If Elon Musk truly intends to make Twitter a free-speech platform, he’s clearly got a fight on his hands. That was made abundantly clear by the collective meltdown among media and political elites that greeted the billionaire’s shock takeover of the platform last month. The vested interests in keeping Twitter a sanitised, censorious place are apparently considerable. And not only will Musk have the great and good, his own employees, our own Nadine Dorries and Joe Biden’s new ‘disinformation tsar’ to contend with, but potentially Twitter’s advertisers, too.
CNN reports that giant American brands, including Coca-Cola and Disney, are coming under pressure to boycott Twitter if Elon Musk makes good on his promises to roll back content-moderation policies and bring speech standards on the platform more or less in line with what the law allows. Twenty-six civil-society organisations have signed an open letter, calling on big brands to pressure Musk to at least maintain Twitter’s existing censorship regime – which would include keeping banned bogeymen like Donald Trump off the platform and continuing to limit what is deemed ‘hate speech’ and ‘misinformation’. ‘As top advertisers on Twitter, your brand risks association with a platform amplifying hate, extremism, health misinformation, and conspiracy theorists’, the letter warns.
What is blithely skated over here, of course, is that ‘hate speech’ and ‘misinformation’ are notoriously difficult to define. And that platforms like Twitter have censored all kinds of material in recent years that, by most people’s standards, is neither hateful nor untrue. Twitter, for instance, currently censors people for ‘misgendering’ – which led to feminist Meghan Murphy reportedly being banned for life when she ‘misgendered’ an activist who at the time was suing beauticians for refusing to wax his bits. Twitter – along with Facebook – also suppressed the New York Post’s infamous Hunter Biden laptop exposé in the run up to the 2020 election, locking the New York Post out of its Twitter account and stopping people from sharing the story. This tale of Biden junior’s dealings in Ukraine was dismissed as misinformation by experts, who warned that the laptop could be of Russian origin. But the story turned out to be true. Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey later admitted that censoring the story was a ‘total mistake’.
Here we see that ‘content moderation’ and talk of tackling ‘misinformation’ are now just polite euphemisms for censorship – aimed primarily at those who do not align with the views of the not-so-liberal elite. Clearly, there are plenty of activists who are terrified that Twitter under Elon Musk will no longer clamp down on their opponents. We also see that many of those supposedly horrified at the prospect of unelected billionaires controlling the flow of information are complete hypocrites. They didn’t mind the tech oligarchs nearly as much when they were all broadly onside. And as this call for a big-brand ad boycott shows, various groups are more than happy to weaponise other multibillion-dollar companies to the end of limiting what the rest us can say and read online.
We’ve seen this all before. In 2020, more than a thousand organisations and advertisers, including Unilever, Coca-Cola and Pfizer, took part in a temporary boycott of Facebook — urging it to do more to censor ‘hate’. This was sparked by some of President Trump’s more incendiary posts about the Black Lives Matter riots – posts which Facebook had stubbornly refused to fact-check or censor. That campaign was similarly spearheaded by a group of civil-society organisations. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were also reportedly involved.
Those calling for a boycott against Musk have a point when they say that the flow of information should not be controlled by the rich and powerful. I would rather the state of online freedom didn’t depend on the political leanings of billionaires. But the forces of big business are clearly on the side of censorship, or are at least willing to give in to histrionic campaigners. Musk – a self-professed ‘free-speech absolutist’ – is very much the outlier here. His critics aren’t worried about billionaires setting the bounds of acceptable thought and speech. They would just rather a different set of billionaires were doing it, those who agree with them that allowing ordinary people to say and read what they like puts us on a fast track to authoritarianism.
Musk may well fail in his attempt to make the digital public square a moderately freer place. It’s unclear whether he’s in this for the long haul and for the right reasons. But with the woke establishment lining up against him, the least we can say is that his cause is the right one.