Could Elon Musk Save Free Speech and Democracy?
Help us, Ob-Elon Kenobi. You’re our only hope!
News broke last week that Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man, had purchased a 9.2% share in Twitter. Shortly thereafter, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal announced that Twitter had appointed Musk to its board of directors.
A number of conservatives, including some elected officials, rejoiced at this news. There’s a good reason for that. Musk has been outspoken in his criticism of Twitter’s censorship policies. Just two weeks ago, Musk argued that Twitter was “the de facto public town square” and that “failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.” And in response to Agrawal’s announcement, Musk promised to work with Twitter to “make significant improvements” in the coming months.
Will the notorious memelord use his newfound power to save free speech and possibly even democracy itself? Save us, Ob-Elon Kenobi. You’re our only hope!
Let’s be honest: the state of affairs for free speech online is not good. Facebook, Twitter and Google have all appointed themselves as the arbiters of truth, censoring everything they deem to be “misinformation” and banning anyone they decide they don’t like. Good luck trying to publicly oppose the edicts of Anthony Fauci or Rachel Levine – when Big Tech says you’re not allowed, you’re not allowed!
It gets worse. All three monopolists actively interfered in the 2020 election. In addition to banning conservative ads and blocking Republican fundraising platforms, Facebook and Twitter worked in concert to prevent their users from reading the New York Post’s exposé on Hunter Biden. Meanwhile, Google went out of its way to help Joe Biden by manually manipulating search results and blacklisting conservative websites.
Twitter, more than perhaps any other Big Tech platform, has an outsized downstream effect given its relatively modest market capitalization. Twitter is critically important to speech online – it drives news narratives because journalists rely on it as a source. According to the 2022 Muckrack “State of Journalism” report, 77% of journalists name Twitter as their most valuable social media platform. These Twitter-driven news narratives directly impact our politics and have almost assuredly contributed to the left’s recent radicalization.
So, what is to be done? Well, this is where our friendly neighborhood billionaire comes in. There really aren’t a lot of short-term options. While Congress should act to create a right to free speech online and rein in the concentrated power of Big Tech, it’s unlikely that much will happen in the next few years.
Republicans often talk about reforming Section 230 to require market-dominant companies to adhere to a First Amendment standard for content — a great idea. But the Democrats explicitly oppose free speech now, and Joe Biden remains president until 2025. Strengthening antitrust enforcement makes a lot of sense, but it’s hard to imagine any of the bills currently being debated in Congress impacting Twitter.
The perma-banned could do what the libertarians always suggest and “build their own Twitter.” But that’s already been done multiple times, and I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news – it won’t work. Due to network effects and Big Tech’s anti-competitive behavior, it is practically impossible to compete with these established platforms. Parler had its moment in the sun, until Amazon, Apple and Google all colluded to kill it. Gettr and Truth Social could theoretically become competitive, but neither has really gotten off the ground. People want to go where other people are, and there aren’t a lot of users yet on these small, niche platforms.
But now there’s a reason for hope. Before this recent news, it was starting to feel like free speech and democracy might be doomed – at least in the short-term. Big Tech would keep interfering in our elections and censoring conservatives with impunity. They had simply grown too powerful to be stopped.
However, Musk now has the opportunity to change the course of history. Sure, he probably couldn’t buy a large enough stake in the other Big Tech companies to make a difference in their policies. But with Twitter, Musk is now its largest backer. He’s going to have an influence. And if Twitter returns to its roots and becomes a bastion for free speech, perhaps that might positively affect the Big Tech censorship culture at large.
It’s not ideal, and it’s hard to imagine our country’s founders being thrilled with the spot America is in. But Elon Musk may be our only hope to save democracy, for right now at least. Let’s hope he is successful.
Jon Schweppe is the director of policy and government affairs at American Principles Project. Follow him on Twitter @JonSchweppe.