Brendan O’Neill

Who’s afraid of Elon Musk?

Who's afraid of Elon Musk?
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The meltdown over Elon Musk’s acquirement of Twitter is my favourite world event of 2022 so far. It is delicious. I could sustain myself for years on the sight of commentators and activists wringing their hands to the bone over the possibility that – wait for it – there might be a smidgen more freedom of speech on Twitter once Musk takes over. Probably unwittingly, these raging right-thinkers, these terrified Musk-fearers, have confirmed before the eyes of the world that there is nothing they dread more than free speech, and I cannot get enough of it.

It really has become hysterical. The minute Musk hinted, last month, that he wanted to take over Twitter, the Twitterati went bananas. When he secured a 9.2 per cent stake in Twitter a couple of weeks ago, people were fearing for the future of humanity itself. ‘I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter’, said Max Boot of the Washington Post.

Others foresaw even darker things if Musk were to liberate Twitter from some of its stiffer forms of content moderation. ‘Today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany’, said Jeff Jarvis of New York University. Yeah, right, because the Nazis were well known for their love of freedom of speech and letting folk say what they want.

Now that Musk’s takeover is a done deal, the meltdown has intensified. George Monbiot says Musk and his ‘free speech absolutism’ will prove ‘lethal’. That’s lethal as in ‘sufficient to cause death’. Musk the murderer, with his deadly weapon of unregulated chatter!

And of course it’s all about racism, too, as is everything these days. American activist Shaun King said Musk’s purchase of Twitter is really a ruse to promote ‘white power’. Apparently Musk, who was ‘raised in Apartheid’, is peeved that Twitter’s current overlords ‘won’t allow white nationalists to target/harass people’. So basically he’s spending $46 billion (£36 billion) to allow a few chinless racists to spout drivel online. Sounds convincing.

Hatred, racism, actual fascism, real-world lethal consequences – this is what the chattering classes predict will flow from Musk’s buying of Twitter. It is, to be frank, insane. It is also incredibly revealing. It confirms beautifully, and scarily, that many people in positions of influence and power now view freedom of speech as a toxic thing that can only do bad. 

Will Musk transform Twitter from a censorious, partisan platform where you can be banned for life for misgendering and risk being censored for questioning whether climate change is entirely manmade into an intellectual free-for-all in which all opinions will be expressible? That remains to be seen. I’m not entirely convinced. His stance on freedom of speech is fairly mild, in my more absolutist opinion. Yes, he says the right things – ‘free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy’ – but we have yet to see proof that he takes the old and brilliant ACLU line that everything should be sayable unless it presents a ‘clear and present danger’ of imminent harm. 

Plus, hoping that yet another billionaire Big Tech bro will restore our liberty, will graciously return to us our freedom to utter online, is way too passive. Freedom of speech must be a cultural accomplishment, something we all create and have and use, not the gift of whichever eye-wateringly rich dude happens to be running social media right now.

And yet, Musk has done a good service for freedom of speech already – he has highlighted just how deeply it is in crisis. His moves on Twitter, and the harebrained response from the right-on, has exposed the depth of the fear and loathing felt by many in today’s elites towards the idea of unfettered speech. For this, even before he’s in Twitter’s top seat, he should be thanked.

What the meltdown confirms is that there are a lot of people out there who are determined to protect their cultural power. Who will brook no dissent, no criticism of their ideologies, no pesky tweeting of climate-sceptical ideas or ‘transphobic’ commentary or questions about whether masks really work against Covid. 

They love the fact that the social-media oligarchs share their moral worldview and that they have sought to forcefield that worldview from free, robust debate by deplatforming supposedly problematic people. And now they cannot believe that Musk has come along and essentially said: ‘I might let people criticise and question you a bit more.’

That’s what this is about: protecting the cultural elite’s ideas from critique, from ridicule, from mockery. Under the guise of ‘preventing hate speech’ or ‘stopping disinformation’ – I love to hear people who believe men can get pregnant talk about disinformation – these people really want to erect an impervious wall between us and them, between the questioning rabble and the correct-thinking educated people. In even hinting that he might take a few bricks out of that wall, Musk has driven them mad with fear.

The Musk-haters have revealed their true selves. They have exposed their authoritarian, jealous desire to elevate their beliefs above the realm of freedom and contestation. They are a far greater menace to modern society than Elon Musk could ever be.