“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and one, and only one person was of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1867, p10)
Fatoumatta: John Stuart Mill is one of the most famous philosophers and political economists of the 19th century. In the above quote, Mill says that everybody should be allowed to express their opinion, even if nobody else agrees with them. This is commonly referred to as “free speech.”
Is it morally (or ethically) right for any one man to have so much power and influence as Elon Musk? Elon Musk says he wants to turn Twitter into a haven for “free speech.” The social platform has been down this road before, and it did not go well. A tweet by Elon Musk mentioning your company will either have your stock prices shooting past the ceiling or plummeting. Twitter will become a private company whose policies will depend on the whim of an individual. Either way, the public is the loser.
On April 25, Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, reached a deal to buy Twitter $44 billion in cash and broke the internet. Twitter was founded in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams. By 2012 had grown to be a robust microblogging and social networking service boasting 100 million users posting 340 tweets a day. In 140 characters, which was later doubled to 280 characters, Twitter has become one of the most iconic innovations of social media.
The idea of free speech sparks a lot of disagreement and debate. Most people say they support free speech, but in practice, most people want the government to restrict or regulate some speech that they think is unfair, dangerous, or offensive.
Fatoumatta: One of my favorite ideas in political philosophy is John Stuart Mill’s ‘marketplace of ideas (though he did not phrase it this way himself): that the free, open, and vigorous exchange of ideas in the public square does more to further humanism knowledge than anything else. However, not only has his comprehensive and, to my mind, but the correct defense of free speech in his great work On Liberty also had an immense and beneficial influence on the history and theory of human rights; he was admirable in myriad other ways as well:
Liberalism used to be about freedom, especially freedom of speech and opinion. Everyone was entitled to their own opinion, no matter how acceptable or offensive, and everyone had the right to challenge every opinion. This, as John Stuart Mill pointed out, created a marketplace of ideas where ideas could be challenged, discredited, vindicated, or even improved.
The left seems to be less about freedom and more about social orthodoxy. From silencing opponents on any hot-button issues or forcing conformity to the majority opinion, anyone who dares to dissent from the new way of doing things is silenced or ridiculed. Strangely, the logical merits of the case are never discussed – only the character of the dissenter is attacked.
So now, in the place of the diversity of opinion, we have group-think. In skepticism, we have orthodoxy, and in place of dissent, we have heresy.
Fatoumatta: There is no room for modern-day book burning in an intelligent world. Free speech in all forms is the cornerstone of a free society, and we must allow all points of view to be heard. As John Stuart Mill said in the 1800s, “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful is the cause of half their errors.”
What do you think? Should the government prevent people from saying some things or let people say whatever they believe? If you think the government should restrict speech, what sorts of words or ideas do you think should be banned?
Fatoumatta: Beyond the altruistic free speech intentions of Elon Musk, questions of having unfettered access to data for billions of people around the world might shape, and not always for the better, the increased manipulation of the masses for profit while also putting Musk in a position to directly influence the trajectory of political and ideological conversations, globally. The ownership of Twitter throws Elon Musk deep into discussions about the excessive power of tech billionaires in the modern world, in manufacturing public consent – that is, how social media institutions can be used to carry out, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion.”
Still, as someone with deep interests in Data Science and who has utilized machine learning tools to mine and analyze Twitter data, it will be interesting to witness how some of Musk’s ideas, such as making Twitter’s algorithm more open source and more transparent, will help in amplifying Twitter’s value in shaping real-time discourse and its utility as a gold mine for researchers gathering geo-tagged data to analyze societal phenomena.
Twitter Deal and Free Speech
Fatoumatta: Twitter maintains a special status as a popular social media platform and the home to 23% of the internet population. There are 1.3 billion Twitter accounts, even though only a quarter of these are monthly active users (MAUs). With more than 350,000 tweets posted every minute and 500 million tweets every day, reaching a staggering 200 billion tweets every year, it is no secret why controlling such a platform can be a priority for a billionaire.
Elon Musk has, over the years, criticized Twitter policies that censor free speech. Whether Elon Musk will exercise free speech is another matter. However, there are fears that Musk will use the opportunity to silence voices who hold a different ideological position while blocking critics from parading the dangers of billionaire control of one of the essential social media spaces for discourse.
In a tweet just after the news broke out, Elon Musk wrote that “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because of what free speech means,” to which Adi Gaskell, a writer for Forbes, countered that “I hope you will not become a platform for spreading misinformation as that is not what free speech means.” Jon Cooper, who has worked with both Joe Biden and Barack Obama, added that “free speech is one thing, Elon. Hate speech and harmful disinformation are quite another.”
