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.