Can Elon Musk save Twitter from itself? It sure seems the billionaire eccentric may try. On Monday it was announced that Musk had taken a 9.2 percent share of the company, becoming its largest shareholder overnight. By Tuesday, Musk was Twitter’s newest board member.
In the interim, Musk signaled he was thinking specifically about the state of free speech on Twitter and the role of free speech in democracy. All of this, as well as his previous critiques of “wokeness,” has led the right to believe he will be an anti-censorship voice in the leadership of a company that has taken an increasingly censorious turn.
Musk enters the fray with a mercurial reputation, a nearly $300 billion net worth, and no one quite sure what to expect. According to the terms of his board seat, he will be limited in how much of the company he can own. It’s also unknown how much of Twitter’s policies he will be able to influence directly, or how many of the other board members will go along with what he proposes.
Twitter’s board includes former CEO and founder Jack Dorsey, who is reportedly friendly with Musk, in addition to hedge fund managers, corporate CEOs, and a former Google executive. In a somewhat analogous situation, tech execs Peter Thiel and Marc Andreesen, who both serve on the board of Facebook and are each known for their embrace of free speech causes, appear to have had a limited impact on how Facebook manages its content.
But for many on the right who think Big Tech should be broken up and have witnessed the “build your own” movement fall in the face of an oligopoly in speech, digital ads, and app distribution, Musk’s move toward Twitter represents a kind of Hail Mary that could get results faster than, say, waiting for Republicans in Congress to take any kind of meaningful action.
And it’s important, too, because while Twitter is tiny in comparison to its Big Tech brethren, it exerts an outsized influence on national narrative control. The news cycle, in many cases, begins and ends on Twitter. It’s where our politicians speak, and where the elite chattering classes chase and frame the stories that then dominate the downstream coverage in newspapers and on cable television. Fixing Twitter would go a long way toward breaking the narrative vice grip that the left has on public discourse.
But as much as Musk could potentially accomplish, he cannot fix the ultimate problem we face, which is having the major avenues of our public discourse tightly controlled by a handful of leftist tech elites. Americans shouldn’t have to beg ideologically aligned oligarchs to make billion-dollar purchases of major companies in order to access the public square. The corridors of American speech, markets, and political discourse should not swing open or shut based on self-interested battles fought in closed corporate board rooms.
Until we solve that problem, however, what good could Musk actually do? Here are some ideas for him to consider pitching at the next bird app board meeting.
1. Let Trump Back on Twitter
Musk should not just let former President Donald Trump back on Twitter, but stop deplatforming the speech of all political incumbents and candidates. Twitter’s decision to ban Trump was transparently pretextual and precedent-shattering, and Twitter’s treatment of the speech of elected officials has only further devolved from there.
Twitter remains one of the most important outlets for political speech in the country, and suppression of the speech of candidates or incumbents directly affects electoral reach and thus outcomes. Trump, in particular, appears likely to run again, and denying a presidential candidate access to a core communications forum undermines the nature of American elections. Moreover, the speech Twitter continues to allow from state-sponsored actors and leaders in Iran and elsewhere is far worse than the tweets they cited as a justification for banning Trump.
Musk should immediately push for a policy that re-platforms Trump and takes a blanket approach to not banning the speech of democratically elected officials.
2. Stop Shadowbanning and Deplatforming ‘Misinformation’
Replatform accounts banned for COVID19 “misinformation.” Stop shadowbanning. Free The Babylon Bee, and everyone else silenced for pointing out that trans women are still biological men.
In the name of free speech, Twitter remains the only social media platform that still allows the posting of pornography between consenting adults and graphic violence (both must be marked as “sensitive content”). But pointing out that USA Today’s Woman of the Year is actually a man? That will get you banned.
Even joking about it is a bridge too far for Twitter, which has yet to un-ban the satire site The Babylon Bee for, you know, making satire about it. Twitter also banned The Federalist’s senior editor, John Davidson, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson for commenting about it.
Thousands of accounts were banned for suggesting masks have limited efficacy, getting a Covid-19 vaccine doesn’t prevent a person from contracting Covid-19, and that the virus may have originated in a lab. All of this turned out to be true. While Twitter claims it doesn’t shadowban, it clearly suppresses certain content and in 2020 was shown to have options on its content moderation panel labeled “blacklist” – despite publicly claiming otherwise.
