Silicon Valley media entrepreneurs might talk about free speech, but it is a fallacy that we should be able to say whatever we want to whomever we want, warns Annalee Newitz
25 May 2022
LAST month, Elon Musk, the richest person in the world, was about to buy Twitter. He lined up financing for the bonkers $44 billion price tag. Then, he backed off. At the time of writing, he has whiplashed to saying the deal is “not out of the question” if the price comes down.
The whole sequence of events was corporate melodrama at its finest, but it was also an object lesson in how a myth unique to the US about free speech has shaped Silicon Valley media companies.
Twitter is an unlikely darling among techno barons who value exponential growth. In 16 years of existence, Twitter has rarely been profitable. Tech journalist Casey Newton recently called the company “weak”, “mismanaged” by former CEO Jack Dorsey, with an “extremely mediocre ads business”.
But Musk didn’t frame his decision in terms of the company’s financial track record or future profits – he claimed he was doing it to save democracy.
In an announcement about the acquisition, Musk said: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
Roughly two weeks later, Musk declared that he would reverse the Twitter ban on former US president Donald Trump. The ban was put into place in January 2021, after Trump incited an armed insurrection at the US capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election.
Musk said it was a “mistake” to ban Trump because it struck a blow against free speech. As if to demonstrate what he imagines free speech should look like on Twitter, Musk recently responded to comments from Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal with a poop emoji. He has also joked that he is buying Coca-Cola “to put the cocaine back in”, and then posted a cartoon about how “woke ‘progressives’” have driven him to conservatism.
What exactly is Musk saying about free speech here? The First Amendment to the US Constitution defines free speech as protection from government interference in free expression. Put simply, it means the government can’t censor the speech of US citizens (unless they are saying something illegal), nor can it compel them to say things they don’t want to say (unless they are in court).
“Ironically, this mythical form of ‘free speech’ actually functions as a new form of social control”
Because Twitter is a corporation, however, free speech laws don’t apply. It can ban anyone it likes. This is perfectly legal.
When Musk and other Silicon Valley media entrepreneurs talk about free speech, then, they aren’t talking about the reality of US laws. They are talking about a myth – the myth that everyone in the US is a rugged individual, dependent on no one, and we should be allowed to say whatever we want to whomever we want.
Politicians should be allowed to say that fair elections were “rigged”. Racists should be allowed to blame Jewish people for chemtrails. If people in the US say something bad or hurtful, the myth goes, the solution is more speech, not moderation in what we say.
Ironically, this mythical form of “free speech” actually functions as a new form of social control. As media researcher and journalist Peter Pomerantsev points out in his book This Is Not Propaganda, the cold war generation fought for unfettered expression as a solution to censorship. More information was supposed to mean more freedom.
But then, in the 21st century, a new crop of anti-democratic politicians figured out that more information can actually work as a form of “mass persuasion run amok” on social media. Speech begets more speech, until the whole internet is an infinite doomscroll.
Instead of being set free, our minds are being contained by a flood of meaninglessly cruel poop emojis.
Ordinary citizens trying to understand the world on social media are overwhelmed with negative messages. We witness vicious, polarised debates and we watch helplessly as mobs of trolls descend on anyone who is deemed unsavoury.
When free speech metastasises into chaos speech, we no longer know what is true or false. We don’t trust each other. And productive debates in the public sphere become impossible.
It turns out that information overload is just as toxic to democracy as censorship is. We need to chuck out the US myth that bad speech can be “cured” with more speech. Without moderation, ground rules for debate and thoughtful regulation in our digital public squares, it is impossible for us to reach agreement on anything.
There is a vast and pleasant country between total censorship and total information chaos, and that is where I hope to live one day. I’ll save you a seat.
What I’m reading
Octavia’s Brood, edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, a fantastic collection of sci-fi stories about politics and freedom.
What I’m watching
Endless memes of the 14th Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa.
What I’m working on
An article about how engineers are preparing cities for sea level rise.
- This column appears monthly. Up next week: Beronda L. Montgomery
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