Elon Musk is the richest person in America and perhaps the richest person in the world, depending upon how Vladimir Putin’s personal wealth is measured. Mr. Musk now plans to buy the American social media platform Twitter and to make it into his own private operation, giving up its status as a publicly traded company. His stated goal is to increase free speech by eliminating the regulation and transparency that currently governs Twitter.
He has offered more than 43 billion USD (about 40 billion in Euros). To put it into perspective, that’s more than two-and-a-half times the amount of money that all Western nations and organizations combined have provided so far to Ukraine in both military and humanitarian aid. So he’s planning to spend a lot, but he’ll still have a couple of hundred billion left and he’ll own Twitter.
Mr. Musk explained his offer a few days after he made it. At the TED 2022 conference he said:“I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy…I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.”
His definition of free speech is straightforward: “A good sign as to whether there’s free speech is: Is someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like? And if that is the case, then we have free speech.”
Free speech shouldn’t be overly simplified.
Is it really that simple? No. Another crucial part of the equation is who owns and controls the media used for widely disseminated speech, including social media platforms that have become central to modern communication.
Mr. Musk’s ownership of Twitter would be another step in the long history of rich white guys owning key media outlets in America, such as the Hearst family and Rupert Murdoch, not to mention Jeff Bezos who owns the Washington Post, the primary newspaper of the nation’s capital. But being a long tradition doesn’t make it good or right. Besides, Twitter isn’t just another newspaper or television station.
Twitter is not simple.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama spoke about it a few days after the bid for Twitter. He pointed out that “for more and more of us…social media serves as our primary source of news and information” and “that’s made democracy more complicated” than it used to be when Americans “across the political spectrum tended to operate using a shared set of facts – what they saw or what they heard from Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley” on American television (I guess ol’ Obama just forgot to mention my friend, the famous Finnish tv journalist who would sign off by saying “Täällä Aarne Tanninen, Washington”).
Life is more complex now than American or Finnish tv news was back then. So President Obama cautions that more regulation and more requirements for transparency, not less, are necessary to combat the spread of disinformation via social media platforms like Twitter. Elon Musk, on the other hand, wants to rid himself and other Twitter users of such controls and let everyone on Twitter decide for themselves what truth may be found there, if any.
Modern technology has outpaced its users’ abilities.
To put this debate into the context of everyday American life, it’s helpful to look at a Stanford University education study. A national sample of high school students surveyed in 2019 found that over half of them believed that a grainy video claiming to show ballot box stuffing in the 2016 Democratic party primaries was “strong evidence” of voter fraud in the United States. In reality, the video was a film of voter fraud in Russia. The vast majority of those students were also unable to tell the difference between news stories and ads despite the ads being labeled as sponsored content.
Stanford Professor Sam Wineburg summed up the troubling implications of his study when he wrote, “Education moves slowly. Technology doesn’t.”
This harsh reality can’t be ignored when considering modern technology like Twitter. Twitter (and, to be fair, other online communities) have become places where technology enables lies to be widely broadcast and then re-sent by those who are either unable to tell the difference between fact and fiction or others who knowingly lie to exploit those circumstances.
That’s been a disastrous challenge in the USA for public health because of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines and for American democracy because of outrageously false information about politicians, policies and the U.S. government.
Laws about telling the truth in America have not kept up.
American courts haven’t been helpful. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that many false statements are protected free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. For example, in 2012 the Court refused to uphold a law that made it a crime to lie about having received military medals.
Someone having gotten a medal or not isn’t exactly a matter of opinion, but the Court apparently wanted that clear fact to be sorted out by “the marketplace of ideas” instead. Perhaps the Court wants to leave everything open to debate and discussion, and never require the use of verifiable objective reality anywhere.
No wonder, then, that American conservatives have been delighted by the prospect of social media such as Twitter becoming less controlled and more uncontrollable. They believe that Elon Musk will welcome former President Donald Trump back to Twitter and increase the expression of unsupported right-wing misrepresentations in general, without the controls imposed upon Twitter users after the 2020 election and the January 6th insurrection to limit the spread of more lies and the encouragement of more violence. They look forward to the courts supporting them.
However, those same champions of so-called free speech simultaneously cheer for recent Florida legislation that prohibits talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms. They also support ever-increasing bans of books and continue to insist that the records about the events of January 6th at the U.S. Capitol should remain secret so that no one can talk about them freely.
The end result is that seemingly simple “free speech” in America is not simple or free at all. It’s more complicated, and it’s complicated in ways that some Americans won’t speak about freely, because that would then be some kind of undesirably free speech. So it’s really complicated!
In 1978, Yale University Chaplain William Sloane Coffin said in his remarks to my graduating class, “Sometimes the reason something is complicated is because it’s wrong.” That’s true here. The complex results of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter can’t be hidden behind overly simplified explanations. Rationality about free speech, through reasonable regulations, are right for all Twitter users. Allowing Mr. Musk to buy his way out of them is wrong.
Tom A. Lippo is a Finnish-speaking American lawyer. Educated at Yale, the University of Jyväskylä and Stanford Law School, he is the founder of FACT LAW, an international law firm established in 1985. FACT is the first law firm with offices in both Finland and the United States. Tom has been a lawyer in Washington, DC based on Capitol Hill for nearly 40 years.