The Elon Musk Placebo Effect

Even if Twitter’s new owner changes nothing about the site, it will still feel different.

A blue pill with Twitter icons suspended inside of it—likes, retweets, replies.
Getty; The Atlantic

Elon Musk is buying Twitter and taking the public company private in order to save “free speech.” That much we know: He has made his intentions clear.

But what will actually change about the social-media platform is still largely a mystery, and the hints don’t suggest that Twitter’s about to become a free-speech free-for-all. Maybe Musk will reinstate Donald Trump on the platform. Perhaps he’ll add an editing feature for tweets, though that’s not directly related to content moderation and was already in the works. Maybe he’ll fulfill his promise to get rid of spam, something Twitter already tries pretty hard to do. He has also promised to “authenticate every human” on the site—whatever that means.

But even without any changes to Twitter’s current rules, people on the app seem pretty sure that the acquisition marks a historical turning point. Users who have appreciated the evolution of Twitter’s content-moderation policies see Musk’s arrival as the End Times. Meanwhile, users who have seen the history of Twitter as a slow march toward authoritarian restrictions on what they want to say see him as a hero. (“Him buying Twitter definitely will save lives,” one tweeted yesterday.) Nothing has changed about Twitter yet, but the platform is already different. No matter what Musk does to Twitter’s policies going forward, the site will feel more free or less free to a lot of its users—simply because Musk owns it. A “free speech” placebo pill is already taking effect.

In expressing his adoration of “free speech,” Musk himself has also acknowledged the importance of, well, vibes. During a recent interview at a TED conference in Vancouver, he described Twitter as a “de facto town square,” and continued, “So it’s just really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.” This is a bad metaphor because Twitter has more than 200 million users who live all over the world, subject to different sets of laws, but it’s a useful clue to his thoughts and priorities. “I think we want it to really have the perception and reality that speech is as free as reasonably possible,” he said later in the interview, deploying the pairing of perception and reality for the second time. He then summarized: “A good sign as to whether there is free speech is: Is someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like? And if that is the case, then we have free speech.” Well, in that case … we do already have “free speech” on Twitter, and it’s just a matter of changing some users’ frame of mind about it.

Like that dress that appeared in different color schemes to different people, Twitter will soon be dramatically better or dramatically worse depending on whom you ask. On the left, people are vowing to leave Twitter and go back to Tumblr. Others say that they would go to an alternative, open-source, Twitter-look-alike platform, except for the fact that they are all kind of vacant and bad. The hashtag #leavingTwitter was trending in the United States this morning, but it is simply not the case that a significant percentage of Twitter’s user base is going to pick up and leave.

On the right, politicians and influencers who have long been fixated on “censorship” of conservatives at the hands of Big Tech see Musk as a savior. In January 2021, shortly after Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for inciting violence, his son Donald Trump Jr. publicly appealed to Musk to build his own “free speech” social network. When Musk’s Twitter-takeover bid was announced, Tucker Carlson gave an uncharacteristically sober speech about how great the site’s future will be—sight unseen. “For the first time in years, we will be able to talk honestly about our leaders,” he said. “We will be able to have the kind of conversations that make democracy possible.”

What if, a year from now, Musk has made no major changes to Twitter’s policies? It’s still possible to imagine Musk’s fans complimenting him for fixing all of the site’s problems and making Twitter amazing again. That would partly be a function of his cult of personality, but it also wouldn’t be the first time that a “free speech” placebo was effective. After Twitter banned Trump, many of his supporters swore to set up shop on social networks that were more conducive to “free speech.” But while those might have felt like they had freer speech, the content-moderation rulebook wasn’t all that different. For example, the Twitter alternative Parler launched with limitations far odder than those that Twitter has now. The company’s first CEO, John Matze, forbade photos of poop and usernames with profanity in them, and specifically told users not to try to go by “CumDumpster.” Still, those on the right hailed the platform as a victory for freedom.

Meanwhile, on Truth Social, Donald Trump’s struggling new Twitter alternative, users can be banned for any posts that the company determines to be “libelous, slanderous, or otherwise objectionable.” This is dramatically more restrictive than Twitter’s policies are. But whether or not these sites are actually novel departures from the Twitter norm hasn’t been as important as their marketing as sites that represent a novel departure from the Twitter norm.

The story about Elon Musk as a free-speech warrior is not only sparse on details; it already contains some contradictions. In Congress, for example, many of the Republicans who are most concerned about the power of social-media platforms—and their alleged bias against the right—have argued that social-media companies should lose the legal protections that shield them from liability for the posts that appear on their platforms. But a Twitter with fewer rules would rely on this protection even more than it does now, and Musk should know. He was sued for defamation in September 2018 after tweeting that the British cave explorer Vernon Unsworth was a “pedo guy.” If Unsworth had tried to sue Twitter for hosting that tweet, Section 230 would have stopped him.

Nevertheless, the story about Elon Musk as a free-speech warrior is still powerful. Like the “free speech” Twitter alternatives that came before, Elon Musk’s Twitter may not need to differentiate itself much, if at all, from the current version of Twitter. As long as it is Elon Musk’s Twitter, it may feel as if anything goes.