Musk needs to do a deep dive on the process for how these decisions were made, demand reforms, and most importantly, not take excuses. Stop making Twitter stupid and let these people back in.
3. Move Twitter’s Offices Out of Silicon Valley
Since much of the punitive content moderation practices among the Big Tech platforms is driven by the simple fact of ideological conformity and regional homogenization, Musk should move the physical location of Twitter’s offices out of the Bay Area (how about Phoenix?).
Silicon Valley raises, educates, socializes with, and employs one type of person, who is left-leaning, liberal, and overtly political. (There’s a reason the vast majority of Big Tech employee donations go to Democrats.) Infusing Twitter with more balanced content practices – that is, more reflective of the country itself – means first removing the echo chamber.
Get out of the Bay Area. Maybe put an office in Miami, or Dallas, and intentionally prioritize hiring practices away from the coasts.
4. Enforce the First Amendment
Emphasize a largely First Amendment-driven standard of speech moderation that focuses on legal compliance, not liberal arts college dorm room culture.
At Twitter, like most of the Big Tech platforms, the content moderation policies appear largely driven by feelings, politics, and safe spaces, rather than hard-nosed legal compliance and a commitment to the spirit of the First Amendment. Get rid of the current safe space culture of “Trust and Safety Teams” and the human resources approach to letting people speak.
Move content moderation entirely under the purview of the legal department, where the emphasis is on applying First Amendment-style moderation, within the limits of acceptable discourse on harassment, smut, and legitimate threats of physical violence, instead of the current obsessive focus on making Twitter a safe space for woke progressive grievance culture.
To incentivize this, link company-wide key performance indicators to keeping more content up, rather than removing it, and tie that into annual compensation and bonus structures. Fire people who don’t align with this vision – and that includes current Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, who has flat out said that the role of Twitter “is not to be bound by the First Amendment,” and who believes Twitter should “focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.” The times may indeed be changing for Agrawal.
5. Give Users Power Over Their Own Content
In addition to transitioning to a First Amendment values-driven approach to moderation at the top layer, Twitter should empower users and communities to choose their own adventure on the content they want to see.
Let third parties develop newsfeed and moderation algorithms that sort content around hobbies, viewpoints, or content that’s on Twitter, but that the user doesn’t want to see. Lefty journos triggered by the sight of a Trump rally or an off-color meme should have the ability to select an algorithm that will downrank or not show “offensive” right-wing content.
Conversely, conservatives should be able to choose an algorithm that downranks wokeness. With this kind of social media federalism, we can let communities decide what’s best, enforcing norms beyond the First Amendment without censoring people (an idea even Jack seems sympathetic to).
To successfully implement such a system will require policy reform of the app stores, since Google and Apple exert a secondary but powerful influence on what social media companies can allow on their platform. But Twitter, unlike Parler, is prominent enough to throw its weight around. And Congress should pass the Open App Markets Act.
6. Give a Blue Checkmark to Anyone Who Verifies His Identity
Twitter intentionally balkanizes its discourse by giving credibility to “blue checks” while denying it to others based on vague and arbitrary guidelines. This artificial aristocracy, as one non-verified account pointed out, “is one of the ways they amplify and confer legitimacy on certain discourse.” Blue checks for all is one way to democratize a Musk-controlled Twitter.
Elon Musk May Save Twitter, but He Won’t Solve Big Tech
As refreshing as it is to see Silicon Valley face an honest-to-goodness free speech challenge, it bears repeating: the fact that it’s taken a billionaire (with deep commercial ties to China) buying a board seat on Twitter to even possibly move the needle is a troubling statement about who controls our public discourse and how it is done.
The Big Tech companies increasingly control not only the flow of information but access to the digital marketplace as well. Musk may force Twitter to bend the knee – and that would be a welcome development.
At the very least, as “Breaking Points” co-host Saagar Enjeti recently pointed out, it will either improve the platform or provide a useful data point about the limits of shareholder advocacy.
Regardless of what happens at Twitter, the power and market concentration of companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon continue to grow unchecked. And quixotic billionaires are in short supply. Without meaningful congressional action on everything from antitrust to data privacy to Sec. 230, the public square will still remain stifled.