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Elon Musk’s vision of ‘free speech’ will be bad for Twitter

Tesla CEO has used platform in ugly ways. Now he gets to shape the company’s policies.

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk attends the opening of a factory in Gruenheide, Germany on March 22. (Patrick Pleul/Pool/AP)
6 min

It takes a lot of money to become a board member of Twitter, but not a lot else apparently. With a large stock purchase, an abuser of the service — Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and the world’s richest man — has now essentially bought himself a warm welcome from Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal. For those of us who care about equity and accountability, Musk’s appointment to such a prominent role at a platform that serves hundreds of millions of users daily is highly disconcerting — a slap in the face, even.

Musk has been open about his preference that Twitter do less to restrict speech that many see as hateful, abusive or dangerous. Given his new influence, the way he himself has used the platform bodes ill for its future. Musk paid $20 million in fines to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and stepped down as Tesla’s chairman, after tweeting what the SEC said was misleading information about a potential transaction to take the company private; the settlement also required that any Musk tweets about the company’s finance be reviewed by lawyers. (He continues to flout SEC rules, failing to notify the agency immediately last month when he passed the threshold of owning 5 percent of Twitter’s shares. The 11-day delay in that declaration may have netted him $156 million, experts say — since shares shot up after investors learned of his purchases.)

On nonfinancial subjects, Musk, who has nearly 81 million followers, often punches down in his tweets, displaying very little empathy. He called a British caver who helped to rescue trapped young Thai divers “a pedo guy” (beating a defamation suit over the slur but adding to his reputation as a bully). In February, he tweeted, then deleted, a meme comparing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Adolf Hitler.

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Perhaps not coincidentally, allegations of incidents involving racism and sexism at Tesla have been common — standing out even by tech-world’s low standards. A female engineer who sued Tesla, claiming “unwanted and pervasive harassment,” reported that one area in a Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., was known to women as the “predator zone.” Black workers have claimed that White workers at that same factory referred to another area as “the plantation.” Like many trolls, Musk says his critics — both those on Twitter and those who sue him — should be more “thick-skinned.” He used that phrase in message to factory workers, some of whom had raised concerns about racial harassment.

In October, a federal jury concluded that employees’ oversensitivity wasn’t the problem: It awarded a Black former contractor $137 million in restitution for discrimination. And the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a suit in February alleging racial discrimination at the Fremont factory. There are clearly dangers to creating workplaces in which people feel free to say and do things that demean their co-workers. There are dangers to abetting such abuse on social media platforms, too.

Musk calls himself a “free-speech absolutist,” but like many “free speech” advocates, he willfully ignores that private companies are free to establish some limits on their platforms. He hasn’t learned from the folks who left Facebook and subsequently raised alarms about the harms the platform can cause teenage girls and other users. Or even from Dick Costolo or Evan Williams, former CEOs of Twitter, both of whom eventually realized how pervasive and harmful online harassment is. (“I wish I could turn back the clock and go back to 2010 and stop abuse on the platform by creating a very specific bar for how to behave on the platform," Costolo said in 2017.) Co-founder Williams even went on to build a new company for sharing information, Medium, because he regretted the way Twitter, Facebook and other platforms had turned into free-fire zones. Lots of tech leaders — though not Musk — are turning against “free speech” models that end up letting the loudest, most extreme and hateful voices win, driving others off the platforms.

In the last couple of years of Jack Dorsey’s leadership — the co-founder returned to serve as CEO from 2015 to 2021 — Twitter made strides to remove hate and harassment and to give users more control over how they share their opinions (and how they view what others share). It added features that let users limit who could reply to their tweets, created labels for misleading content and banned President Donald Trump’s account. After all that, bringing Musk onto the board seems like a big step backward.

As the company’s largest shareholder, Musk will no doubt have outsize influence — and his clout will be magnified by the board seat. He can bend the company toward his preferences, removing reasonable policies on hateful speech and urging people who are harassed to have thicker skins. And he has a stick that he can use to further change Twitter: The implicit threat that he will buy a controlling stake in the company, and impose his will that way. (For now, he has pledged not to own more than 14.9 percent of the company, but he could change his mind and give up his board seat.)

Musk’s appointment to Twitter’s board shows that we need regulation of social-media platforms to prevent rich people from controlling our channels of communication. For starters, we need consistent definitions of harassment and of content that violates personal privacy. Most companies, I suspect, would welcome such regulations: They would give executives cover to do things they know should be done but which they are afraid to try, out of fear of political backlash or a revolt by some users. If platforms continue to push for growth at all costs — without such regulations — people will continue to be harmed. The people harmed will disproportionately be those who have been harmed for centuries — women and members of marginalized racial and ethnic groups. The people who benefit from unrestricted amplification of their views will also be the same people who have benefited from that privilege for centuries.