Elon Musk buys Twitter with the intention of saving free speech. He sells 22.9 million dollars of Tesla to finance it, making him one of the most in-debt CEOs on the planet. However, he did it because he was fully convinced that Twitter and the world needed him.

Why Elon Musk's 'Free Speech' on Twitter Risks Alienating Advertisers and How Twitter's Content Rules Explain
Courtesy: Financial Review

Elon said it is very important to have an “inclusive arena for free speech.” Since he took over the company, hate has increased by 300%, and it appears that people are using paid, verified accounts to pose as fake accounts and scam the naive with cryptocurrencies and fake public announcements.

Where did it all go wrong?

Were Elon’s intentions positive in the beginning, or was this kind of plan in place all along? Can Twitter be saved? We spent a lot of time researching this by watching most of his videos, interviews, and listening to lawyers to understand the issue. Elon talks a lot about free speech and the mission with Twitter, and we also encountered many people heavily criticizing him to get a balanced view. This is a really fascinating topic and should be one of the biggest stories in tech for 2023. So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at this.

Pre-Elon Twitter (Twitter’s Big Problem)

It’s easy to see that Twitter’s user base is significantly smaller than other social media giants like Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube. However, the fact that Twitter’s user base is super influential is because it has a lot of public figures, journalists, and people at the top of their field. This makes Twitter a great networking tool, but it is also often the place where news breaks because it is text-based.

Why Elon Musk's 'Free Speech' on Twitter Risks Alienating Advertisers and How Twitter's Content Rules Explain
Courtesy: SocialMediaToday

So, even though Twitter didn’t have a massive user base of average users, it had a huge influence on culture. But not having a lot of average users using the application made it difficult to monetize the platform. When Elon saw this company, he may have thought there was an opportunity here and decided to buy 10% of the company because he believed in it. This gave him a minority stake in the company. However, he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to make enough of a difference in the company by only owning 10%, so he made an offer to buy Twitter.

Elon Buys Twitter (The 7 Big Problems and Questions That Arise)

First, there is a misaligned company culture and many people are unhappy with the way Elon took over the company. As a result, a lot of employees don’t really want to work with him. There is also a bot problem, where there are many inactive users spreading misinformation and bogging down the servers with extra accounts.

There has always been a revenue problem at Twitter, but it is only getting worse now that Elon has taken over. This is because Elon Musk is posting a lot of controversial content on a daily basis that many advertisers don’t agree with. He is also launching new services and firing people in real-time, which makes advertisers unsure of the future of Twitter and causes them to pull their advertising dollars. As a result, 50% of advertisers are no longer spending on Twitter, only exacerbating the revenue problem.

Elon Musk also launched a $8 a month verification system that allows anyone to get a blue checkmark as long as they are paying $8 a month. He did this to try to increase the revenue model and make the company less reliant on advertisers. In theory, it makes sense to try to stabilize revenue by getting the userbase to pay on a recurring model.

However, the verification checkmark feels like the wrong thing to offer because it has led to a lot of impersonations, with people impersonating not only Elon Musk but also companies, potentially affecting their stock. The increase in hate speech has also been a problem, as there are now verified accounts posting hate speech, which is a very bad combination.

Why Elon Musk's 'Free Speech' on Twitter Risks Alienating Advertisers and How Twitter's Content Rules Explain
Courtesy: INC24

Elon Musk has publicly acknowledged many of these issues, saying that they will make a lot of mistakes but will learn in real time because they care so much about free speech. However, it is unclear whether they actually care about free speech and what the term really means. The term “free speech” is used all over the internet, with people claiming that certain platforms are censoring them and that free speech is only available on certain platforms.

Elon says that the whole reason he spent all this money and became CEO is because of free speech. I wanted to find out what free speech really means and what is protected on a platform, as it feels like that will inform the rest of the story.

What is Free Speech? “The Prohibition from the Government from Censoring Speech”

In common vernacular, free speech means different things. In the legal context, free speech means the prohibition from the government from censoring people’s speech. When talking about private companies like Twitter, YouTube, the New York Times, or others, these are private citizens as well. They have the right to free speech and the right to free association, and if they want to kick people off their platform, they can do so.

Some people may call this censorship, but it is simply the platform exercising their free speech. When Elon Musk says he bought Twitter for the purpose of free speech, he is not using the term in the legal sense. He simply disagreed with the editorial decisions that the prior administration of Twitter was making and wanted to allow different kinds of speech and different creators on the platform. Now that he owns the Twitter platform, he is welcome to make those decisions, but it is no more or less free speech than what everyone else was doing beforehand.

It’s easy to get tied up in what Elon Musk is saying in all the footage where he talks about Twitter being the digital courtyard for everyone to convene. In many ways, Twitter is definitely where information spreads, but it doesn’t become any more or less free with him owning it. It’s just that the content allowed is different. There is still moderation, but when he took over, the hate speech increased exponentially overnight. Is there any role that the government plays in moderating it, or since it’s a private company in multiple countries, is there no moderation by the government on free speech?

Generally, the moderation decisions that Twitter makes and whether they allow more or less hate speech or how they define hate speech do not implicate the US government in any way. There is no prohibition against hate speech, and the First Amendment does not have an exception for hate speech. Many people get this wrong, thinking that the First Amendment does not apply to certain kinds of speech and that hate speech is one of those kinds of speech that can be moderated. This is just an absurd chain of logic.

The First Amendment

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Generally, hate speech is protected, at least as protected as everything else. If a platform wants to say they don’t want people espousing hate speech, they can decide to do that because they don’t want to be associated with those people. If they say they have no problem with hate speech, it’s good for advertisers and the bottom line, and they want to bring on more hate speech, they can do that too.

The government is not going to step in and say they are not allowed to promote hate speech because they are protected. It does get a little more complicated when you are talking about countries like the EU with different rules, or India in particular, which has some really nasty rules when it comes to platform moderation. One of the things Elon didn’t understand when he purchased Twitter, but has come to understand, is that the rules he makes for one country may not be allowed in another country. He will have to make some trade-offs.

If Twitter appeals to people who want to sensationalize hate speech, they may get a very dedicated user base, as we’ve seen with other social media platforms that give these extremists a platform. However, the general public doesn’t want that. Hate speech is allowed to a certain extent, depending on the type of hate speech it is. If it’s threatening, where do you think the line gets drawn legally with what is allowed to be posted on Twitter versus not?

In terms of speech that is punishable while still adhering to the First Amendment, you generally have two categories: true threats and defamation. A true threat is generally considered running up to someone with a knife in hand and saying you are going to kill them, even if you don’t actually bring the knife down. If you point a gun at someone in real life and say you are going to shoot them, you will be arrested. Defamation is an untrue specific factual assertion that impugns someone’s reputation. There is a third category, incitement-related speech, which is so inflammatory that it incites imminent lawless action. This is an incredibly high standard to meet and is rarely met.

In terms of what the law says, there are only a few categories of things that Twitter has to take down and moderate. It’s mostly just an editorial decision about what they want their community to look like. This is what changed when Elon took over, as the line being drawn for what is allowed on the platform shifted. However, it’s important to remember that free speech is a government right, not a platform right. If a platform wants to create a community that is good for conversation, they can make decisions about what content is allowed on their platform, as long as it falls outside of the categories of speech that are punishable by law.

Currently, there are many issues behind the scenes at Twitter, such as employees feeling overworked and a lack of clear vision. If Elon truly cares about Twitter and has good intentions for the platform, he could help it resurface by increasing support for creators and creating features that the general public actually cares about, which could help increase the user base and address the advertiser problem.