailed, not through forcing censorship or jailing a person for speaking, but through the overwhelming counterbalance of more speech.”

Ten years later, however, progressives are making the opposite argument, but perhaps that pales in comparison to some of the delusions on display.  MSNBC takes the lead in this regard.  Political analyst Anand Giridharadas recently argued that Mr. Musk’s free speech is racist.  “Elon Musk lives in a world in which the only kind of free speech is white men feeling free to say whatever the hell they want. He doesn’t understand what a lot of those folks don’t understand is speech is actually freer when everybody not only has the opportunity have an account and able to afford a phone to be able to tweet but can feel safe,” he said.  His colleague Ari Melber is likewise worried that Mr. Musk “doesn’t have to be transparent.  You could secretly ban one party’s candidate or all of its candidates, all of its nominees, or you could secretly turn down the reach of their stuff and turn up the reach of something else and the rest of us might not even find out about until after the election.”  What precisely does Mr. Melber think is happening right now?  This is the status quo. Twitter, Facebook, and Google engineer their algorithms and deploy their “fact checkers” as they see fit.  They are not transparent about their decisions, and have been caught lying about them at times.  In some cases, it’s hard to determine precisely what they do, or why, nor do you have any right to appeal in a meaningful way, you have no recourse to take them to court, and you do not even have access to why the algorithm ultimately did what he did.  The only difference is that Mr. Melber is comfortable with it because he believes the people doing the turning up and down agree with him, just like Mr. Reich.  Sadly, this is their argument in a nutshell:  Mr. Musk is bad because he might permit speech we disagree with.  That’s the crux of their concern in its entirety.

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