After months of legal wrangling, Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter appears to be finally going through. Musk and the right see this as a great thing because it will restore “free speech” to Twitter. Any suggestion that the sort of “free speech” they envision can have highly undesirable consequences is met with howls of “Libs hate free speech” or other accusations of fascism. Similarly, warnings that unfettered free speech results in dangerous misinformation spreading are derided with “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” and the libertarian belief that in the marketplace of ideas, the best will always win out.
These theories will be tested quickly. It is being reported that after the sale is finalized, Musk plans on laying off nearly three-quarters of Twitter’s staff and that one of the first things to go will be any corporate attempt at content moderation and user security. Musk also plans on restoring the accounts of high-profile sources of disinformation and violent messaging who were previously banned, most notably former President Trump.
The pro-Musk arguments are complete nonsense, and there are innumerable historical and modern examples of why social media platforms with nearly unlimited freedom of speech produce horrors. The Supreme Court decided free speech isn’t absolute long ago, when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted that you can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, for obvious reasons.*
First, freedom of speech has caused untold death and suffering when used to disseminate hate or spread disinformation. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a fabricated antisemitic text that purported to expose a global baby-murdering Jewish plot bent on world domination. Mein Kampf was Hitler’s autobiography, which blamed Germany’s post–World War I woes on a global Jewish conspiracy. Both were readily available in the Weimar Republic, which had no First Amendment per se but guaranteed freedom of speech. They were key contributors to the fall of German democracy, the rise of the Third Reich, and the Holocaust itself.
In modern times, lack of moderation on social media sites has repeatedly contributed to mass murder. The Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter killed 51 Muslims at two mosques after being radicalized on YouTube, 4Chan, and 8Chan. The shooter who killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh had been radicalized on the social media site Gab, which advertised itself as the “free speech” alternative to Twitter. Dylann Roof killed nine people at the historically Black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, after he self-radicalized online. Investigations revealed that Google searches steered him further and further into extremist propaganda and hate.
The carnage caused by misinformation spread by social media goes far beyond massacres by racists, antisemites, and Islamophobes. Over one million Americans have died of Covid-19, and at least 25 percent of those deaths were preventable if people had gotten vaccinated. Many others could have been prevented if people had worn masks, socially distanced, believed the disease was real, or otherwise behaved in a rational manner.
Instead of educating the public, conservative thought leaders (and I use the term “thought” very loosely here) fed their base an unending stream of propaganda, half-truths, lies, and misinformation on mostly unmoderated social media. They were told Covid was a hoax, or no worse than the flu. First, hydroxychloroquine was the miracle cure. Then it was Ivermectin. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories became a staple of the right. The social media site Facebook was the worst source of lethal misinformation about the virus, and an independent study concluded that the website’s lax or nonexistent efforts to quash misinformation were to blame.
The consequences of conservatives freely pushing misinformation to their followers on social media echo chambers are clearly seen in the mortality statistics for counties that voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden. Since the vaccine became universally available in May 2021, death rates from Covid have run 2.73 times higher in counties that went for Trump than in those that went for Biden.
And now, the man most responsible for this carnage is being handed the means to do it all over again on Twitter. Studies have found that Trump was the single largest driver of Covid disinformation; soon he will be back doing the same on every other topic, from election integrity to Ukraine. Musk’s decision will have the opposite of the intended effect: Rather than making society better informed, it will make people more ignorant and irrational as they believe whatever confirms their biases.
The argument that the free market of ideas will win out, or that truth will inevitably conquer demonstrably false narratives, is essentially a libertarian fairy tale. It is completely ungrounded in observable reality. A quarter of all Republicans believe the bugnuts-crazy QAnon conspiracy theory that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation.” Similarly, 71 percent of Republicans believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump by nefarious means, despite the fact that no credible evidence exists for such a claim. The power of confirmation bias is incredibly strong, and most social media companies cash in on it and boost their popularity with algorithms showing consumers increasingly outlandish material that already fits their worldviews.
As far as the free market goes, people forget that the usual result of completely unregulated markets is monopolies. Ideas within social media are no different. “Free speech” competitors to Twitter such as Gab, Parler, Truth Social, and GETTR (which exert little to no moderation) are uniformly conservative monocultures full of the worst kinds of misinformation and hate outside of 4Chan and Kiwifarms. Parler’s former CEO has begged liberals to join the site and even offered people $20,000 to do so, without any success. Musk himself has made it clear that he plans to follow down the path of Parler and Truth Social, posting a meme of himself, Donald Trump (owner of Truth Social), and Ye (formerly Kanye West and now owner of Parler) as the Three Musketeers.
