Free Speech, Social Media, and Why Mega-Billionaires Don’t Really Care About Your Right to Say What You Want

There’s something more than a little Orwellian about this week’s news that the richest person on earth made a successful bid to acquire one of the most influential social media platforms on earth, and wrapped it all in a desire to “protect free and open speech.”

All I could think was this: When we get to a place in the world where free and open speech suddenly becomes the domain of a mega-billionaire with a craving for the spotlight, an ego the size of Jupiter, and a seeming inability to admit fault, something awfully frightening is afoot.

That billionaire, of course, is Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX founder who at last count was worth in the neighborhood of $270 billion. The social media platform Musk bought is Twitter. He offered $54.20 a share, which translates into around $44 billion. Twitter shareholders accepted the bid. Now Musk is trying to secure $46.5 billion to finance the deal, according to the Washington Post. (The dude is worth $270 billion and he’s trying to secure $46.5 billion? Oh, never mind….).

The deal still needs to be finalized, but that’s just a formality. In a few weeks or so, Musk will own Twitter – lock, stock and barrel. One very wealthy man calling all the shots for one very influential social media platform.

One of the reasons Musk so badly wants to control Twitter is because he doesn’t think the current version is accommodating enough to all viewpoints.

“I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk said during a recent TED interview. “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.”

There are just so many things wrong and/or worrying about that statement.

First off, we already have an “inclusive arena for free speech.” It’s called the “mouth,” and it’s what we use to verbalize thoughts. Free speech, at its fundamental level, means being able to use your mouth to say things without fear of reprisal from the forces of power. That’s the only free speech that really matters – your ability to say what you want, when you want, without being censored or otherwise punished.

The way Musk couches the argument, free speech is the ability to type your thoughts onto a keyboard, in 280 characters or less, and send them to a social media platform called Twitter – the “de facto town square.” This is the path to “speaking freely within the bounds of the law.”

Forgetting, again, that you can already speak freely within the bounds of the law by using your mouth, there’s this: Twitter is not a “town square.” Twitter is a private business with a market capitalization of about $40 billion. It’s not even the biggest social media company, not by a long shot. Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook, has a valuation of about $535 billion. TikTok owner ByteDance is worth an estimated $200 billion to $400 billion, depending on the week.

And therein lies my main concern – this idea that “free and open speech” is somehow imperiled unless people like Elon Musk are put in charge of it. Elon Musk is no doubt a smart and gifted guy. You don’t get to be the world’s richest person otherwise.

But I have about as much faith in his commitment to free speech as I do in the Tooth Fairy. If he wants to advance the cause of free and open speech, he should donate his billions to causes and organizations that actually do defend free and open speech.

When a government body forcibly tamps down public dissent – as we are witnessing in Russia right now with its attempts to squash anti-war protests and censor media outlets that don’t advance its narrative – that is a direct threat to free and open speech.

This kind of thing happens all the time, all over the world – direct censorship of free speech by government entities. Musk should put his money there, fighting that, if he wants to make a genuine difference.

But he won’t, because that’s not his real aim, no matter how much he tries to convince the public that it is. Elon Musk is no guardian of free speech, and neither is Mark Zuckerberg, and neither are any of the other rich people who own or control private social media companies. They are businesspeople, out to earn profits and wield power.

I can’t wait to see how Elon Musk reacts should the Twitterverse ever decide to start lobbing 280-character grenades at him or Tesla, en masse. Won’t that be a nice little test of his commitment to free and open speech?

Twitter and Facebook basically exist to gather data and intel on users worldwide and share it with advertising and business partners. I can’t imagine how much Facebook knows about me in my five years of being a member. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they know my bank account info and Social Security number. Social media platforms are essentially clearinghouses for all kinds of personal data, which they then turn into more money and more power.

They are also major vessels for spreading cultural, social, and political influence – both on the part of the companies themselves, and on the part of users. We now know for a fact that foreign operatives set up fake accounts on social media platforms to influence elections and stir up social disorder. Russia is an expert at it, and I’m guessing China and the U.S. are as well.

Beyond that, public officials use social media all the time, every day, to spread misinformation, weaken the enemy, divide the public, and consolidate their own power. The only reason Twitter exists for some politicians is as a forum to demonize the enemy and advance their own agendas. That is its primary use, and the reason it holds so much power despite having many fewer users than other social media platforms.

