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.