Zuo: Twitter’s Free Speech Problem

Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter could lead to a massive boom in misinformation.

by Andrew Zuo | 5/17/22 4:00am

Tesla CEO and outspoken Twitter user Elon Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of Twitter has become one of the most talked-about acquisitions in recent memory. It is not just the hefty price tag, but also the promise of radical change to a platform that hosts hundreds of millions of daily users that had people furiously mashing 280-character takes into their phones. In a statement made shortly after the deal was completed, Musk unveiled the new direction of the company: One that would focus on “free speech… the bedrock of a functioning democracy” and transform the platform into a “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” Musk’s vision of Twitter is misguided, however, and rather than a haven for free speech, his reforms could turn Twitter into a world of increasing misinformation and polarization. 

Twitter’s user base is relatively small; its 229 million daily users pale in comparison to the billions of daily users that frequent giants like Facebook and Instagram. However, in the spread of information, Twitter occupies a unique niche as a social media platform reliant on short, snappy, attention-grabbing headlines and real-time dialogue. The high turnover and the short word limit for tweets make for a social media platform that thrives on the surprising, extreme and unusual.

Far from solving the issues Twitter currently faces with misinformation, Musk’s vision for the platform would actively exacerbate the problem. Musk is reportedly seeking to restore “freedom” to the platform, which could greatly increase the proliferation of the inflammatory rhetoric that already plagues the platform. Just last week, Musk announced he would reverse Twitter’s ban on former President Donald Trump, which some have argued would undo efforts to hammer misinformation. In comparing the social media platform to a “digital town square,” Musk seems to make the comparison between free speech on the internet and free speech as regulated by the government. On the latter, the Constitution is relatively lenient; free speech as outlined in the First Amendment protects hate speech and false information  as long as there is no intended and imminent harm. When it comes to privately owned companies like Twitter, however, there is no such requirement of free speech protection. Instead, social media companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook have traditionally adopted stricter interpretations of free speech on their platforms, in part as an effort to combat the misinformation and hateful speech that spreads like wildfire on the internet. At odds with the elite of the digital age, Musk’s vision seems to pull Twitter away from the consensus and into a new realm of free speech that allows for political subversions. 

Of the reforms Musk promises to bring to the platform, perhaps the most important is his vision for new revenue and content moderation strategies. Twitter currently relies on advertisements as its main revenue stream, meaning that it has a duty to create a social media ecosystem that is palatable to potential advertisers. Musk is proposing a subscription-based revenue model, one that would rely on consumers of the social media platform paying for a “premium membership.” This shift in revenue would allow Musk greater freedom in relaxing content moderation policies, no longer concerned about its effect on ad revenue. This move, along with the others Musk may make in order to increase free speech on the platform, will have disastrous repercussions for misinformation on the platform. Imbued with newfound power, there is no doubt that there will be greater hoards of trolls and fake news sources, flooding the market with new sources of lies and hate. 

What is so troubling about this future dystopia of digital free speech? The danger lies in the incredible power that social media holds to affect social attitudes, political ideology and information dissemination. Often, this power is a good thing. The ubiquity of the Internet has greatly decreased barriers to information and knowledge. It has allowed the average American to have a say in politics through the voice given to them by social media. Finally, social media offers a platform for social movements to start and spread. However, in today’s age, it is just as likely to be used as an agent of evil. It is on social media that former President Trump was able to whip his followers into a frenzy before storming the Capitol. It is social media that now serves as a source of extremism and violence, a haven for hate speech used by mass murderers like those who have turned their hate speech into real violence in mosques, synagogues and schools. And it is on social media that countless lives have been lost to the widespread dissemination of COVID-19 misinformation espoused by anti-vaxxers and COVID deniers alike. 

Misinformation and hate are harmful in the immediate; lies are dangerous and hate hurts. However, it is also harmful in the long run. Misinformation is a leading cause of political polarization due to its ability to sow controversy and exacerbate gaps between political parties. Thus, by giving fake news outlets free reign on the platform, Musk is inviting the political divisiveness that has led to violence across the aisle, stagnation in Congress and a political climate that is more hostile than it has ever been. 

There is no doubt that the effects of social media spill out of the screen into the real world, and there is no doubt that the wild nature of social media has enabled the violence and anger that have become ubiquitous around the world. While the answer is not to crack down on free speech across some of the largest social media platforms, it is certainly not to embrace the rosy view of free speech that Musk envisions for his newly acquired company. With widely loosened restrictions on tweeting comes a world of greater misinformation, political and cultural illiteracy and social media trolls — and if Musk has his way with the company, Twitter will be the epicenter for all of this.