Members Only | April 21, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
Effective speech isn’t free. It takes torrents of cash
We’re as free to speak as billionaires like Elon Musk want us to be.
Billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk has launched a $43 billion takeover bid of Twitter. Musk has said openly his motivations are not business oriented, but ideological. He wants to increase “free speech.”
“Well, I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk said. “Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have … both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”
“Free speech” sounds good. But how free is speech when it’s controlled by billionaires? Musk’s takeover bid demonstrates how closely speech in the US is tied to wealth.
Musk isn’t angry because Twitter is restricting “free speech.” He’s angry because he disagrees with a particular editorial policy, and doesn’t like how Twitter is using its free speech as a publisher. Musk wants Twitter to speak the way he wants it to speak. He wants his speech to trump everyone else’s.
In an increasingly unequal society, the powerful and wealthy have more and more control over who speaks and what’s said. Those with less money only have the right to silence and marginalization.
Musk’s comments are an implicit criticism of Twitter’s content moderation policies, which include restrictions on hateful content, abusive behavior and misinformation.
The most famous instance of Twitter moderation in action is the company’s decision to ban the former president following the violent attack on the US Capitol building on January 6.
Twitter determined that Trump was using Twitter to falsely claim that the 2020 election was stolen by Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Trump’s lies, Twitter said, encouraged further violent attacks on democracy and on political opponents. So the company permanently banned his account.
Twitter has also suspended accounts for openly transphobic speech and for antisemitism.
Progressives and human rights organizations have criticized Twitter’s policies for being confusing, inadequate and ineffective. The Guardian reported that users banned for racist attacks on English soccer players simply created new accounts and kept posting.
Conservatives, though, have been even more enraged. Hate speech, bigotry and violent insurrection have become central to Republican political organizing and policy. When Twitter says it doesn’t want bigotry and violent insurrection on its platform, conservatives see that as an assault on their right to free speech.
Musk has himself posted transphobic memes and is currently being sued for discriminating against Black workers at his Tesla factory.
His call for more “free speech” on Twitter is being taken up with enthusiasm by conservatives like US Reps. Jim Jordan and Lauren Boebert, who see Musk as an ally in turning Twitter into a place where hateful and abusive speech is common and encouraged.
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Musk’s vision of Twitter is, as he said, based on a “town square” in which everyone shouts at everyone else unfettered by regulation.
In reality, if you go out in public and start screaming slurs indiscriminately or insulting people, someone is likely to call the police. (And conservatives generally claim to want more police in public spaces.)
But putting that aside for the moment, the analogy is wrong.
Twitter isn’t a public square. It’s a private media company.
Or, to put it another way, it’s a publisher.
As a freelance writer, I’m aware publishers don’t print everything submitted to them. They accept some articles and reject others, based on (sometimes arbitrary, sometimes well-established) editorial standards.
Twitter mostly lets users post whatever they want, no matter how trivial. But “broad editorial standards” isn’t the same as “no editorial standards.”
Twitter as a publisher has decided it doesn’t want to publish flagrant hate speech, in part because flagrant hate speech forces some people off the platform. For the same reason, it tries to restrict spam.
For ideological reasons it doesn’t want to promote violent insurrection, just as, for ideological reasons, Fox doesn’t host progressive shows like Last Week Tonight.
Musk isn’t angry because Twitter is restricting “free speech.”
He’s angry because he disagrees with a particular editorial policy, and doesn’t like how Twitter is using its free speech as a publisher.
Musk wants Twitter to speak the way he wants it to speak.
He wants his speech to trump everyone else’s.
This isn’t surprising or unusual. People constantly lobby news outlets in an effort to get them to adjust their editorial policies. Readers yell at the Times and the Post. Television viewers criticize CNN and Fox.
Part of free speech is telling publishers they’re doing it wrong.
Sometimes publishers respond to critics. Mostly they just ignore them.
But Twitter can’t ignore Musk. He’s extremely rich.
Musk is currently worth more than $300 billion, according to expert estimates, making him possibly the richest person to have lived.
He has $100 billion more than Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the second richest person on the planet. His wealth is greater than the GDP of Finland. It’s greater than the GDP of Connecticut.
Musk’s enormous wealth is part of a long-term trend. The wealthiest households have brought in a larger and larger share of total income over the past 50 years. In 1968, the top 20 percent of households brought in 43 percent of income. In 2018 it was 52 percent.
Inequality has only accelerated in recent years. The wealth of the world’s 10 richest men doubled in the pandemic.
Economic elites have more and more money, which means they have more and more political power over policy outcomes.
A recent political science study found the preferences of average citizens have almost no effect on policy.
When few citizens want a policy, it has little effect.
When many citizens want a policy, it has little effect.
When few citizens want a policy, it has little effect. When many citizens want a policy, it has little effect. In contrast, when wealthy Americans want a policy, that policy tends to magically get enacted. When 20 percent of economic elites support an outcome, the outcome happens only 18 percent of the time. If 80 percent of the rich want change, it occurs 45 percent of the time.
In contrast, when wealthy Americans want a policy, that policy tends to magically get enacted. When 20 percent of economic elites support an outcome, the outcome happens only 18 percent of the time.
If 80 percent of the rich want change, it occurs 45 percent of the time.
People can speak up for change if they want. But no one listens to them unless they’re very wealthy. Effective free speech isn’t free.
It’s only available to the rich.
Rupert Murdoch, through Fox and other outlets, has flooded US and global discourse with his reactionary views. Jeff Bezos has, in contrast, decided not to meddle in the Post’s editorial policy.
But Musk reminds us that in a country stratified by wealth, publishers and people are only as free to speak as billionaires want them to be.
If one man with the resources of a mid-sized nation decides he wants to be able to spew transphobia from the world’s major media outlets, he can simply buy those outlets. If he wants to ban critics from social media and call it free speech, he could do that. Who’s stopping him?
Democracy requires a robust public sphere. But a public sphere in which the super-wealthy dictate the terms of discourse isn’t robust or democratic. We say we want to promote free speech. But most often what we hear thundering through our democracy is not free speech, but great torrents of cash.
Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.
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