After two weeks of drama, Elon Musk got Twitter’s management to accept his buyout offer. In a transaction valued at approximately $44 billion, Twitter will become a privately held company wholly owned by Mr. Musk.
This is more than a business story. In a policy environment shaped by crusades calling for more stringent regulation of platforms and blaming their openness and accessibility for teen suicides, genocide in Myanmar, Covid deaths, violent extremism, and many other alleged harms, Musk has said he wants more “free speech” and less moderation on Twitter.
It would be hard to imagine a more refreshing and overdue challenge to current orthodoxy.
Predictably, the reaction among the would-be arbiters of public discourse was largely negative. “More free speech?” huffed the New York Times. “What will that mean in practice? More bullying? More lewd commentary and images? More misinformation?” Contrast the reception Musk got with that afforded former President Obama’s widely publicized speech on social media at Stanford, which was (to those of us who follow the issue) a mind-numbingly predictable repetition of the standard litany about the “threat to democracy” posed by social media and yet another call for more regulation.
When conservative Republicans and Donald Trump supporters screamed about “censorship” by social media platforms, their political opponents correctly reminded them that the First Amendment only restricts government action: platforms are private enterprises who have the right to suppress or promote any speech they like. Now some of these same people are saying: <gasp!> “If Elon Musk heads Twitter he will be able to suppress or promote any kind of speech he likes!”
The New York Times has been especially egregious in this regard. Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote, “The deal will give Musk enormous influence over politicians, celebrities and the media, with the ability to platform and de-platform them at will.” Wasn’t this also true of Twitter’s previous managers? Why is a change from Jack Dorsey and Parag Agrawal to Elon Musk suddenly being portrayed as a major change in social media’s political and cultural influence? Doesn’t Zuckerberg have the same power? Why is the Washington Post suddenly complaining about rich people owning media outlets when the newspaper is owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, whose wealth rivals Musk’s?
Is it, perhaps, because Musk has different politics, more rightwing than theirs? Do they fear he will disrupt the equilibrium around the rather homogenous Silicon Valley-centered norms currently enforced by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Twitter-ex-ante? If or when Musk reinstates Trump on Twitter, will we hear the same tune about the rights of private platform operators to make these decisions?
We think it is healthy for someone to raise questions about the assumptions, attitudes and practices of content moderation, to ask whether they have gone too far, and to explore ways to improve them. It may turn out to be true, as TechDirt’s Mike Masnick argues, that Musk’s attitudes toward content moderation are simplistic and he is bound to regress to the moderation mean. But the only real problem with the Musk takeover Masnick can identify is that Twitter has done a relatively good job of content moderation and Musk may start over and drive out much of its institutional memory. Masnick also thinks Musk may have some promising ideas, about “viewing the site as instrumental for free speech, about dealing with the spam and scams, and also about open sourcing the algorithm…” Stratechery author Ben Thompson also has some interesting ideas about how a revamped Twitter might structurally separate a “TwitterService Co” with the core Twitter service and social graph from a TwitterApp Co would handle the Twitter apps and the advertising business, and open up competition at that layer.
One thing we have learned over the past five years is that one should never underestimate the degree to which battles over content moderation are really partisan exercises. The real threat to democracy comes from homogeneity among platform policies. At best, Musk’s takeover of Twitter opens the door to fresh air; at worst it leaves things pretty much the same as they are now.