Elon Musk buying a $3 billion stake in Twitter undermines his campaign for free speech

A few days ago, Elon Musk asked his 81 million followers: “Is Twitter dying?

Musk calls himself a “absolutist freedom of expression”, opposed to any restrictions on what someone can say online, and has indicated that he thinks the social media platform is headed in the wrong direction in this regard. Musk, as CEO of two major public companies, has faced backlash and even legal repercussions for his impulsive tweets that have misled investors and caused his companies’ share prices to fluctuate.

Now, he is Twitter’s largest shareholder after buying a 9.2 percent stake in the company. The move has sparked a flurry of speculation about why Musk has bought such a large stake and what the future holds for Twitter. After Musk backed out of his plans to join the company’s board of directors over the weekend, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal said in a note to company that the decision was “for the best,” and urged employees to “tune out the noise” surrounding the recent changes.

But it’s hard to ignore Elon Musk, underscoring his reach as a famous tech entrepreneur and the richest man in the world. If his recent tweets are anything to go by, Musk suggests that he will try to use his involvement on his Twitter to make him the last bastion of unhindered speech. On March 25, before news of his investment broke, created a Twitter poll asking if the platform “rigorously adhered” to the principle of freedom of expression. Overwhelmingly, his audience voted no. The next day he tweeted, “Since Twitter serves as the de facto public square, failing to adhere to the principles of free expression fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?”

Apparently the big reveal he was getting close to was that he had spent around $3 billion buying shares to influence how the site should be run. Musk showed off his newfound power after his involvement became public last week, asking in another poll“Do you want an edit button?”

The power Musk doesn’t talk about

Musk has seemed to portray his mission as a noble mission, undertaken not for narrow, self-serving goals, but for the people. He would make the social media platform less constrained by rules and give its users the features they have long wanted. However, at the heart of this saga is the fact that he has his own complaints about what he considers to be restrictions on his speech. And unlike most people in the world, Musk can command Twitter’s attention by spending a small fraction of his $250 billion wealth; billionaires like him have a shortcut to becoming the loudest voice in any room. Even before becoming Twitter’s largest shareholder, he had a huge presence on the platform as one of the most followed accounts and enjoyed near-mythical status as an innovative genius from Silicon Valley. Therefore, it is difficult to see that the purchase of Twitter adheres to any democratic principle.

“[Twitter] it’s a global platform,” said David Kaye, a UC Irvine law professor and former UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression. “So for someone with a lot of money to come in and say, ‘Look, I’m going to buy a piece of this company and therefore my voice on how their rules are adopted and enforced will have more power. than anyone else’s, I think that’s regressive after years of [Twitter] trying to make sensible rules.”

What makes Musk’s status even more exceptional is that Twitter’s other major shareholders are fund managers like Vanguard Group and BlackRock, not individuals. And now that Musk no longer plans to join Twitter’s board, he, too, is not restricted from buying a majority stake in the company. At a minimum, he can threaten to do so. That’s the kind of unspoken power Musk can acquire.

So what exactly is Musk up against when it comes to Twitter’s policies on speech? In recent years, amid a pandemic that highlighted the life-or-death risks of disinformation, as well as the political chaos and violence fueled by electoral misinformation, Twitter has taken a more proactive approach to content moderation, marking misleading tweets and even deleting them. in some cases. “Twitter has moved away from this idea of ​​being the free speech wing of the free speech party and being a more realistic custodian of expression on the platform,” Kaye said.

The highest-profile example of the change is the suspension of former President Donald Trump, after he made a series of tweets supporting violence and misinformation surrounding the 2020 presidential election. But Musk has not spoken publicly about Trump’s ban. . To date, Twitter itself has not interfered with any of Musk’s tweets.

Musk’s real free speech agonies relate to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, in a battle over what he, as the public face of a major public company like Tesla, can and cannot say. in the eyes of investors. In 2018, the SEC filed a complaint against Musk after he tweeted that he had obtained funds to privatize Tesla – which is why investors are currently suing him, saying the claim was untrue and that they lost money as a result of Tesla’s stock price fluctuation after he tweeted. Musk settled with the SEC, paid a $20 million fine, and was banned from being chairman of Tesla for three years. Crucially, the deal also required that Musk’s tweets be reviewed internally when they concerned company information.

