Elon Musk Isn’t Buying Twitter to Defend Free Speech
Business moguls tend to be big on protecting speech, right until it hurts their bottom line.
Conservatives on Twitter have greeted Elon Musk as a liberator. The mega-billionaire is in the process of purchasing the social-media platform and reorienting it toward what he calls “free speech.” The conservative columnist Ben Shapiro celebrated the news of the new free-speech era by insisting that Musk engage in politically motivated mass firings of Twitter workers based on their perceived political leanings.
For those who are not terminally online, a little explanation is in order. Compared to the big social media giants, Twitter is a relatively small but influential social network because it is used by many people who are relatively important to political discourse. Although the moderation policies of a private company don’t implicate traditional questions of free speech—that is, state restriction of speech—Twitter’s policies have played a prominent role in arguments about “free speech” online, that is, how platforms decide what they want to host.
When people talk about free speech in this more colloquial context, what they mean is that certain entities may be so powerful that their coercive potential mimics or approaches that of the state. The problem is that when private actors are involved, there’s no clear line between one person’s free speech and another’s: A private platform can also decide not to host you if it wants, and that is also an exercise of speech. Right-wing demands for a political purge of Twitter employees indicate just how sincerely conservatives take this secondary understanding as a matter of principle rather than rhetoric.
The fight over Twitter’s future is not really about free speech, but the political agenda the platform may end up serving. As Americans are more and more reliant on a shrinking number of wealthy individuals and companies for services, conservatives believe having a sympathetic billionaire acquire Twitter means one less large or influential corporation the Republican Party needs to strongarm into serving its purposes. Whatever Musk ends up doing, this possibility is what the right is actually celebrating. “Free speech” is a disingenuous attempt to frame what is ultimately a political conflict over Twitter’s usage as a neutral question about civil liberties, but the outcome conservatives are hoping for is one in which conservative speech on the platform is favored and liberal speech disfavored.
Conservatives maintain they have been subject to “censorship” by social-media companies for years, either by the imposition of terms of service they complain are unfairly punitive to the right or by bans imposed on particular users. There is ample evidence though, that social-media networks consistently exempt conservative outlets from their own rules to avoid political backlash, a fear seldom displayed when it comes to throttling left-wing content. And despite the right-wing perception of liberal bias on Twitter, an internal audit found that the site’s algorithms “amplify right-leaning political content more than left-leaning content.” The evidence suggests that for all their outrage, conservatives consistently receive preferential treatment from social-media platforms, but are so cavalier about disregarding the terms of service that sometimes they get banned anyway.
Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be surprising that many conservatives still complain that they are being censored even as these platforms’ algorithms continue to favor right-wing content. Indeed, the success of these complaints explains their persistence—if conservatives stopped complaining, the favorable treatment might cease. Musk is a sympathetic audience, even if that does not necessarily determine the direction Twitter will take under his ownership.
Liberal users on Twitter have greeted the news of Musk’s pending acquisition of the platform with everything from indifference to despair, while conservative reactions run the gamut from optimistic to worshipful, with some right-wing praise of Musk echoing the unending North Korean style flattery of the Trump years. For his part, Musk has said his priority is “freedom of speech,” a framing that some mainstream media outlets have credulously repeated.Musk’s subsequent tweets, stating that Twitter should ban only “illegal” content and that “If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect,” suggest that he has not thought all that much about the issue. The state broadly banning certain forms of expression is a much greater infringement on free speech than the moderation policies on a private platform, which anyone can choose not to use.
Every major right-wing Twitter alternative has imposed moderation policies while presenting itself as a “free speech” alternative to Twitter; most comically, posting disparaging comments about Trump originally violated the terms of service of Trump’s own app, Truth Social, which itself continues to ban “filthy” content, harassment, language that is “abusive or racist,” and “profanity.” The moderation of privately owned platforms is itself a form of protected speech; Musk’s ownership of Twitter simply means he will get to decide what those policies are.
