Elon Musk’s Free Speech Advocacy and Twitter Purchase

On April 14th 2022, business magnate -Elon Musk- announced that he had offered to purchase Twitter for $43 billion (and later increased his offer to $44 billion). He already owns 9.1% percent of the company’s stock, becoming Twitter’s largest shareholder. AS is common knowledge, Twitter is a microblogging and social networking service on which users post and interact with messages known as “tweets”.  Data available reflects that about 8.85% of the worldwide social media users access Twitter.

There have been strong and divergent reactions globally regarding Musk’s announcement. On the one side, some have praised his actions, such as Twitter’s current CEO, Parag Agrawal, who applauded the purchase. Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, also applauded the purchase, while saying that “taking [Twitter] back from Wall Street is the correct first step.”[1] This is in reference to Musk’s decision to make Twitter a privately owned company. Concerns have also been raised by many, with a common fear being that Musk’s ownership of Twitter could lead to the re-platforming of suspended or even permanently banned Twitter accounts. This could then lead to an increase in an online harassment of others or even worse online criminal activities.

Musk has condemned the banning of former US President- Donald Trump, and promised to overturn it, stating that ‘that was a mistake. It alienated the country and did not result in Donald Trump not having a voice…I think it was a morally bad decision and foolish in the extreme’[2]. Trump was permanently banned on Twitter following the Capitol Hill insurrection in January 2021. With Twitter stating that Trump’s tweets were ‘highly likely to encourage and inspire people to replicate the criminal acts that took place at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021’, i.e., the attack on the building by his supporters.[3]

Musk’s announcement that he would overturn Trump’s ban begs the question of where we draw the line in regard to free speech. Free speech has been defined as ‘the right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint’[4]. Per this definition, Trump’s tweets could be considered as free speech. It could be argued that he was expressing his opinion on the fault line of the process of transition of power to now President Joe Biden. Twitter values the right to freedom of expression, yet he was banned. His ban and the bans of others highlight that there are limits to freedom of expression, freedom of speech; as there should be. This follows the logic that we cannot express every opinion that we hold. Some opinions may be hurtful to others and do damage to the society. More so, the pace at which information is circulated across the globe necessitates that no social media site should knowingly spread hurtful information.

The fears of an increase in an online harassment if Musk purchases Twitter do seem valid, especially as he has said that he would overturn Trump’s ban. Despite these fears, Musk’s potential purchase of Twitter may bring us closer to the dictionary definition of free speech, which could be seen as something to celebrate. The difficulty for Musk would be how to govern the central tenet of free speech, while also protecting all. The conclusion may be that we simply do not have true free speech, because that cannot coexist with censorship. That said, one should be quick to point out that censorship provides checks and balances on free speech that must exist in order to protect social media users.

The worries of a potential increase in online harassment may not even come to pass. On May 13th (what a coincidence), Musk tweeted that his $44 billion takeover of Twitter is ‘temporarily on hold’[5]. His reason for this is ‘pending details supporting calculation that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users’[6]. Daniel Ives, strategist at Wedbush Securities, wrote in an analyst note: ‘The [Wall] Street will view this deal as 1) likely falling apart, 2) Musk negotiating for a lower deal price, or 3) Musk simply walking away from the deal with a $1 billion break-up fee’[7].

As of 21st June, Musk’s takeover of Twitter was unanimously approved by its board. Despite this, there are three issues that Musk wants to resolve before he can move forward with the takeover. These are 1) the supposed high number of fake accounts, 2) the portion of debt required to finance the takeover, and 3) approval from Twitter’s shareholders. Furthermore, ‘shares of Twitter remain far below his offering price, signalling considerable doubt that it [takeover] will happen’[8].

So, there is a significant chance that Musk may not even purchase Twitter, so we can say, maybe prematurely, that the protection of the average Twitter user is still very much guaranteed. Though one may consider the issue of online harassment to be a major problem of the use of new media; individual ownership of a platform such as Twitter, especially if it is taken off the stock market as Musk plans, could see data compromise (the issue of selling personal information) more prevalent, as it did with Facebook[9]. With Musk’s unconventional view of Twitter and how it should be operated, he may see nothing wrong with the selling of personal information and this has a lot of implication for the future of Twitter and its users.   








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