But while Musk is back as president, and even a $20 million fine is inconsequential for someone so wealthy, it’s clear he still resented the SEC’s restrictions on tweets. In early March, Musk filed a court request to end the SEC deal, saying that he had been forced to consent to it. A letter his attorney wrote to the judge presiding over the settlement stated that the SEC’s “harassment” of Musk “was calculated to chill his exercise of First Amendment rights.”

Free speech advocates don’t exactly agree. “He has unlimited access to the media; you have unlimited access to any platform you could ever want,” Kaye said. “He is not a victim in any way, shape or form. He is a public voice that is virtually unimaginable in how unconstrained he is compared to just about anyone else on the planet.”

Musk could also face further scrutiny from the SEC for delaying the disclosure of his nearly 10 percent Twitter stake; records show that he has been regularly buying shares of Twitter since the end of January. Musk was supposed to file a disclosure within 10 days of crossing the 5 percent stake threshold, but revealed it 11 days after his deadline. “The point here is not just the late filing,” said John C. Coffee, a law professor at Columbia University, who described the tardiness itself as akin to a misdemeanor like jaywalking, “but that he misled the shareholders who could have bought and certainly could have sold at a higher price had this information been disclosed. Those who sold can sue in a securities class action lawsuit for their lost profits.”

Being responsible for what you say when you are in a position of power, which carries responsibilities and obligations and has the ability to harm others, is not the same as censoring your speech. “I should have recognized that his statements about his plans for Twitter needed to be approved or at least disclosed to management,” Coffee said, noting that Musk had a pattern of making “reckless statements that have not been reviewed.”

In other words, the problem seems to be that Musk is unable or unwilling to acknowledge how much freedom and power to speak he actually has. Anyone with internet access can tweet, but what sets billionaires like Musk apart is that they can use their money to have greater influence over who wins elections, what kinds of laws are passed, or even how we should deal with a pandemic. And when you’re a public figure with millions of Twitter followers, even a simple response to a critic can send them a torrent of harassment.

The real dangers of free speech

Perhaps Musk’s current free speech crusade is only semi-serious. Maybe it’s just a way to make fun of the SEC. But whatever his true motivations, his insistence on being the billionaire champion of online speech has genuine impact, undermining his complaints about the chilling of his First Amendment rights.

“This is a huge distraction,” said Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit organization that advocates for digital rights. “It’s unfortunate, frankly, that people like Elon Musk, who are largely kidding [the free speech] problem, I’ve confused it so much, because I think it’s actually led to really harmful perceptions.” Some progressives have gone so far as to treat “free speech” as a dirty issue associated with people who want to spout hate speech, or with privileged people they simply complain that their voices are being suppressed, he said.

“The reality is that freedom of expression is in danger. There are laws on the books across the country right now that criminalize teachers for teaching, ban books, criminalize parents for providing health care for their children,” Greer said.

“If we have to worry about what Elon Musk thinks about content moderation, we already have a problem,” Greer continued. “There are very few companies that have too much power over what can be seen, heard and done online, and the fact that the richest man on Earth can buy the ability to influence our speech online shows that we have a problem. basic structural. with the way social networks are currently organized”.

In one move, Musk has gained influence over an important online shared space, what he called a “de facto public square,” meaning that as long as you keep using Twitter, you’ll have to listen to him somehow. extent. What will Musk do as Twitter’s largest shareholder? Will you commit to any public transparency standard on how you will influence the platform? We just don’t know yet. But the danger is that Musk doesn’t have to reveal much.

Musk’s Twitter engagement highlights how the ultra-rich seem to see influence: that you can buy it, and there’s no shame in doing so, even if the gargantuan volume of your speech risks drowning out others.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao argued that Musk’s purchase of influence over Twitter was unfair to its hundreds of millions of users who don’t have that kind of access. “We need regulation of social media platforms to prevent the rich from controlling our communication channels,” she wrote.

Kaye believes that Twitter has been trying to make room for a diversity of voices by taking a stronger stance against speech that harms and intimidates people, and the kind of unfettered, unfettered speech that Musk seems to be calling for is a fantasy that only I would chase people. off the shelf

“Nobody acting in good faith really wants Twitter to be a cesspool,” Kaye said. “It’s just absurd. Frankly, I would kill Twitter.”

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