These arguments belie the age-old discourse wars over what free speech entails. One has to expect countless Op-eds on the boundaries of free speech or the limits beyond which free speech would degenerate to libel, slander, obscenity, sedition, hate, incitement, etc., and limitations associated with the freedom of speech and expression.
Recognizing the need for some level of content moderation, particularly against those who explicitly call for violence against others, Musk noted that “I think it’s imperative for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” preferring “time-outs” as opposed to permanent bans.
To combat Twitter bots or automated accounts that post rapidly and repeatedly in the guise of people, Musk has suggested authenticating users as real human beings.
Fatoumatta: The conflicts between the government and the governed on the value and applicability of free speech, in response to a fear of imminent dangers, and the same abuses, have engulfed and engaged scholars and judges for centuries. These conflicts have spawned uprisings and development in some countries and repression and underdevelopment in many, including the Gambia under Yahya Jammeh. To the citizens in lucky climes, free speech prevents government abuses of power or makes public officials answerable for ills of misgovernment and corruption. In 1664, John Milton drew loud attention to the dangers of excessive governmental interferences in the media space when he wrote in protest against the practice of licensing printing presses in Areopagitica. Due to ownership of portable printers, the licensing process was akin to federal government licensing of all business centers. It is no surprise that generations after Milton are still virulently up in arms against attempts to close the media space. In Africa, the circular cause is the majestic and wanton appropriation of unlimited powers of arbitrariness; to subject curious, determined, and well-educated citizens to the restrictive media powers of an obscurely suspicious African Head of State is to subject all freedom of thought and sentiments to the prejudices of one man and make him the arbitrary master and judge of morals, religion, and government.
The protection of non-violent or fighting speech is a fundamental right and Liberty. Our history and laws recognized the freedom of thought and communication as the indispensable condition of nearly every form of freedom. To derogate from this is to breed fear amongst the citizens. Fear breeds repression. Repression breeds hate. Hate menaces stable government. Menace and Twitter are colleagues.
Fatoumatta: As of January 2022, Twitter’s self-service advertising tools estimated that marketers could reach 436.4 million users on Twitter, making the social networking platform the 15th most active social media site. In addition, the investor earnings report showed that Twitter had a total of 217 million monetizable daily active users around the world, an increase of 25.0 million (13.0%) users compared with the Q4 report in 2020.
The advertising audience remains concentrated in the United States, with 76.9 million active users, followed by Japan with 559.0 million active users. India Ranks third, with 23.6 million active users, Brazil with 19.1 million active Twitter users, and Indonesia with 18.5 million active users.
The following five spots are occupied by the United Kingdom (18.4 million), Turkey (16.1 million), Saudi Arabia (14.1 million), Mexico (13.9 million), and Thailand (11.5 million) active users. Meanwhile, Twitter’s demographic remains dominantly male, with 56.4% of global users being male and 43.6% female.
Details About the Elon Musk Deal
A week ago, Elon Musk disclosed that he had acquired a 9.1% of the company, making him the largest shareholder. The disclosure prompted Twitter to request Elon Musk to join the board of directors. In a charm offensive, Musk declined and instead presented a bold proposal to buy the company at a premium of $54.20 per share, implying a valuation of Twitter at $44 billion. It a too good to be a real deal, but one that could effectively make Twitter a private company.
On April 25, after a lackluster attempt to ward off Musk’s takeover bid, the Twitter board accepted the offer to but the company. Upon shareholder and regulatory approval, the cash deal will make Twitter a private company and give Elon Musk the accessible pathway to implement a raft of changes he believes are central to Twitter’s evolution as the fulcrum of social media innovation.
Fatoumatta: In justifying his intention to buy Twitter, Elon Musk stated that “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 announcing the $44 billion deal.
“I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”
Musk has secured commitments for $46.5 billion to help him finance the deal, including $25.5 billion from Morgan Stanley Senior Funding and other firms and $21 billion in Elon Musk’s equity injection. If Elon Musk succeeds, Twitter will become one of the essential corporate prizes controlled by the world’s richest person and the genius behind the visionary successes of Tesla and SpaceX. Expectedly, Republicans in the U.S. are happy with the purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk because they believe the takeover will help advance free speech in the country. Top guns of the party have been tweeting in support of the purchase, praising Musk while taking a dig at the Democrats.
Fatoumatta: However, is not free speech supposed to be a liberal thing, and Democrats naturally support anything that will promote individuality? Perhaps the Republicans are still to recover from the way Twitter handled the misinformation and alternative facts President Donald Trump trumpeted around the platform before he was banned. So should we not consider misinformation and disinformation as acts of free speech. So how does enabling deliberate falsehood or manipulation of truth advance free speech?