Twitter’s real power comes down to this: It provides a public forum for all kinds of bullshit, and that bullshit spreads instantly and corrupts almost as fast.

In the United States, a bunch of angry and ill-informed goons stormed the Capitol Building following the 2020 election with the hope of overturning that election. Many were stirred into a fine froth by a never-ending stream of blatantly dishonest tweets from the BLEEP who lost the election. He kept tweeting over and over that the results were bogus, and the election was stolen.

There was never a shred of credible evidence to back the claim, but that didn’t matter. Once a lie makes it onto Twitter, it takes on a life of its own. The BLEEP was finally banned from Twitter for spreading misinformation.

Now that Elon Musk is in control, there has been talk that the BLEEP will get his Twitter account back. We’ll see what happens.

If you ask me, that’s Twitter’s real allure for Musk: the ability to control the puppet strings as he sees fit, to play kingmaker, to put himself at the center of power in a way he never could selling electric cars or flying off to Mars.

Forty years ago, he might have bought a newspaper syndicate, or a TV network, or a movie studio. In 2022, he’s buying Twitter.

Forgive me if I’m not suddenly comforted by his concern for my free and open speech.

*Image from PngFind

4 Comments

  1. And then there are those who live in the real world and don’t actually consider social media as real. I’m talking, particularly, of the elderly generation (which you may or may not fall into 😉

    And I wish I could also be in that mindspace – where the world is what you can see and feel and touch, and this endless virtual soap opera of social media is just a minor element of existence. But that’s my yearning for the simplicity of a long-gone age, when life was simple…simple, to me, because I was a child.

    I’m grateful my children are not yet exposed to social media much. And I hope they are developing a strong enough foundation to know that the real world is far more important than much of the fluff that is online.

    But in the end, they will likely enter those spaces. And hopefully, by then, they’ll be far better equipped to deal with the deception and manipulation that is the ugly side of that world. (I say “side”, because it’s a two-sided coin…good and bad…but the negative seems to be more pervasive nowadays.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the input, Yacoob. You make a good (and brutally honest :)) point: I am old enough that social media is something I and people my age lived without for many decades, so it’s still the new tech kid on the block for us, stumbling around and trying to learn how to walk. But for those born after 1995 or so, it’s just a part of the landscape, something they’ve never really been without.

      So really, it’s a fact of life and we all must accept it. But there can be a much better model than what we have to today, in which social media is still the Wild West full of lies, abuse, bullying and toxicity. I have little faith in people like Elon Musk to improve the model, and since too many people have bad intentions, it will be up to public entities to improve it. Some countries have the right idea by adopting zero tolerance for social media lies, attacks and abuse, and holding both the users and platforms responsible when the rules are breached. To me that’s how to ensure social media can be a force for good instead of bad, because as you say, it can be a force for good.

      Anyway, thanks as always for your comments (and for taking time out of your busy blogging schedule). You have been one busy dude with your Ramadan series. I haven’t been able to read all of the posts but I’ve enjoyed your insights on the ones I have read, even though I know next to nothing about the subject matter (which I suppose is part of the point of you putting it up there). Thanks again!

      Like

      1. Thanks Vance. I actually scheduled all the posts before the month, so have only posted a few newly-written bits over the last couple of weeks.

        What concerns me regarding those laws (and I think my country is one where the wrong kind of interaction is legally punished) is whether they are applied equally for all. Enforcement is always an issue, and favouritism and corruption so easily pollute what started as a good idea. I know here at least, not many trust our government with this kind of thing. Aside from the corruption element, there’s also incompetence higher up…so this can only really work when the right people, with the right morals, are implementing it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, I had wondered whether you were cranking those out daily. You have enough material there for a book, which could be in the offing?

    I agree that having the government in charge is not the perfect system and it really depends on the government implementing it. But so far what I’ve seen is that social media has erred on the side of being too tolerant of the toxic elements. I hate to be a cynic, but humans have proven throughout history that we are incapable of effectively policing ourselves. Maybe 90% can do that, but it’s the other 10% we have to worry about, which is why the world is full of murder, theft, corruption, and war, and why we have instituted governments to control the bad elements.

    In functioning democracies, where leaders are chosen by the populace in free and open elections, presumably there can be some kind of reasonable consensus on how to regulate social media. Anyway, we shall see….

    Like

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