On April 26, 2022, entrepreneur and billionaire Elon Musk struck a deal with the board of Twitter to acquire the company for approximately $44 billion. In the statement announcing the deal, Musk stressed his intention to preserve free speech on the platform. He wrote, “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.” The same day, Musk clarified his position in a Tweet, claiming, “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law,” and that he is “against censorship that goes far beyond the law.” If Musk is able to follow through with his plans, Twitter would be going against the increasingly regulated tide of big tech companies. For now, many companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google enforce stricter speech regulation on their users than the standards included in the First Amendment, as these principles technically only apply to the US government. If all goes according to Musk’s plan, Twitter will be en par to those standards, but will not censor beyond what the law requires de jure.
Despite Musk’s stated aspirations, questions about his approach remain. Critics point out Musk’s problematic track record in using Twitter as a means of personal attack and even market manipulation. For example, in 2018, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged Musk with “Securities Fraud for Misleading Tweets.” The SEC accused Musk of misleading shareholders with tweets about the possibility of taking Tesla private and taking his responsibilities too lightly, considering the high amount of public faith placed in US corporate officers. Because of his acquisition, some have called for new urgency around the implementation of stricter governmental regulation of social media platforms. Former Reddit CEO, Ellen K. Pao, wrote an op-ed on the issue for the Washington Post. She believes that Musk’s appointment to Twitter’s board was further evidence of the wealthy exerting control over the media and channels of communication and information transference.
Others wonder whether Musk’s fundamental assumption that “going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people,” as stated in his previous Tweet, is true. In today’s political climate, many Americans’ distrust of their public officials run high, polarization prevails, and popular opinion is not wholly reflected in governmental policies. Because of policy makers’ failure to adequately represent the people and respond to new issues, it is not entirely unreasonable for private companies to impose stricter censorship and speech regulation.
The impact of Musk’s acquisition of Twitter goes beyond this one social media platform. It reflects a more fundamental issue that concerns the entire landscape for public discussion in America and the usage of the first amendment. When platforms like Twitter become the major battleground for public opinions, two issues arise. First, these platforms give the power of speech regulation to private companies, while it used to be almost entirely the job of the government. Second, they have people closer to each other, as people can directly interact with each other even if they were thousands of miles away. This makes people, to some degree, more vulnerable to personal attacks and hate speech. Those two changes have changed the modern dynamic of public discussion, and they call for different ways for us to look at speech regulation.
Despite the fact that most of our public discussions on this issue revolve around freedom of speech, Anghelo Chavira ’24 remains skeptical that upholding freedom of speech is Musk’s true intention in buying Twitter. He said, “I think we’ve come to the point where the acquisition of big companies [has] become a playground for the most rich and powerful people in the country. I do not think we can tell what are the true intentions of Musk behind the acquisition of Twitter, but I’m skeptical that providing a wider freedom of speech is among his true top priorities. He has done good things for society, yet I find myself troubled to think how […] our freedom to be heard will be benefitted by a businessman’s power moves in the social media industry.” As students of Concord Academy, it is important for us to and start conversation with each other about how this changes the way we use the internet and our understanding of the Constitution and the people who control the most wealth in this country.