The richest man in the world is Elon Musk, and he values the freedom of expression so much that he purchased Twitter for $44 billion to take the company private and create a more robust arena for free speech.
“I just think it’s important to the function of democracy,” Musk said during an interview at TED 2022 as reported by Business Insider. “It’s important to the function of the United States as a free country, and many other countries.”
Twitter isn’t the most widely used social media platform out there since only about a quarter of Americans report using it, according to results from a Pew Research Center survey.
However, the platform is quite influential because, as another Pew study pointed out, a majority of tweets focus on politics, which allows the platform to heavily influence political discourse within the United States. This is because Twitter plays host to people who play important roles in those discussions, such as celebrities, journalists and politicians.
People from across the political spectrum have been sharing their views about Musk’s purchase, some happy and some upset, because of what they think will happen to the social media platform.
No one knows for sure what Twitter will look like under its new leadership. Even experts are divided.
I am concerned about the possibility of misinformation becoming more pervasive, and I worry about the ramifications of billionaires and corporations owning media outlets and platforms due to the potential for personal and political interests of these owners to hobble the important democratic function of journalism.
Still, I haven’t made up my mind about what will happen to Twitter.
That’s because I’m focused on this discussion of free speech because it highlights many misconceptions about how free speech is defined in terms of who grants it, what can be said, and what responsibilities and consequences it entails.
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said in a press release after his acquisition of the company.
He’s right. Free speech is crucial for democracy, and Americans enjoy the right to free speech thanks to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Not because of a social media platform.
Of course, even the First Amendment is not all-inclusive.
It exists to prevent the government from interfering with forms of expression, but there are exceptions, like “fighting words” that are likely to incite immediate lawless action, obscenity, and libel and slander, among others. This is why there is no such thing as absolute free speech.
Regardless of the exceptions, the fact remains that free speech is only protected as it concerns government interference. Musk and Twitter can’t change that.
Under his leadership, the platform might be able to spur more speech, which is viewed as the solution to speech we don’t like, but what free speech looks like on Twitter will be determined by Musk.
If users start attacking him or using abusive speech that most would consider hate speech despite the lack of any legal definition of the term, he could redefine free speech for the platform in a way that better serves his interests at any given time.
And let’s not forget that Twitter operates in other parts of the world too, subjecting the platform to the laws and regulations of those countries. That means his aspirations of creating a virtual public square are likely to be unachievable.
Still, what Musk claims to desire is noble. After all, Twitter does exist within the public sphere, as envisioned by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. The public sphere serves as an environment where public discussions about matters of public interest could take place, creating a framework for public opinion to be formed.
That’s important for society, and that should be the focus of everyone as this Twitter saga unfolds.
So don’t get distracted by the grand claims from Musk. Instead, pay attention to the actions and the reality of the situation.
Social media companies can create and change their rules however and whenever they want because they are not governmental bodies. We don’t have the right to use their platforms. They let us, usually at the cost of our personal information and data.
Be informed, and don’t put too much stock in what a billionaire says, even if the price per share is a premium of $54.20.
Todd Vogts is a native of Canton, a resident of McPherson County, and an assistant professor of media at Sterling College. He can be contacted with questions or comments via his website at www.toddvogts.com.