With Elon Musk’s Twitter purchase now a reality, many of us now expect the world’s most prominent egomaniac to at least attempt to impose his own sophomoric vision of ‘free speech’ on the platform. For the happy majority who don’t use Twitter, this may not seem like big news, but it is. What happens on Twitter does not stay on Twitter, and our politics, journalism and activism are increasingly conducted through the medium.
Musk’s stated vision is for Twitter as a “digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner.” This utopian sounding ideal does not survive a single second of contact with the reality of human nature. Musk proved this on his own Twitter feed, where he marked his new ownership by promoting a baseless conspiracy theory.
Even if he personally abided by the implicit terms of his own stated vision and refrained from peddling outright disinformation though, his alleged commitment to free speech absolutism is dangerous, hypocritical and will still fail to deliver free speech.
A danger, not a protection
Free speech absolutism in ‘Musk World’, is a demand that bigotry goes unchallenged, that disinformation is held up as a valid side of the argument, and that abuse and threats are fair game. These positions can be defended only with a facile “slippery slope” argument, that suggests if we shut down truly poisonous speech today, then draconian curtailments on reasonable speech will somehow inevitably follow.
Such imagined consequences need to be weighed against the actual, provable consequences of allowing bigotry and disinformation to go unchecked online. To a western audience, the most obvious of these is the attempted coup in Washington on January 6, in part the result of the platform being used to incite violence and tell lies about election security. It was a visible manifestation of the rot in American democracy, where a sizable chunk of the polity is no longer committed to the democratic project, having been radicalised by lies, disinformation, hate speech and abuse.
The US’s ills cannot be traced entirely to an over-abundance of these in the information sphere, but the fact is that the ‘digital town square’ is actually a sewer of propaganda, and has supercharged the problem.
Free speech absolutism invites us to consider the hypothetical danger of censorship, but is damningly silent on the real-world consequences of dumping poison into public discourse.
Scratch the surface of a free speech absolutist, and you will find someone who merely wishes to recalibrate restrictions on free speech in a manner more preferable to them. Is Musk, for example, in favour of employees being able to talk candidly and publicly about internal company matters? Twitter’s recent letter warning employees of layoffs suggests otherwise.
Beyond mere commercial sensitivities though, we should understand that extending free speech is not only about the speech of the powerful, it is about the voices of the powerless.
Globally, millions live in societies where speech against the government risks physical harm or even death. These societies include Saudi Arabia, which is ranked near the bottom of the Press Freedom Index, and with good cause. The murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, was a brutal and harrowing reminder of how steadfastly that regime is committed to suppressing independent thought and word. There is no greater free speech champion than one who risks their life to speak up in support of personal liberty, and Khashoggi’s articles identify him as such a man.
Nevertheless, self-declared free speech absolutist Elon Musk is happy to take money from the Saudi regime, which is now Twitter’s second biggest investor.
We might be tempted to try and excuse Musk here. After all, Saudi Arabia’s limitless wealth makes it an irresistible partner for many in the world of commerce and even G7 governments cosy distastefully up to the regime. Still, Musk chose to describe himself as a “free speech absolutist,” an ethical position which – to be adopted without hypocrisy – must tolerate no curtailment whatsoever on free speech. This undoubtedly includes preventing murderous tyrants from buying a stake in one of the world’s major journalistic platforms.
Tyrants love free speech… until they don’t
To a modern world forged in the aftermath of World War 2 and defeat of fascism, the importance of free speech is obvious. Widespread curtailment of speech is associated with tyrannical regimes past and present. We could be forgiven for thinking then that free speech absolutism provides the most perfect form of resistance to tyranny. Reality, as always, is more nuanced.
All political movements require free speech in order to grow their base of support, to persuade, warn, educate or inspire. Nascent tyrannical regimes are no different. The key point of distinction is that, once tyrants have assumed power, they suppress the free speech from which they once benefitted. The Nazi regime provides the clearest example; a movement with an engaging orator at its core benefitted from Weimar Germany’s liberal approach to freedom of speech. Its ideas were spread and became popular, and it seized power, whereupon the freedom of its opponents was crushed.
For freedom of speech to be abused in this way is, tragically, not a uniquely 20th century phenomenon. Unchecked hate speech in Myanmar saw Facebook implicated in genocide against Rohingya Muslims. Speaking after acts of genocide including mass displacements, executions and rapes, the Chairman of the United Nations’ Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar Marzuki Darusman, stated that Facebook had played a “determining role,” and added it “[had] substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that.”
Against these unfathomable tragedies, we can see that free speech absolutism is not just an abstract debate motion to be knocked around the offices of Silicon Valley. Embedded within it is an implied policy programme with lethal risks the world over. Even on its own terms, it is a failure; the dead are forever robbed of their freedom to speak.