These monocultures harass and badger dissenting views out of the space, often through doxxing or intimidation. Books have been written about how hostile unregulated spaces are for women on social media, including How to Be a Woman Online: Surviving Abuse and Harassment, and How to Fight Back by Nina Jankowicz. LGBT people are now inundated, even on Twitter, with accusations of being “groomers” and pedophiles, which is the sort of language associated with stochastic political violence and even (at worst) genocide.
Nor is completely unfettered social media free speech good for democracy as a whole. Gab and Parler were both implicated as platforms used to organize the January 6, 2021, insurrection, which was a literal attempt to end democracy, and usher in a regime that would crush dissenting voices on social media. Not only were crypto-racists like Tucker Carlson excited by Musk’s move to buy Twitter, far-right Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and neofascist and white supremacist Nick Fuentes (banned by Twitter and now likely to return) were ecstatic. Anti-trans campaigners promised to go on a spree of dead-naming and misgendering transgender people to demonstrate that “free speech” means insulting and harassing minorities. The implication is clear: They expect that free speech will mean that their messaging comes to dominate the site the way it does on Parler, Gab, GETTR, Truth Social, and others with little-to-no moderation.
Homophobic and transphobic accounts are likely to be some of the biggest beneficiaries of the end of moderation on Twitter, and there are likely to be real-world consequences. After months of trying to incite stochastic violence against LGBT people, Proud Boys and other far-right groups already threaten and prowl outside of drag shows while toting assault rifles. Boston Children’s Hospital has had to deal with bomb threats. Parents of trans youth targeted online deal constantly with harassment, abuse, and threats. So do the doctors singled out online. As bad as it is now, it will likely grow far worse after Twitter ends its policy of content moderation.
Musk has claimed that he isn’t opposed to moderation; he just wants every kind of legal speech allowed on Twitter. This opens another can of worms, however. In the United States, any sort of speech that isn’t a direct call for imminent violence is legal. This is based on the 1968 Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio, which found that when a Klansman at a rally called for “revengeance [sic]” against “n*****s” and “Jews,” it was protected free speech because the danger of violence wasn’t “imminent.” Thus, Twitter as ruled over by Musk would allow such speech. And therein lies the problem.
Twitter’s competitors take the same (general) approach to moderation and free speech, but this is insufficient for Amazon, Google, and Apple, who will not host these apps as a result of their lack of moderation. Additionally, free speech laws in this country are far less restrictive than European ones, meaning that if Twitter applied U.S. free speech laws as a basis for moderation, it would likely be blocked from most of the European market (except Hungary). Given how leveraged Musk’s purchase of Twitter is, losing access to Amazon, Google, Apple, and the entirety of the European market could well result in a default on the loans, which require a billion dollars in interest every year to be paid.
All of this should serve as a warning to Elon Musk. What makes Twitter a (relatively) robust social media platform is the diversity of voices, which is only possible because of moderating policies that are (somewhat) more robust than those of other platforms. There is every reason to believe that this will disappear if he decides to make it a “free speech” haven like Parler, GETTR, Truth Social, or Gab. Harassment will flourish, and misinformation will force any rational discussion to fight a Gish gallop of lies and conspiracy theories.
Without moderation, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and the entire witch’s brew of right-wing hate will quickly take over Twitter and turn it into a Superfund site just like its competitors. Nothing decent can long endure in such an environment, and most people who don’t support these things will leave, hollowing out the site and ruining the investment. Given the terms of the loans to Musk and Twitter’s historic earnings, any loss of revenue could be catastrophic. Twitter’s soon-to-be decimated workforce, which will reportedly be subjected to 10 percent of people being fired every year based on internal rankings, is not likely to draw or retain the best talent. Instead, it is more likely to produce back-biting dysfunction, discrimination suits, and a culture of fear.
A word to the wise is usually sufficient: If Musk pursues a “free speech” agenda at Twitter, the results will be lethal to the platform, and he will find that he has killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Perhaps that’s what he wanted all along. When Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference this summer, he had one central piece of advice for the GOP on how to seize power and never relinquish it: “Have your own media. It’s the only way to point out the insanity of the progressive left.”
Given Musk’s hatred of everything he sees as “woke,” destroying one of the few social media venues that moderates content to prevent fascists from taking over may have been the whole point. Evidently, he is willing to spend $44 billion just to prove that “it’s my toy now, and I can break it if I want to.” And if it helps break democracy, well, that’s not his problem. But at least we had “free speech” on Twitter until the fascist government he helped usher in bans it.
* This article originally misstated Oliver Wendell Holmes’s title.