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Dan Lett | Not for Attribution
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World’s richest man buys Twitter, launches dig for deeper social-media gutter
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World’s richest man buys Twitter, launches dig for deeper social-media gutter

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

— author Salman Rushdie

Dan Lett

Dan Lett, Columnist

Dan Lett

The Macro

With all due respect to Elon Musk, the soon-to-be-owner of Twitter, a lack of freedom of speech is not the biggest problem at the social media platform.

On the positive side of the equation, Twitter remains a dynamic forum for the exchange of news and ideas that is heavily relied upon by news organizations and journalists to promote their content and break newsworthy stories. I would put myself into this category.

(Here’s a joke for all of you: what has two thumbs and is verified on Twitter? The author of this newsletter!)

However, as a great many users know, Twitter also has a lot of problems, not least of which is its chronic failure to draw clear and unambiguous lines between appropriate and inappropriate content.

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Lamentably, even as I love using it for my own work, I acknowledge Twitter is a cesspool of hate and disinformation that makes me throw up in my mouth at least once a day. Despite its efforts to cull out hateful, abusive and otherwise toxic voices in the social media universe, Twitter remains as deeply offensive as it is informative.

In 2018, Amnesty International did a study that focused on the abuse faced by women on Twitter, calling the social media platform “the world’s biggest dataset of online abuse targeting women.” Three years later, little had changed; a 2021 report from Amnesty International found that 40 per cent of women who use the platform once a day had experienced abuse in various forms.

And that’s just abuse targeting women. Twitter has also become a hotbed of racism, as demonstrated by last summer’s tsunami of racist abuse directed at Black footballers on England’s national team following its defeat in the European Championship. A study of Twitter activity during the tournament found thousands of blatantly racist tweets, including 44 that used the N-word and many others that used monkey emojis directed at Black players.

And those are just select studies and incidents. The awful truth is that Twitter — and Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok — are rife with toxic content that the owners of the platforms seem unable, or unwilling, to moderate.

And then, along came Musk. Considered by many to be the richest man in the world, the Tesla founder has just purchased Twitter for a remarkable US$44 billion and proposed a solution for its current dilemma over toxic content: let it all hang out.

Elon Musk (Hannibal Hanschke / Pool / The Associated Press files)

Musk considers himself a “free speech absolutist,” which is to say he does not believe any professed open forum has the right to stop anyone from saying anything. Nobody is quite sure how that is going to translate into day-to-day policy or operations at Twitter. And Musk’s flowery musings on the topic have done little to illuminate his intentions.

"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," the 50-year-old Musk Tweeted when he confirmed his purchase. All that may be true, but it still doesn’t explain what definition of free speech absolutism he will apply at Twitter.

And when you look into the whole idea of absolutism, some pretty concerning scenarios emerge.

The origins of free speech or constitutional absolutism date back to the late 1930s, when U.S. Supreme Court Justices Hugo Black and William Douglas advocated for a literal interpretation of the First Amendment. This philosophy argued that neither state nor federal government may pass a law that violates the individual rights of religion, speech, press and association. And that these rights should never defer to other social values.

Black, in particular, became the poster boy for First Amendment absolutism. A former U.S. Senator, Black had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan who later renounced his racist beliefs and ultimately became a strident supporter of the civil rights movement. In his seminal decisions in the U.S. high court, Black took controversial positions that often seemed to transcend political ideology.

For example, in 1951 he opposed the conviction of opinion-leading members of the Communist Party under the abhorrent “Smith Act,” which allowed for the restriction of “subversive activities.” He also famously opposed an individual’s unfettered right to privacy, argued in favour of a strict separation of church and state, and in 1971, was one of the authors of the landmark decision that allowed the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers.

But let’s get back to the question at hand: what interpretation of free speech absolutism will Musk put into practice at Twitter?

Nobody is quite sure because, quite frankly, his past statements on the subject have ranged from the bizarre to the outright unintelligible. A fantastic biography of Musk and his spotty record as a champion of free speech in The Atlantic magazine clearly shows he is really only concerned about his own, very narrow, definition of free speech.

The article touches on a series of incidents where Musk tried to gag people who criticized him, while also defending the right of some of the world’s ugliest people to talk smack about other people.

“Dip into Musk’s history, though, and you’ll find that his commitment to free speech has been less than absolute,” wrote journalist Marina Koren. “He might like to be able to say anything he wants, but he bristles when what others want to say goes against his own preferences. He will grace his fans with engagement, but he has little interest in critics. And he has not always shown himself to be someone who welcomes people speaking their mind, especially not at his own companies. Musk’s version of free speech, in practice, seems to be one in which only powerful people can say what they please and escape any negative consequences.”

Will Musk continue to combat deliberate, often state-sponsored misinformation that seeks to destabilize democracies? Will he do anything to protect women and people of colour from toxic hatred? Can he somehow find a way to allow more free speech with fewer casualties?

The debate over freedom of expression in the age of social media is as frustrating as it is fascinating. However, it’s unlikely that Musk, a megalomaniac infamously known as a devotee of his own eccentric version of the truth, is going to somehow make Twitter a better version of itself.

As a Twitter devotee, I just hope he doesn’t ruin it for the rest of us.

 

Do you have a subject you would like to see covered in Not For Attribution? Do you have specific questions about journalistic practices or the business of news? Do you have specific concerns about politics or political leaders? Email me your questions and I will respond. Promise.

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