Freedom of Tweets: Elon Musk’s $43 billion “best and final” offer

Freedom of speech is a concept whose importance needs no explanation. In the modern age of social media, networking platforms have emerged which give US citizens the opportunity to broadcast their voices in varying modalities. Whether it be text, video, images, or audio, the rapidly expanding online world constantly introduces novel platforms that require policy makers to evaluate where the line between absolute censorship and unrestricted free expression should lie.

Specifically, Twitter has been the method of communication behind many news headline  events. Twitter as a social media platform allows for users to share their messages in short form text messages called tweets, in 280 characters or less. There are also options to include images or videos, as well as hashtags, which sort and consolidate related content. Because of this, Twitter has emerged as a leading platform for advocacy of all kinds. For example, NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom has used Twitter to raise awareness and call out the Chinese government for their human rights violations of the minority Uyghur community. Furthermore, he has also expressed pro-Tibet sentiments, with both messages conflicting with the NBA’s relationships with Chinese corporations and the greater Chinese government. Thus, Twitter as a platform has allowed Freedom the means to act in direct opposition to one of the NBA’s key financial partners, preserving his freedom of speech despite the unalignment between his views and those of the structural organization that he represents. 

However, recent headlines have also highlighted the ability for Twitter users to exercise their right to free speech in malicious contexts as well. This concept received particular attention in the final months of former President Trump’s tenure in office. Known for his absurd and provocative Tweets, Trump was officially banned from Twitter in January of 2021, following his ludicrous attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The use of Twitter during the end of Trump’s time in office resulted in the need for Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to implement increased content moderation measures, despite previous and regular branding of Twitter as a free-speech absolutist platform. This illustrates the ongoing shift in the way that Twitter is controlled, with regulations continually increasing over time. 

In response to this heightened censorship, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has expressed his desire for Twitter to return to its formerly less-regulated state. In a letter to Chairman Bret Taylor, Musk states that he “invested in Twitter as [he believes] in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and [that]…  free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.” Now, Musk seeks to take that investment a step further, and has offered to buy the company for roughly $43 billion. Doing so would convert Twitter into a private company, removing decision making considerations from shareholders, thereby enabling Musk to deregulate the platform to a more open forum for discourse. At TED 2022, Musk commented that his plan to buy Twitter “is not a way to sort of make money… it’s just that I think my strong, intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive, is extremely important to the future of civilization. … But yeah, I don’t care about the economics at all.”

Whether or not Musk is successful in his attempts to privatize Twitter, the whole debacle raises important questions about what we consider “Free Speech” to be, and where we decide to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate content moderation. Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s former Head of Civic Integrity, tweeted on Thursday, April 14, that “Effective moderation is not inherently in conflict with free speech. It is required for people to feel free to speak.” Here, he is referring to the various strategic content moderations that Twitter has incorporated over the years in order to reduce the spread of misinformation, prevent harassment, and empower everyone with equal opportunity to voice their opinions, regardless of how much or little power they hold. 

With social media becoming an increasingly ubiquitous method of communication, policy-makers must determine what can and cannot be regulated, and what the consequences of moderating content are. Current legal precedent establishes that users of private social media platforms do not have the right to freedom of speech, as platforms have the ability to remove posts that do not comply with their content policies. However, Musk plans to use the privatization of Twitter to establish content policies that are virtually nonexistent. Unregulated free speech, especially on platforms where some individuals have much more influence than others, has the potential to promote the spread of harmful content such as cyberbullying, misinformation, and hate speech. Current Twitter policy-makers have already carefully weighed these considerations and come to conclusions represented by current policy, but these considerations may have to be reevaluated if Musk’s “best and final” offer is successful. To maintain Twitter’s integrity and authenticity, I do not think that Musk’s offer should be accepted, as the platform already provides such an effective space for civil discourse, despite measures of content moderation. Absolute freedom of speech on social media platforms runs the risk of promoting harmful and manipulative content, despite the democratic undertones of this rhetoric. 

6 thoughts on “Freedom of Tweets: Elon Musk’s $43 billion “best and final” offer

  1. Hi Sarah, this was such a timely blog post! I agree with you and Chakrabarti that moderation of objectively harmful statements and free speech are not mutually exclusive. I’d be curious to hear more about how you would like the government to take the lead on regulating free speech on social media. Do you think that lawmakers, who tend to be older, are better suited to establish legal precedents (perhaps because they have experience regulating free speech in the past)? Or, do you think younger social media executives are better suited to establish reasonable boundaries within their own companies (perhaps their deeper understanding of free speech in the internet age makes them uniquely positioned to do so)?

