Elon Musk’s $44bn education on free speech
Elon MuskThe two months running Twitter have been an unhappy experiment. 250m users of the social network have become victims of a tired saga in which Mr. Musk is the main character. Advertisers have fled. Twitter, which lost $221m in 2021, is now on track to lose $4bn a year, according to one estimate. The damage has spread to Tesla, Mr Musk’s carmaker, part of the reason it has lost half a trillion dollars in market value since early September, costing it the title of the world’s richest man. -world for Mr. Musk.
On December 19 it looked like Mr Musk might throw in the towel, after Twitter users voted for him to step down as chief executive. It has been a costly adventure. But in one way his turbulent stewardship of the social network has favored the rest of the world. In two short months Mr. Musk has been through a public crash course in the principles of free speech, quickly demonstrating the benefits of protecting online expression.
From the outside, Twitter seemed simple to someone whose day job was building self-driving cars and space rockets. Mr. Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” had become concerned (with some justification) that Twitter had been gripped by left-wing censorious scolds. Shortly after agreeing to buy the platform he explained his approach to evaluation: “By ‘free speech’, I just mean that which is in accordance with the law. “
In practice it has been found that the right to speech conflicts with other rights. One of them is safety. Last month, Mr Musk said his commitment to free speech meant he would not block a Twitter account that tweeted the location of his private jet, even though he believed that this was a security risk. But on December 14 he changed his mind after a “stalker” disturbed his son. After suspending the jet account, Twitter introduced rules that prevented reporting of other people’s real-time locations.
In addition to restricting speech in the name of safety, Mr. Musk has stopped to avoid the slightest sin of causing offense. In October the number of comments on tweets that Twitter considers “hate speech” doubled, as users tested the limits of Mr Musk’s new system. Instead of allowing this legal-but-evil content, Twitter cracked down. In November hate tweets recorded a third fewer views than before they were taken over. Earlier this month Twitter suspended the account of Ye, a rapper formerly known as Kanye West, after he posted a picture of a swastika inside a Star of David – an image that, however grotesque, is permitted by American laws.
Mr. Musk even restricted speech when it was bad for profits. After pranksters sent tweets to brands like Pepsi (“Coke is better”) and Nestlé (“We steal your water and sell it back to you lol”), Twitter banned such of behavior to stop advertisers from escaping. Then, to stop an exodus of users, on December 18 Twitter said it would prevent people from linking to competing social networks or posting their usernames. When questions were raised about whether regulators would consider such a move uncompetitive, Mr. Musk apologized and free speech was restored.
All this holds two lessons for anyone who will follow Mr. Musk as head of Twitter, should he leave. One is to keep a measure of content at arm’s length. The person who decides whether it is suitable for a role is compromised if they are also responsible for promoting communication among consumers and spending of advertisers. Mark Zuckerberg (whose reputation has risen due to Mr. Musk’s practices) realized this and outsourced Facebook’s biggest valuation head to an independent “board of directors” in 2020.
The second lesson is that moderation has no clean solutions, even for “technokings” with strong views on free speech. Free expression isn’t a problem with a solution bound by the laws of physics that can be hacked together if only enough coders pull a nocturnal. It is a dilemma that requires false trade-offs that leave no one happy. In such a business, humility and transparency count for a lot.
These are new concepts to some in Silicon Valley, who are impatient to disrupt the established ways of doing things. But just as cryptocurrency enthusiasts have recently learned a solid lesson in the value of good old-fashioned financial prudence, so Mr. Musk and his fellow free speech enthusiasts are learning why free speech has made so many to scratch their heads over the centuries. Tech valuation has suffered greatly in 2022. It has also been a terrible year for technology egos. ■