When news broke this week that Elon Musk had won, at lightning speed, his US$44 billion bid for Twitter Inc, I put an all-points-bulletin to some publisher friends for their reaction.
Among the wittiest responses was from Sinead Boucher, owner and chief executive of New Zealand publisher Stuff. Sinead has long been a critic of the big social media platforms, especially Facebook, and she told me she wonders which side of Musk’s character we’ll see. Full disclosure, I worked for Sinead as a strategic adviser in 2020-21.
Musk has been seen, particularly by himself and his immense fan base, as a model for the Iron Man movie franchise character Tony Stark — a dashing billionaire who saves the world with bravery, elan, and fabulous machines of his own invention. Sinead reckons the real Musk may be a slightly darker character from the Marvel pantheon — Loki, the God of Mischief.
“I think that if Elon Musk was a Marvel character, he would be Loki,” Sinead told me in a note after the takeover was announced. “For all the words on protecting free speech, I think he very much enjoys all the drama and chaos that he is causing.”
Like others we reported on in the Newsroom Initiative blog this week over the Twitter takeover, Sinead questions Musk’s commitment to free speech or even his understanding of what it really means beyond the limits of a First Amendment philosophy that underpins his world view.
“I agree with him on the vital importance of free speech, which is being eroded in all sorts of ways, but I also believe the right to free speech should not be conflated with the right to be given a megaphone. The right to think and say what you want is different from a right to have that published on a for-profit platform,” she told me.
That’s a view you will hear from experts in misinformation and disinformation — that freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.
“If Musk wants to take Twitter in that direction, that is now up to him, but he would also need to be prepared for the consequences of that, like any other business,” Sinead said in reference to the likely reputational and regulatory implications of his purported free speech absolutism.
Sinead has been a loud critic at home and internationally of the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation on social media platforms, particularly during the pandemic. She even presided over Stuff’s withdrawal from publishing on Facebook in New Zealand. She’s also a leader locally in attempts to have platforms regulated and that they should pay for news from publishers.
People with Musk’s world view about the primacy of free speech often argue that good speech will drown out the bad. He has questioned Twitter’s moderation policies and argued that hateful-but-not-illegal information should be tolerated for the greater good — that the answer to bad speech is more speech in total, a view disinformation experts challenge readily.
Says Sinead: “What will happen to Twitter is probably predictable in the way that any platform that allows untrammelled free speech to be published. It will encourage some of the worst extremes to come out and the good things will eventually be drowned out.
“What will be more interesting is to see how different governments react to this move in terms of hastening or strengthening regulations governing or reining in the power of the platforms.”
One can already imagine the European Commission limbering up, let alone juridictions like Australia or New Zealand or the United Kingdom where there is no real absolute protection of free speech and where hate speech and threats can land publishers and platforms in trouble. Musk is about to find out how far Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act reaches beyond the United States — let alone the First Amendment that shields speech from govenrment interference, not from the business decisions of privately owned platforms.
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