June 9, 2022
Elon Musk is Wrong About Twitter. How Should Authorities Respond?
In March 2022, Elon Musk tweeted: “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?”
Musk answered his own question a few weeks later when he made a formal offer to purchase the publicly held social media platform and take it private. A self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” Musk’s goal is to remove many (if not all) of the Twitter Rules the platform uses to moderate user content. He might even restore the banned accounts of controversial figures like Donald Trump and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Some fear changes like these could unleash unprecedented levels of hate speech, harassment, and misinformation.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether Musk will follow through on his offer or walk away from the deal. And sure, there’s a chance he could change Twitter for the better. But regardless, his arguments about free speech and public spaces merit close consideration.
Here’s why Elon Musk is wrong about Twitter — and a few thoughts about how authorities can and should respond.
Historic Town Squares Were Carefully Regulated
Let’s assume that Elon Musk is right — that Twitter functions as a digital town square. Even if that’s true, he’s missing a critical detail. While town squares are public spaces, they are not — and never were — free from government oversight.
Modern town squares evolved out of the British concept of the village green or town common. In the Middle Ages, villagers who didn’t own land were permitted to raise crops, care for their livestock, and buy and sell goods in these public spaces. Many common areas also featured bogs where commoners could cut peat, an important heating source equivalent to modern-day public utilities.
But did villagers have unfettered access to do whatever they wanted? Could they consume public resources without limits? Of course not. Use of the village green was carefully regulated by overseers in charge of distributing this precious shared resource.
That’s because without rules, common spaces risk succumbing to “the tragedy of the commons.” This 19th century economic theory argues that individuals who consume a shared resource by acting wholly in their own interest — and at the expense of every other consumer — will ultimately degrade and endanger that resource. This is especially true when there are no guardrails in place to prevent anyone and everyone from consuming the resource.
Put simply, town commons exist to support commoners collectively. Any single individual’s rights — or that of one group — cannot supersede the common good. As such, community standards must be applied. So if Twitter really is a town square, rules and regulations are a justifiable and even essential part of the equation.
The Right to Free Speech Isn’t Absolute
The second part of Elon Musk’s tweet argues that the limits Twitter imposes on free speech undermine democracy. Again, his thinking is flawed.
As most of us can recall, the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” The First Amendment is solely concerned with protecting Americans from government overreach. As such, the right to free speech guarantees us the freedom to speak truth to power and hold the government accountable for its actions. It does not give us the right to say anything we want whenever we want to say it.
We can’t yell fire in a crowded building. We can’t spew hatred toward members of protected groups without consequence. And no one has the right to stand on someone else’s front porch and scream profanities.
The First Amendment simply does not extend into the private sector. Plenty of institutions, corporations, and entities can choose to limit speech within their spheres of influence. Universities, private businesses, civic organizations, and religious institutions may all impose limits on what their members and constituents say.
To that end, all social media platforms, including Twitter, are well within their rights to place limits on speech as they see fit. If Musk is concerned with upholding democracy, he should take his quest elsewhere. The government doesn’t own Twitter, and therefore Twitter’s stance on speech has no bearing on the health of our democracy. Elon Musk cannot make Twitter any more free from government interference than it already is.
Why Should Authorities Care — And How Should They Respond?
Elon Musk is right about this much: Important conversations take place on Twitter. And because of that, it’s crucial for authorities to step into this arena and shape smarter conversations.
The challenge here is that true authority is getting lost in the noise, and the public’s respect for bona fide expertise keeps diminishing. Thanks to the rampant spread of misinformation and disinformation in a highly polarized environment, it’s becoming harder and harder to break through the digital clutter and capture attention.
But authorities must try.
Directing a smarter conversation involves putting several elements of our Authority Manifesto into practice, including:
- Challenging non-experts with new or conflicting perspectives.
- Creating unique positions of authority that cut through the digital clutter.
- Participating skillfully in uncontrolled settings to effectively disseminate your point of view.
- Reaching your audience effectively by communicating in the places and spaces where they spend time.
Without the influence of authoritative, fact-based points of view, the public could very well experience the tragedy of the commons in a whole new way.
Elevate Smart Conversation on Twitter and Beyond
Time will tell whether Elon Musk will actually buy Twitter and implement a no-holds-barred approach to speech on the platform. Whether he does or not, your professional services firm has a role to play in demonstrating true authority and elevating the conversation for your audience and society at large.
But to direct a smarter conversation, you need to first create and hone your unique positions of authority. We’d love to help.