In the wake of Twitter’s pending sale to quirky billionaire Elon Musk and the formation of a Disinformation Governance Board by the Biden administration’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Time Magazine national correspondent Charlotte Alter has dismissed the fight for free speech in America as little more than a Big Tech “obsession” and fears “tech” titans such as Musk view the “liberal consensus on acceptable speech” as an opportunity to break some dangerous boundaries.
“In a culture that places a premium on achieving the impossible, some tech titans may also see the liberal consensus on acceptable speech as yet another boundary to break,” Alter wrote in a Friday piece for Time. “In Silicon Valley, bucking the liberal conventions about harmful speech can seem like the maverick move.”
Alter opened her article by attempting to calculate the price of free speech, and suggesting Elon Musk could have spent his billions on pursuits nobler than that of allowing people of all political persuasions and ideologies to express their beliefs.
“They say something is worth what someone will pay for it,” Alder wrote. “If that’s true, then protecting ‘free speech,’ which Elon Musk has cited as a central reason he agreed to buy Twitter for $44 billion this week, may be worth twice as much as solving America’s homelessness problem, and seven times as much as solving world hunger. It’s worth more (to him, at least) than educating every child in nearly 50 countries, more than the GDP of Serbia, Jordan, or Paraguay.”
In a statement released on Twitter earlier this week, announcing that a deal with the social media platform had been reached, 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.”
On the same day, Musk tweeted, “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”
🚀💫♥️ Yesss!!! ♥️💫🚀 pic.twitter.com/0T9HzUHuh6
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 25, 2022
I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 25, 2022
Alder cited subsequent tweets from Musk in a quest to understand why someone like him would care about the First Amendment.
“In the days since Musk agreed to terms on a deal to take Twitter private, nearly all of Musk’s tweets have been about freedom and censorship on the platform,” Alder said, quoting the tweets below.
By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law.
I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.
If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect.
Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2022
Truth Social (terrible name) exists because Twitter censored free speech
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 27, 2022
“Why does Musk care so much about this?” Alder asked. “Why would a guy who has pushed the boundaries of electric-vehicle manufacturing and plumbed the limits of commercial space flight care about who can say what on Twitter?”
“‘Freedom of speech’ has become a paramount concern of the techno-moral universe,” Alder surmises, being careful not to forget her scare quotes.
Alder then quotes Fred Turner, a Stanford University professor of communication, who notes without any evidence that “free speech seems to be much more of an obsession among men.”
That must be at least part of the mystery behind the sudden push to protect free speech, or at least Alder seems to think so.
“Business itself may be part of the motivation,” Alder wrote. “Many of the most valuable digital platforms have business models that rely on mining user content for data and selling it to advertisers. From the platform’s perspective, more speech equals more cash.”
Free speech, Alder explained, doesn’t mean what it did when the Constitution was written.
“But ‘free speech’ in the 21st century means something very different than it did in the 18th, when the Founders enshrined it in the Constitution,” Alder states. “The right to say what you want without being imprisoned is not the same as the right to broadcast disinformation to millions of people on a corporate platform.”
“This nuance,” Alder stated with confidence, “seems to be lost on some techno-wizards who see any restriction as the enemy of innovation.”
Alder then cited Jason Goldman, former founding Twitter team member and company board member, who, according to Alder, said that “the tech rhetoric around free speech has become an obsession of the mostly white, male members of the tech elite, who made their billions in the decades before a rapidly diversifying workforce changed the culture at many of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley.”
Musk and his fellow tech billionaires simply don’t have the education to understand the implications of allowing people to speak their minds, Alder concluded.
“Tech titans often have a different understanding of speech than the rest of the world because most trained as engineers, not as writers or readers,” wrote Alder, “and a lack of a humanities education might make them less attuned to the social and political nuances of speech.”
On Twitter, users were quick to point out the obvious hypocrisy of Alder’s article.
“If it wasn’t for free speech then that Time Writer couldn’t say what he’s saying,” one user wrote. “Do just some people get the right of free speech?”
If it wasn’t for free speech then that Time Writer couldn’t say what he’s saying. Do just some people get the right of free speech?
— Toby Boone (@TobyBoone17) May 1, 2022
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