And that’s precisely the point. Users on both the left and the right assume that during Musk’s tenure, Twitter’s policies will amplify conservative content and throttle left-leaning content. Both sides suspect that Twitter’s moderation policies regarding harassment will be altered to allow users to more frequently employ disparaging language about religious and ethnic minorities, women, and LGBTQ people. The extent of these changes depends on the balance between Musk’s financial concerns and his ideological ones. Right-wing alternatives to Twitter have failed to take off because conservatives want to make liberals miserable, not build a community in which there are no libs left to own. If conservatives successfully drive their targets off Twitter, or if the network becomes an unusable cesspool, it will become similarly worthless, both financially and politically. Social media platforms’ attempts to deal with harassment and disinformation have less to do with liberal political influence than making their platforms useful to advertisers.
The fact that conservative concerns about Big Tech vanish the second a sympathetic billionaire buys a social-media platform, however, illustrates the shallowness of their complaints about the power of Silicon Valley. Conservatives are not registering their concern over the consolidation of corporate power so much as they are trying to ensure that consolidation serves their interests. Put simply, conservatives hope that Twitter will now become a more willing vehicle for right-wing propaganda. Even if the platform tilts further in their direction, they will be motivated to continue to insist they are being censored—their criticisms likely exempting Musk himself in favor of attacking Twitter’s white-collar workers, whom conservatives paradoxically perceive as the “elite” while praising their billionaire bosses as populist heroes. The insincerity of right-wing populism is represented by the fact that such “populists” find it preferable to be ruled by ideologically sympathetic barons than share a democracy with people who might put their pronouns in their email signatures.
In Republican-controlled Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis boasts of punishing Disney for its opposition to recent legislation forcing LGBTQ teachers to remain in the closet on the job. Last year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned of “serious consequences” if the party’s corporate benefactors continued to issue anodyne statements in opposition to GOP legislation aimed at disenfranchising Democratic constituencies. The Supreme Court decision opening the floodgates to unlimited corporate cash in American elections bears McConnell’s name, but apparently money qualifies as constitutionally protected speech only when that money can be relied upon to serve the Republican Party. As concerned as they might be about social-media moderation, conservatives are currently engaged, along with this kind of strong-arming, in the largest campaign of state censorship since the second Red Scare.
Conservative propagandists have represented their demand that corporate America advance the interests of the Republican Party as a populist “break” with Big Business, when it is simply an ultimatum: Serve us, or suffer. The current ideological vanguard of the conservative movement isn’t breaking with business, but with democracy, seeking to keep labor weak, the state captive, and corporate power and religious institutions subservient to its demands. Money is speech, as long as you fund our interests. You have the right to vote, as long as you vote Republican. You have freedom of speech, as long as you say what the party would like you to say.
Corporate consolidation has made the Republican Party’s turn to authoritarianism much easier. Liberals focusing on how Musk’s acquisition of Twitter might affect their experience on the platform should look at the bigger picture. Corporate America has filled the void in civil society left by the weakness of organized labor, leaving a tiny number of extremely wealthy people with outside influence. All the right-wing “populist” rhetoric in America is geared not toward weakening this influence but toward harnessing it.
Many media outlets have curiously described Musk as a “free-speech defender,” a term Musk enthusiasts have interpreted as a euphemism for someone with a high tolerance for bigotry against historically marginalized communities. But Musk has been perfectly willing to countenance the punishment of those engaging in speech he opposes. Tesla, for example, was disciplined by the National Labor Relations Board for firing a worker who was attempting to organize a union. Similarly, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but his commitment to free speech falters when it comes to unionizing the warehouse workers who are essential to his business.
Business moguls tend to be big on “freedom of speech” in this more colloquial sense, when it comes to the kind of speech that doesn’t hurt their bottom line. When it comes to organizing their workforces, however, a form of speech that could act as a check against their power and influence, that tolerance for free speech melts away. Workers fearful of how their wealthy bosses intend to use that power should take that reality into consideration.