Is Elon Musk’s Twitter Proving Free Speech at All Costs is a Dangerous Fantasy?

Free speech absolutists’ oversimplification of the issue is evident on social media. Experts say abuse and disinformation have created a new frontier of regulation on social media, and with it has come to a new cohort of disingenuous free-speech warriors.

When Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, bought Twitter, he preached free speech. Musk has been a staunch free speech absolutist, claiming that buying the social media platform would mean establishing truly free speech for all. 

But since Musk took over, he has had a tough lesson in the nuances of free speech. 

Free speech is not simply about saying whatever you want, unchecked, but about negotiating complicated compromises.

Musk came to Twitter believing the platform had a leftwing bias that needed to be corrected, and part of this was readmitting previously suspended users onto the platform. The accounts of Donald Trump, Kanye West, and Jordan Peterson have been reinstated, along with nearly all those that were suspended for abuse and hate speech.

Many now fear Twitter is about to descend into a far more unpleasant and dangerous platform. Many people have already stated they are happy to leave the platform if it turns into a cauldron for hate speech and online abuse. If a platform becomes too toxic, then it is useless for anyone except those who want an extremist ghetto of agitators. 

When a place is toxic to its users, it also becomes commercially pointless for advertisers. Since Musk took over, half of Twitter’s top 100 advertisers are reported to have left the site. If things continue as they are, it is hard to see a future for the company.

Various civil society groups, researchers, and other industry watchers have raised concerns about Twitter’s ability to effectively moderate harmful content and maintain the platform’s safety following widespread layoffs and mass employee exits at the company. 

Some of this is coming to a boiling point between Apple and Twitter. 

Musk claimed Apple has “threatened” to pull Twitter from its iOS apple store which could be a devastating blow to the platform. 

Musk claimed that Apple has mostly stopped advertising on Twitter. “Do they hate free speech in America,” he said, in an apparent reference to his oft-stated desire to bolster his idea of free speech on the platform. 

Musk failed to see the irony in that choosing not to advertise is also an exercise in free speech. 

The tweetstorm from Musk at Apple highlights the tenuous relationship between Musk and Apple, which along with Google serves as the major gatekeepers for mobile applications. 

Apple has not responded directly to Musk’s accusations. But the company has previously shown it is willing to remove apps over concerns about their ability to moderate harmful content, or if they attempt to circumvent the percentage cut that Apple takes from in-app purchases. 

For example, Apple removed Parler, a popular app among the far-right, after the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection on the Capitol. 

In its official app store review guidelines, Apple lists various safety parameters that apps must adhere to in order to be included in the store, including an ability to prevent “content that is offensive, insensitive, upsetting, intended to disgust, in exceptionally poor taste, or just plain creepy” such as hate speech, pornography, and terrorism.

“If you’re looking to shock and offend people, the App Store isn’t the right place for your app,” the guidelines state.

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