Taylor Owen is the Beaverbrook chair in media, ethics and communications and the director of the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University. Supriya Dwivedi is the director of policy and engagement at the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University.
Elon Musk is a self-described free-speech absolutist, and he has been a vocal critic of the content moderation policies of platforms such as Twitter. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy,” he stated in a press release announcing the deal that will see him take ownership of the company, “and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
Twitter is indeed in many ways a town square, albeit a private one. But Mr. Musk’s attempt to further concentrate its ownership and potentially remove the guardrails that the company has belatedly developed will neither increase free speech nor help democracy. Yet, it may actually hasten the arrival of the democratic oversight that platforms like Twitter have been fighting against.
First and foremost, Mr. Musk misunderstands free speech. It is not the same as the right to have one’s speech amplified. While all countries differ in legal protections, people do have the right to speech that is lawful but awful – but they have no right to free rein and use of Twitter, nor do they have the right to have their speech go viral, to have access to tools to target their speech at vulnerable people or to profit from it. Which is why platforms such as Twitter and Facebook should be lauded for the efforts they have made to clean things up. It took years, but most of them (including Twitter) have grudgingly bowed to consumer pressure and have taken steps to improve the user experience by implementing tools to curb harassment. We need more of these efforts, not fewer. Twitter needs to deal with its problem of targeted harassment, disinformation and racism.
But is Elon Musk really the person to fix these problems, or will he and his version of free speech make them worse?
Second, sensible rules around what can and can’t be said on social-media platforms do not limit speech; they ensure that everyone has a voice. Toxic online content does not maximize speech – it actually limits our collective discourse, by shutting out the voices of those who are targeted. When someone leaves Twitter because of the relentless harassment they receive, free speech is being minimized, and our public sphere is diminished as a result.
What’s more, a platform devoid of any content moderation at all is a nightmare from a user-experience perspective. Just look at Gab, Parler or Truth Social: The vast majority of people do not want to spend time on a site where harassment and abuse are rampant.
So we should ask: Whose speech exactly does Mr. Musk believe is being censored? Far-right radio host Alex Jones was banned from Twitter for harassing the families of Sandy Hook victims. Is his speech more valuable than the speech of the parents of murdered children – parents whom he and his supporters attacked and silenced?
Third, by removing the guardrails of our public sphere, Mr. Musk would invariably be reinvigorating the case for democratic governance. Around the democratic world, governments are beginning to develop new rules for social-media platforms. And while critics of these initiatives often cast them as limiting speech – as Twitter did, in its recent claim that the Canadian government’s (admittedly misguided) approach to an online harms bill was comparable to policies in China, North Korea and Iran – the reality, as Mr. Musk’s experiment may well prove, is that government action may be needed to preserve free speech.
In fact, democratic platform regulation can maximize free speech in a way that the market is unable to do. For example, if we had real interoperability rules wherein users could port their data and social connections from one platform to another, we would foster much healthier competition in the social-media platform space. Instead, we are all effectively locked into our social platforms unable to take our profiles with us from one platform to the next, shielding the owners of these platforms from true competition.
Free speech could also be maximized if social-media platforms were obliged to take the risk of their products into consideration before they deployed them, as the new EU Digital Services Act demands. Placing the onus on platforms themselves to demonstrate that they have acted in a manner that is responsible and that has minimized the harmful effects of the products they offer could create a space where more people feel safe and free to speak, not fewer.
Lastly, if our data were better protected from unfettered third-party use, then we could be spared from the foibles of the targeted advertising market, including the microtargeting of content that can be used to enrage and divide us.
We have collectively decided to leave the governance of our digital infrastructure solely to the whims of private interests. Mr. Musk’s purchase of Twitter may just hasten our transition to a 21st-century digital public infrastructure governed by democracies, not billionaires.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.