Elon Musk Is Fighting for Attention, Not Free Speech

The social-media platform isn’t a public square. It’s a gladiatorial arena.

Twitter's logo with Elon Musk's face on the bird
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

I didn’t wake up this morning planning to write about Twitter, and I’ve never woken up with the intent to write about Elon Musk. But this is the nature of Twitter: The spectacle sucks you in.

Elon Musk, equal parts innovator and troll, has announced a formal bid to acquire Twitter, a platform he’d recently begun to describe as “the de facto public town square.” In the course of this line of thinking, Musk had complained (mostly on Twitter) that the company’s insufficient commitment to freedom of speech was fundamentally undermining democracy. Many others have made the same argument, pointing specifically to Twitter’s content moderation—its practice of taking down some posts, putting warning labels on others, and muting or suspending some accounts. Musk, however, is one of the richest people in the world. So he bought 9.2 percent of Twitter’s stock, was invited to join the board, chose not to, and instead announced a tender offer to buy the whole company and take it private at $54.20 a share. His motivation was either the desire to troll or the sincere belief that Twitter, which used to call itself the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” had lost its way—or both.

But although Musk has spent several weeks complaining about the status quo, speculating about bias, and provoking Twitter blue-checks and tech commentators into fits about content moderation and censorship, he has explained little about what he would do differently. He’s right about one thing: Twitter plays a central role in public discourse today. But it’s hardly the same as a public square, and content moderation can’t be reduced to “censorship.” What Musk and others portray as a battle over “free speech” is a proxy fight over who is entitled to attention.

Many Silicon Valley veterans remember the early, idealistic vision for Twitter: a place for conversation and jokes, but also a place where everyone was on equal footing and anyone could have a voice. Ordinary people could come together, break through, bypass the gatekeepers. Social media became one of the most powerful tools for building movements and amassing power that the world had ever seen, and Twitter’s open, public nature was particularly potent for capturing attention.

The idea of Twitter as the “global town square” was articulated by then-CEO Dick Costolo in 2013. He likened it to something from ancient Athens:

Thousands of years ago in the Greek Agora, that’s where you went to find out what was going on and talk about it, right? You came and talked about what was going on in your part of the village, and I came and talked about what was going on in mine, and the politician was there, and we listened to the issues of the day, and a musician was there and a preacher was there, et cetera, and it was multidirectional and it was unfiltered, and it was inside out, meaning the news was coming from the people it was happening to, not some observer.

The unintended consequences of the platform that Jack Dorsey and his co-founders built, however, came into rather stark relief as it grew; a variety of unfortunate things that happen when humans engage with humans happened. On Twitter, however, these problems reached unprecedented heights via unfettered virality and velocity. The Islamic State made a home on the platform; harassment mobs proliferated; state actors and conspiracy theorists alike recognized that Twitter was a remarkable venue for propagandizing, unmediated, to millions. Public opinion began to shift against the hands-off approach. Government regulators began to pay attention.

So, in 2015, the leadership of the free-speech wing of the free-speech party began to take steps to address these negative externalities. How could the company maximize freedom of expression while minimizing the unique harms that the new communication infrastructure had enabled? A content-moderation regime emerged. Over the next seven years, its rules and practices would evolve in response to new and novel challenges: taking down terrorist propaganda, minimizing bad information during a pandemic, handling a litany of rumors and lies about election theft. In a 2018 thread, Dorsey described the nuances of developing such a process. The company wanted to promote open exchange, he said, and make sure that people could freely see the tweets of accounts they had intentionally followed. But Twitter made a distinction between speech that expressed a user’s opinions and bad behavior that might silence the speech of others. The possibility that attempts to game algorithms or manipulate attention were creating harm was recognized as a challenge to be proactively addressed.

In practice, the moderation regime as it has evolved has been reactive, ad hoc, and inconsistently applied. It addressed a real need to do something about abuses. But it simultaneously alienated a highly vocal portion of the user base, including then–President Donald Trump, who deftly reclassified even the mildest forms of content moderation—fact-checks and warning labels—as egregious acts of censorship.

Meanwhile, the public-square metaphor kept gaining popularity. Picked up by politicians and even the Supreme Court, it was an acknowledgment of the increasing importance of social media in public discourse. But despite Costolo’s vision, Twitter serves less as a town square than as a gladiatorial arena. It’s where competitors kill off one another while the crowd cheers, where teams compete in winner-take-all contests, where unending ideological demolition derbies go in circles. It’s where the spectacle lives, where attention can be captured, where people can be activated, because Twitter’s infrastructure has delivered a perpetually roiling crowd; to be on Twitter is to fight on Twitter, and often to fight about Twitter..

Since the advent of more active content moderation on Twitter and other online platforms, the prototypical public square has been retconned—particularly by Musk’s supporters in the United States—into a haven for absolute free speech. This is not accurate. The real public square has always been moderated. Public-nuisance laws and noise ordinances have long placed restrictions on the time, place, and manner of expression protected by the First Amendment. Try to get a group of 100 ideological allies together to follow someone around a public park in the center of town shrieking at them, and see how that plays out.

The public-square metaphor places wholly unrealistic expectations on what social media is, or should be. We have never had even a national public square, let alone a global one, because communities and cultures differ on what norms and values should shape their common spaces. Twitter has spent years struggling to develop content-moderation rules that mitigate the worst harms while maximizing free expression, even as governments around the world weigh in with highly specific demands. It may simply be that when networks grow past a certain size, they become unmanageable.

Groups unhappy with Twitter have been attempting to start their own speech platforms for years. There have been at least three distinct “Twitter but with free speech” attempts in the past four years: Parler, GETTR, and most recently Truth Social, the service launched by Trump. They have all developed moderation frameworks.

Free expression should be a foundational value. And Musk is correct that social-media companies have incredible power and no accountability. Opaque moderation decisions and reactive ad hoc policies have undermined the public trust; playing whack-a-mole with rumors or responding to propaganda with fact-checks seems to have led to more animus and entrenchment, not less. But if you think that, by taking the “public square” private and consolidating control even further, Musk will somehow uphold free expression and protect democracy, you will be disappointed.