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At an all-hands meeting at Twitter (TWTR) on June 16, its prospective owner, Elon Musk, reportedly called free speech “essential.” The very next day, reports emerged that the Tesla CEO fired three employees of his other company, SpaceX, after they helped distribute an open letter criticizing his behavior.
The decision by Musk doesn’t just highlight his thin skin: It also reflects the fact that being a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” just isn’t practical. While Musk has said he’d make free speech a key part of Twitter if his planned $44 billion deal to buy it actually goes through, most experts agree that tech platforms need at least some regulation.
“There are plenty of individuals on social networks who state this because they want their version of the truth to be shared widely,” American University communications expert Jason Mollica tells Yahoo Finance. “Freedom of speech is never absolute, though. Real freedom has rules and regulations so that people do not abuse it.”
Social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, and most famously, Facebook are rife with disinformation and misinformation, even when those sites do have rules about what can and can’t be posted. There have been real-life consequences and information crises that have emerged from the news that’s spread on these sites, from the Cambridge Analytica data breach to the viral Pizzagate conspiracy.
“This idea of unfettered free speech is really disconnected. It’s this kind of libertarian ideal that’s disconnected from how markets actually function,” said Kevin Esterling, a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside.
Elon Musk and Thomas Jefferson actually have something in common
Musk’s conception of free speech doesn’t fully account for — or even understand — highly monetized misinformation that exists on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. This unambiguous commitment to free speech is something Musk actually shares with founding father Thomas Jefferson, who’s been lauded in schools across the U.S. for two centuries for his ideas about fundamental rights, including free speech. (In recent years, Jefferson’s legacy has been rightfully re-assessed, largely because he bought and sold enslaved human beings, all while publicly opposing slavery.)
“What’s interesting is that a lot of people want to suppress misinformation, but that’s not what Jefferson said,” said Esterling, who told Yahoo Finance that Jefferson believed that falsehoods play a key role in democracy.
But there’s a catch — truth and falsehood need to compete fairly, Jefferson said. In an ideal scenario, skeptics would debunk lies and only true stories would proliferate. Esterling contends that’s simply not what’s happening and that rampant disinformation and misinformation are, at their core, a market failure.
“Free markets don’t always work well because of market failures,” Esterling said. “So we regulate pollution, because otherwise industries will over-pollute, because they’re not paying for it, There’s no price. There’s no cost to speaking on Twitter, so people can overuse and abuse it.”
The extent to which companies like Twitter or Facebook parent Meta financially benefit from misinformation skews the market in favor of that incendiary, inaccurate content. A frequently cited 2018 study from MIT showed that false news stories were 70% more likely to be re-tweeted than true articles.
So what Jefferson assumed, that truth and falsehood can fairly compete, just hasn’t happened in real life.
“On social media, it’s not a fair competition and falsehoods spread faster and more widely because of the way tech companies curate content,” Esterling said. “There are so few checks on misinformation and it circulates in an echo chamber regardless of how accurate it is. If you’re a conservative or an originalist, you think, ‘well, the Framers like free speech’ but what happens on social media is not what they were talking about.”
Ultimately, Musk only wants free speech under certain circumstances, according to Mollica.
“During last week’s town hall event with Twitter employees, Musk talked about ‘freedom of speech and freedom of reach’… [adding] that Twitter should work to prevent potentially harmful or offensive content from getting amplified. Musk’s view, however, is even if something shared is horrible, if it’s within the law, there’s no issue. The problem is Musk has historically worked to restrict what journalists and analysts say about himself and his companies. So, while he may say he wants free speech or legal speech, it only happens if it fits Musk.”
In the end, I’ve often wondered if Musk’s relationship with free speech is inherently emotional and, for that matter, if everyone’s is to varying degrees. I know people can say whatever they want about me, but I can’t stop them. I don’t have that power.
But if I had that power, would I want to? Hard to say, but it would be tempting. I’m not a billionaire, nor the CEO of multiple companies, and I’m definitely not the richest person in the world. Musk — who is all those things — has the power to shut down journalists and critical employees because, well, it hurts his feelings and, like everyone else, he doesn’t like to be criticized.
Not only does free speech absolutism not exist, but framing the free speech conversation as a purely intellectual one — or a purely theoretical one — is disingenuous, both on Musk’s part and on ours. The real world is far too complicated to allow unfettered speech. Deep down, Musk might know that, too.
Allie Garfinkle is a senior tech reporter at Yahoo Finance. Find her on twitter @agarfinks.