On October 27, Elon Musk once again stole the national spotlight when he became the new owner of Twitter for a whopping $44 billion. Musk made his initial offer to purchase Twitter in early April of this year, vocalizing his desire to make Twitter a “common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner….” Allowing a variety of diverse beliefs to prevail is a forthcoming concern for companies like Twitter. Concurrently, social media platforms are being used more heavily by politicians, scientists, professional athletes, and other mainstream personnel to arouse civil activism, so such platforms are newly faced with the moral challenge of balancing freedom of speech rights with the duty to protect the public from harmful speech.
Musk’s approach in addressing this societal duty is to get rid of spam accounts on Twitter and to prescribe looser content moderation, imputing his role as a self-proclaimed free-speech absolutist. More specifically, he has indicated his intent to restore accounts that have been permanently banned due to Twitter’s previous “censorship happy,” “left-wing bias.” This sentiment is largely echoed by the right-wing party, primarily in response to the numerous conservative accounts that have been banned in the past few years, including Mike Lindell and Steeve Banon. However, there is one account in particular that has given Musk’s acquisition of Twitter bi-partisan suspense: @realDonaldTrump.
Donald Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter in January 2021 after publishing various tweets during and after the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol, which Twitter flagged as being a “risk of further incitement of violence.” Then Twitter owner, Jack Dorsey, tweeted that such a ban was illustrative of a failure on Twitter’s end for falling short of promoting healthy conversation between its users. Dorsey further discussed that Twitter is responsible for stepping in when online speech leads to offline harm, and that Twitter policies are in place to carry out its mission of healthy global conversation, otherwise unrestrained.
Musk expressed his desire to restore all permanently suspended accounts “except for those that explicitly advocate violence.”
Twitter’s Mission Statement is “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. [Their] business . . . will always follow that mission in ways that improve. . . a free and global conversation.” In stride with promoting this mission, Twitter’s policies take a number of factors into consideration when determining whether an account should be restricted, such as (1) who a tweet is directed toward; (2) whether the user account has a history of violating Twitter policies; (3) the severity of the violation; and (4) whether the content is a topic of public interest. Many have criticized the employment of this criteria, suggesting that it is too discretionary in its application, especially since the recent banning of high-profile conservative accounts. Dorsey himself acknowledges that inconsistencies in the application of Twitter policy enforcement should be critically looked at, but reenforced that Twitter is not a platform for speech soliciting violence.
Now in the hands of a new owner, many wonder where these safeguards stand amongst Musk’s privatization of the company. In text messages to Parag Agrawal, the CEO of Twitter from 2021-22, Musk expressed his desire to restore all permanently suspended accounts “except for those that explicitly advocate violence.” This undoubtedly raises the bar for speech that will provoke a Twitter ban under Musk’s leadership. Indeed, Musk’s approach put simply is: “If in doubt, let the speech exist.”
Within the first hours of becoming the sole shareholder of Twitter, Musk scrapped Twitter’s entire board of directors, including Agrawal. Given Musk’s outspoken intentions for Twitter and immediate dismissal of its previous executive members, it is clear that a new, uncensored Twitter is quickly on the rise. In the wake of unprecedented political polarization in the U.S., bi-partisan disagreement on an unsolved global pandemic, and ongoing civil and climate crises, the speech-regulating role of social media platforms, as mass conduits for information spreading and open debate, has been a topic of heated contention.
While Dorsey and Musk both uphold conviction that Twitter must maintain its role as an inclusive platform for healthy conversation, it is no secret that the two have remarkably different approaches toward achieving this end. Musk’s proposed restoration of Twitter’s free speech goals presents the policy question of whether a purest application of the First Amendment’s freedom of speech right will promote or disrupt Twitter’s goal of universal, healthy conversation. Dorsey’s approach restricted speech when it risked being harmful to society, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene’s tweets about the COVID-19 vaccination being dangerous. On the other hand, Musk proports allowing all speech to be heard, unless it is explicitly advocates for violence. Perhaps time will tell which approach is more conducive to healthy conversation and the hopeful finding of common ground in the divisive state Americans currently exist in. In the meantime, many anxiously wait to see what such an unrestrictive approach may lead to in the future.
Rachel is from Charlotte, North Carolina, and went to Belmont Abbey College, where she received her undergraduate’s degree in Business Management. She took 2 years off between Belmont Abbey and starting at UNC School of Law, during which she worked in accounting at her parents’ co-run logistics company, then played professional soccer in Israel. She returned to school with the hopes of becoming a legal advocate for civil rights and environmental justice.