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Opinion Who’s afraid of Elon Musk?

(Dado Ruvic/Reuters/Illustration)
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Silicon Valley insiders recoiled in horror at Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter and loosen the platform’s controls on political speech, which have led most prominently to the banning of former president Donald Trump and the suspension of the New York Post. Musk’s offer may be a bluff, of course. But the financial maneuvering appears to be ongoing, and the erratic tycoon was taken seriously enough to trigger a media-messaging blitz opposing the sale. It has revealed a case against Musk that is, for the most part, specious and self-serving. Let’s take a closer look at the talking points.

As a free speech absolutist, Musk would turn Twitter into a cesspool of abuse and violent threats.

Musk’s widely quoted “absolutist” self-description comes from a March 5 tweet in which he said SpaceX would refuse to “block Russian news sources” from broadcasting via its satellites. That hardly indicates a commitment to allow threats, scams and bots to dominate Twitter. “I’m not saying that I have all the answers” about how to regulate speech online, Musk said in a TED interview last week, adding that he thought “timeouts” for rule-breakers “are better than permanent bans.”

Musk’s views on the limits of liberal tolerance aren’t fully developed. (Whose are?) But it’s clear that he thinks Twitter is striking the wrong balance — erring on the side of suppressing political speech rather than allowing what he calls an “inclusive arena” for debate. That’s hardly a wild position. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and then-CEO, in 2021 conceded that trends in political content moderation have been “destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet.”

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In his quest to allow more political speech on Twitter, Musk would undermine the platform’s profitability.

Milton Friedman lives! The free-market economist argued that the purpose of a corporation was not to support social causes, but to maximize returns to its owners. That idea has gone out of fashion in rarefied political circles, but Musk seems to have alighted on a social cause (freer expression on the Internet) that is sufficiently appalling for business and political elites to give Friedman’s more limited view of corporate purpose a second look.

In any case, the claim that more speech will hurt profits is a convenient reversal for the speech-control camp. The 2020 “Stop Hate for Profit” boycott campaign against Facebook charged that founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was allowing harmful political speech precisely because it could be converted into advertising dollars. Now the claim is that if Twitter liberalized its speech rules to allow more controversial speech, its growth could stall. Which is it?

Musk is a troll.

Musk’s past grandiose promises (remember the Hyperloop?) certainly call into question whether he would follow through on his vision for Twitter if he did control it. And his businesses’ current and past financial entanglements with Washington and other governments could complicate Twitter’s independence under his ownership.

But even if the 50-year-old entrepreneur had better manners, opposition to his acquisition of Twitter would likely be just as ferocious. Zuckerberg earnestly pushed back against progressive demands for greater political censorship on Facebook in a 2019 Georgetown University speech that appealed to America’s First Amendment tradition, Supreme Court precedents and social-science research. He was assailed relentlessly and walked back his commitments. The problem is not Musk’s abrasive personality — it’s that he has picked a fight with Silicon Valley’s content moderation machine.

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It isn’t consistent with democracy for a rich person to fully control an information-distributing institution like Twitter.

Maybe — but as my friend Marshall Kosloff, a media fellow at the Hudson Institute, has pointed out, “there’s a long tradition, in America and actually across the world” of wealthy people buying media outlets (yes, including this one) in part to prop up the outlets’ public missions. That tradition can align with democratic values as long as media ownership doesn’t consolidate under one individual or faction.

The democratic formula for constraining media power isn’t to smash it but to discipline it through competition. You don’t have to “abolish billionaires” to level the democratic playing field, as the progressive slogan goes, if the billionaire-owned institutions check and balance one another.

But when it comes to the biggest U.S. firms shaping the flow of information online, it’s less clear that this competitive formula is being followed. Indeed, Big Tech has taken on some features of a government. It regulates political competition, employs a growing bureaucracy of policymakers and is surrounded by nonprofit interest group lobbies (which can become constituencies for stricter censorship policies).

There’s no risk of Musk’s hands-off philosophy of speech displacing the progressive philosophy that dominates most of Silicon Valley. But he might manage to introduce a measure of ideological competition into an increasingly closed system. The argument against him, stripped of its self-serving adornments, seems primarily concerned with keeping the system closed.