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Issue 264 Editorial: How Musk Ought to Run His "Digital Town Square"

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

Elon Musk’s fortune is greater than the GDP of over half the world’s nations. Now, the political fate of many more may be in his hands.

There is an unquestionable humour to Musk’s newfound role as “Chief Twit”. The acquisition comes off as a silly side hobby for the wealthiest man on Earth — the great magnate who decides that along with his freshly-caught lobster, he’d like the largest social platforms in the world for his Friday afternoon treat. The move, however, will have important implications for global freedom of expression.

Twitter has been at the centre of several international political moments. Content posted on the platform helped the proliferation of protests throughout the Arab World in the 2010s which eventually led to great democratic change in the region. Twitter was also a hub for pro-Trump misinformation during the US’s 2016 Presidential Election.

Unquestionably, the platform has shown itself to be an immensely powerful tool for the assertion of the core right to expression — the freedom to vocalise, receive, and seek out all kinds of speech without restriction.

Musk claims to take this right very seriously, labelling himself a “free speech absolutist”, stating his plans for Twitter include the reduction of content moderation. He believes the platform is “biased [sic] against half the [United States]” and wishes to expand the platform to the right-wing media ecosystem. He described Twitter as a “digital town square” through which “matters vital to the future of humanity” will be debated.

But is this what absolutism on free speech will lead to? What does it mean to be an absolutist on free speech anyway? Does it entail toleration of false advertising? Of fabricated news stories? Of hate speech? Even the most stark proponents of free speech have not necessarily argued for speech with complete immunity to restrictions.

The Muskian understanding of free speech is Americentric and dangerous. It shows a lack of consideration for the differing modes in which the right to speech, or lack thereof, manifests across the world. Freedom of expression codified in international human rights law is not without limits — propaganda that incites violence, hatred, or discrimination is not protected.

Weakening the filters that Twitter previously had on free speech has real-world implications. Speech on social media can lead to real-world breaches of rights. By refusing to recognise the spots where different human rights clash, we risk overriding some in favour of one. These clashes occur when we allow speech that is violent or threatening which in turn can be used to restrict free expression for others.

Musk’s doctrine allows for the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran to post violently misogynistic speech as well as speech in support of violence against his own citizens. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is freely able to use the platform he has barred over 83 million Iranians from using.

The political rights of many have now been purchased by the desperate hands of one individual. If he is to run his digital town square well, Musk must look globally.

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