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  2. Hi Sarah, this is such an interesting post about an issue that I’ve been thinking a lot about since Musk’s offer became public knowledge. One thing that I think is interesting is that Musk has posed the idea of making Twitter a service that people pay for. This would be a huge shift in the current model that the platform runs on, and it forces me to wonder if a semi-public forum like Twitter having a subscription-based paywall actually would stifle free speech more, even if the content-moderation guardrails are taken off. I also wonder if more social media and tech companies may be doing things like this in the future, and what that would mean for public discourse. It’s also interesting to think about within the context of billionaires controlling these kinds of outlets. Between Musk’s hostile takeover of Twitter and Bezo’s ownership of the Washington Post, it’s hard to think about the role that ultra-wealthy private citizens are increasingly playing in the ability of people to engage in public forums and become educated with reliable newspapers.

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    1. Hey Sarah! I enjoyed reading your post. The part of your blog that I wanted to comment on relates to a term you used: “misinformation.” You write about how Twitter claims that the content moderations they have imposed “reduce the spread of misinformation.” What specifically does Twitter consider misinformation? Their broad definition of misinformation as “as claims that have been confirmed to be false by external, subject-matter experts or include information that is shared in a deceptive or confusing manner” worries me. What happens if Twitter labels certain views as “misinformed” just because they differ from Twitter’s own views. I fear that this may have some pretty serious political ramifications. I think that absolute freedom of speech should never be taken away. However, Twitter does have the right to make its own decisions as a business and thus the question of “where to draw the line” that you pose is very applicable. This also makes me think about freedom of speech on college campuses and how there is a push to limit what kinds of speakers can come. I am curious to see how policy regarding this topic will change and unfold.

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  3. I really enjoyed this blog! I think that the tension over the values of free speech is one with incredibly valid points on both sides and your blog does a good job laying out the case both ways. I echo the concerns of other commenters on the way moderation can (and given the history of social media companies, likely will) be leveraged against disadvantaged populations. I think the concept of what is “true” vs “misinformation” becomes more subjective by the day – and while there is still undoubtedly a truth somewhere, my trust in the ability of any singular corporation to determine it is increasingly diminishing.
    I also wonder how a privatized Twitter would be different than the Twitter we see today? I genuinely have no idea what the decisionmaking structure of Twitter looks like now – how do shareholders express their influence? Who makes decisions like banning Trump? etc

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  4. Free speech is an interesting issue to me because people only mean what they say about it half of the time, it seems. When someone claims to be defending free speech, they might actually be advocating for censorship and more restrictions to speech, but they can call that act in itself free speech—and they do! Elon Musk’s plans, as he has explained them to the public, seem to fit more neatly into the category of free speech, with plans to lessen regulation on everyone, but I am also skeptical of how that would be put into place if he were to actually become the owner of Twitter. In the past week, I set up a new Twitter account, and encountered how difficult it is to find accounts to follow that represent unpopular opinions, or states which the United States has aligned itself against (a phenomenom that people have started to call “shadow-banning,” if I remember correctly. In general, I think that removing hate speech is good, but in practice I’ve seen hate speech run rampant without getting removed and regular Chinese people on Twitter getting labelled “Chinese state-affiliated media,” with the same happening for Russian nationals, I heard, so I wonder what a transition from these policies to Musk’s policies would look like, and whether or not that would change much for the average user. I would like to say yes, having witnessed Musk’s chaos and hatred on the platform for several years now, but I’m not sure that I’d be correct in saying so.

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  5. Hi,
    I appreciated your informational post! I have heard of this news that Musk had plans to buy out Twitter, but I wasn’t aware of his prerogative in doing so. I think the fact that there is no real precedent for the period of social media we live in makes it harder to find a solution or a compromise that addresses all the nuances of the effects of social media.
    Perhaps, I think, people in authoritative or corporate positions should be regulated in what they release, as their effect on the general populous will be wider than a high-schooler who wanted to let the world know of their current status and/or love of Starbucks.
    Referring back to “The Social Dilemma”, there is no denying the way social media quite literally controls people and makes it seem we have freedom in the choices we make in this society/economy. The best/worst example of the effect of fake news or less-than-factual claims that played into the 2016 presidential election is undeniable, and when such free speech does end up infringing the safety and rights of other citizens should be enough reason to regulate social media to an extent.

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