Twitter and Musk: Free Speech and Beyond

Last week was historic in the social media space. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has announced that he will buy Twitter, the micro-blogging site he has used for years to promote his interests and build his public image. He said in a statement “Free speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital public square where issues vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

While the famous First Amendment law seems simple on paper, its interpretation has been a source of contention among Americans since the rule was ratified. Because it’s such a complicated and nuanced topic, it’s understandable that many people don’t know what “free speech” actually protects. This article attempts to explain how practical the promise of establishing free speech on Twitter is and also delves into the business impact that can take place after this landmark acquisition.

Many people echo Musk’s ‘public square’ or ‘town square’ argument for demanding free speech on all social media, saying any speech made in a public arena is eligible First Amendment protection. Many have accused Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google and YouTube of stifling free speech by shutting down accounts that promote violence or spread misinformation, including former President Donald Trump’s personal account.

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The above is a result of “sentiment analysis” carried out for texts that appeared on Twitter during the period April-May 2022. The percentage of positive comments is 16.30% and the percentage of negative comments is 13.77%.

Of note is the unusual positive sentiment from countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, showing people’s angst against authoritarian governments that use the platform to track opponents and spread misinformation. Negative comments have largely focused on how an elite white man (Musk) who is detached from real issues like apartheid, can never truly take a stand for oppressed people with his promise of ‘freedom of speech’. “.

Another analytical output is the word cloud. This is a basic but effective visual representation object for word processing that displays the most frequently used words in larger, bolder letters and with varying colors. The lower the importance of a term, the smaller it is.

As seen in the image above, words such as “Elite”, “White”, “Community”, etc. were prominent, reinforcing the sentiment analysis theme of negative feedback.

From the sentiment score and the word cloud, it is evident that there is a polarized perception on Musk’s freedom of speech, with nearly equal numbers on either side showing that there is no bias towards a particular feeling.

What does it mean to have freedom of expression?

With few exceptions, speech in a traditional or designated public forum is protected. The right to use certain inflammatory terms and expressions to convey political ideas is part of freedom of expression. However, a person’s right to express themselves freely in a private setting, such as a store or on a company-run social networking site, is not constitutionally protected. Because they publicly discuss their thoughts online in these places, many users may consider their favorite social networks to be public forums.

However, courts have ruled that social media platforms are private and hosting other people’s speech does not make them public forums. In reality, if the government were to try to restrict Facebook or Twitter’s ability to decide what content is actually allowed on their platforms, it would violate those companies’ First Amendment rights.

Free speech means different things to different people

Twitter is used by people all over the world and different nations have different free speech laws. Only 43% of people in all countries support legal protection of insulting language towards minorities, while 39% support banning language that is offensive to their religion or beliefs. Tolerance for statements supporting same-sex partnerships ranges from almost universal approval (91%) in Denmark and Sweden to less than a third in Pakistan (27%) compared to just 16% and 18% in Turkey and Kenya respectively .

Musk’s problem will be dealing with tweets from every other country on the planet, none of which guarantees free speech as vigorously as the United States. The European Union has warned him that new laws banning disinformation will be imposed on Twitter. Musk will have to think hard about what to do with Moscow, Tehran and Kabul, all of which use Twitter to spread anti-American propaganda without reciprocity. These governments are all staunch anti-free speech absolutists who, given the chance, would silence all but their ruling classes in the world.

On the other hand, what to do with American enemies on Twitter can be a real problem. This has already been pointed out by Musk’s critics, including Jeff Bezos, who has indicated that the world’s richest man may not be as principled as a free speech absolutist when it comes to China. Beijing uses Twitter to spread its propaganda and outlook, but censors Twitter and does not accept alternative views on Weibo. Most governments’ favorite weapons these days are words, so giving Beijing the one-sided megaphone of Twitter is like giving your opponent your guns in a heated conflict.

Musk’s track record

Musk himself has minimal tolerance for speech that is disagreeable to him or his companies or that reflects employee criticism in the workplace (as evidenced by his tweets, public speeches, and regulations of the companies he runs). ). Musk has a long history of censoring or penalizing anyone who publicly criticizes a project or practice at Tesla Inc. or SpaceX. Non-disclosure agreements and arbitration clauses must be signed by employees to prevent them from suing their company. Hundreds of Tesla employees have complained of racist, gender-based harassment, other types of harassment, discrimination and unsafe working conditions under Musk’s leadership. Many have also claimed retaliation for speaking out about issues.

Meanwhile, Musk is publicly mocking others on Twitter, with more than 80 million followers and a fan base he can enrage, from a local health official during the early days of the pandemic to the Twitter’s current CEO, Parag Agrawal.

Twitter beyond free speech

Although they have a much lower user base than other major social media platforms, many small businesses and brands do particularly well on Twitter. Content creators use the platform to grow their fan base. However, the site as it currently stands lacks many of the features that attract businesses to sites like Facebook, which is a more seller-friendly platform. Twitter was launched in 2006, and in 2010 it had a user base of 54 million people. There will be around 400 million users in 2021. Facebook and YouTube are behemoths in comparison. With around 2.8 billion users, Facebook is quickly catching up with YouTube, which has 2.3 billion users. WhatsApp has a user base of 2 billion people. Instagram has one billion users, TikTok has 800 million, and Snapchat has 300 million. Size is an important factor when the company decides to generate advertising revenue and derive monetization from it.

Going forward, Musk’s Twitter buy should encourage even more companies and entrepreneurs to join the platform. Musk is an ardent capitalist and will bring more user-friendly features to Twitter, so the platform will see a deluge of companies in its user base.

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