Can Elon Musk save free speech online?


There is a power structure in this country – a tangle of private capital, management interests and government authority – that has become adept at repelling challengers.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is pictured attending the start of production at Tesla’s ‘Gigafactory’ in Gruenheide, southeast of Berlin, March 22, 2022. (Photo by Patrick Pleul/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Elon Musk, the richest man in the world and the most interesting CEO, wants to save democracy. And he puts his money where his mouth is. A state securities filing on Monday revealed that Musk has acquired a 9% stake in Twitter, making the Tesla CEO the largest single shareholder in the social media giant. The move followed several tweets over the past few months in which Musk indicated he was unhappy with the state of free speech on the platform.

Last, He tweeted a poll In it, he suggested that “freedom of speech is essential to a functioning democracy,” and asked his 80 million followers if they “believe Twitter rigorously upholds that principle.” Seventy percent of respondents voted no. Add in Musk’s general tendency to oppose various liberal orthodoxies, and it’s no wonder some free speech advocates cheer.

But conservatives and others faced with big-tech censorship might hold the hosannas. After all, belief in the genius or benevolence of market players like Musk got us here in the first place. Twitter censorship is ultimately a structural and politically problem, and such problems require political solutions.

Now I should start admitting that I’ve underestimated Musk in the past. About four years ago I wrote a column for comment under a self-composed headline, “Crazy Rich Charlatans,” which I actually thought was very clever at the time. In it, I took the opportunity when Musk smoked a joint with Joe Rogan to suggest that his success was almost entirely due to his ability to play with the American business-class psychic longing for an eccentric visionary type – one who Financially and technologically committed to solving climate change, nothing less.

That was around the time of Musk’s unfortunate boasts about taking Tesla private, which had sent shares plummeting (only to rebound spectacularly in the years to come). “Musk,” I wrote at the time, “embodied the ideological thesis that no modern problem escapes resolution by noble-minded technocratic elites. As it turns out, the market was just as prone to magical thinking as all of us.”

That was wrong. Obviously, I’m no business guru, and not infrequently Musk is a reader of The American Conservative, I apologize to him. He’s clearly not a charlatan.

However, it doesn’t take a keen sense of “chasing alpha” to determine whether Musk can save online free speech and democracy simply by carving out the right positions in his astronomically large stock portfolio. Of course, one wishes that were true, and having a die-hard critic of Twitter’s censorship practices has a prominent seat at the Twitter table is certainly better than not. But a sober analysis gives skeptics like independent journalist Glenn Greenwald the better argument, who tweeted: “The news control that Twitter is now ensuring is too important for DC energy centers to let go of without much struggle. I doubt even Elon Musk could just turn it back into a free speech platform without a big war.”

Actually Twitter and Facebook started as “free speech platforms”. Before Musk, there were Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, men with even larger stakes in their respective companies, who advocated using technology to shatter the old gatekeepers of public discourse. That was in the heady early days of these social media platforms, when all but a few cynics (like the prophetic leftist writer Evgeny Morozov) were hailing the technology’s “liberating” potential. Social media, we were told, would empower activists and “citizen journalists” around the world, overturning autocratic regimes and holding stationary institutions in democratic societies to account.

Somehow we ended up with today’s platforms, with their regular purges of false thinkers (including a US President), their obnoxious and ideologized “fact-checking” mechanisms, and their misuse of the threat of misinformation to silence newsbreakers and whistleblowers. Last but not least the New York Postthe country’s oldest daily newspaper, whose content has been banned and its Twitter account suspended for reporting what the respected press now unanimously confirms to be true: Hunter Biden traded his paternal connections to enrich his family.

So what happened? The answer is not complicated. There is a power structure in this country – a tangle of private capital, management interests and governance – and this power structure has become extremely adept at repelling potential challengers.

A free speech defending owner here or there will not change this structural dynamic; Media, including social media, will always reflect the social and political balance of power. We should, of course, wish Musk well. But starting with enforcing this nation’s venerable antitrust laws and reforming the legal architecture that allows big tech firms to operate as censoring publishers without the liability of a traditional publisher, the safer route to free speech online is through power politics, not power politics about stocks. market positions.

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