Media freakout: Musk critics claim "free-speech absolutism" endangers ... democracy?

Britta Pedersen/Pool via AP

The talking points have gone out regarding Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter … again. At first, the pushback focused on the supposedly unique experience of a multibillionaire taking control of a major communications platform, with at least a couple of those attempts coming at the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post. A short history of billionaire control of media and communication platforms — including the list of billionaire owners of Twitter, including Jack Dorsey and the sovereign fund of Saudi Arabia — put an effective end to that argument.

Now, however, the buzzword/term among critics of the Musk buyout is “free-speech absolutism.” Reuters raised it in a report on Monday that human-rights groups objected to the sale on that basis, including the ACLU:

Musk, who is also chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc (TSLA.O), has described himself as a “free speech absolutist” who has been critical of Twitter’s policies of moderating content on the platform. He has said Twitter needs to become a genuine forum for free speech. In a statement after securing the deal on Monday, Musk described free speech as “the bedrock of a functioning democracy.” …

“While Elon Musk is an ACLU card-carrying member and one of our most significant supporters, there’s a lot of danger having so much power in the hands of any one individual,” Anthony Romero, executive director at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Reuters after the deal was announced.

I wonder how long Musk will remain a member and a supporter after that.

Other media outlets — which operate in the same First Amendment space that Musk will have to navigate — quickly lined up to cite free speech as a potential threat to … something:

  • Bloomberg: “Elon Musk’s ‘free speech’ Twitter crusade could inflame its hate and disinformation problem, experts warn”
  • WaPo: “Elon Musk’s ‘free speech’ takeover part of new corporate activism wave”
  • LA Times, via MSN: “Here’s the danger for Twitter in Elon Musk’s view of free speech absolutism”
  • Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Williams: Twitter weaponized free speech. If Musk loosens the reins, he jeopardizes democracy”
  • MSNBC’s Anand Giridharadas: “Elon Musk lives in a world in which the only kind of free speech is white men feeling free to say whatever the hell they want.”
  • PBS: “Elon Musk, Twitter, and the “False Flag of Free Speech””

Wow! It’s a damn good thing we never ratified that First Amendment. If we’d had free speech in public squares, this Republic would never have gotten off the ground. It’s worth pointing again, too, that the first three examples of these stories are prominently featured on communications platforms owned and entirely controlled by billionaires — Michael Bloomberg, Bezos, and Patrick Soon-Shiong.

Free speech is a core civil liberty and American value. Why do people who work in that space fear it so much?

As far as the “absolutism” talking point goes, it’s not even clear what that insinuates or even if it applies to Musk. It often appears in quotes, likely referencing Musk’s tweet about refusing to block Russian news sources from his systems:

As my pal Jeryl notes, the context of this sounds more glib than a serious stakeout of a philosophical or political position. It’s still fair game to quote, though, when criticizing Musk. A better approach would be to test out this claim based on Musk’s track record and then criticizing Musk rather than sending fright messages about free speech. CNBC actually took that approach and hit the mark:

When it comes to his employees’ free speech, Musk demonstrates little tolerance.

Under his leadership, when Tesla has laid off employees, it’s asked them to sign separation agreements including a strong non-disparagement clause with no end-date. These kinds of agreements are not uncommon in the industry, but Musk is far from a free-speech absolutist here.

A copy of one such agreement from Tesla, shared with CNBC by a former employee laid off in 2018 (who did not sign the agreement) said:

“You agree not to disparage Tesla, the Company’s products, or the Company’s officers, directors, employees, shareholders and agents, affiliates and subsidiaries in any manner likely to be harmful to them or their business, business reputation or personal reputation.”

To be fair, practically every employer has this kind of understanding about the terms of employment, and most put it in writing. It does tend to contradict the “absolutist” claim, of course, so it’s still a fair criticism on that point, but how many companies would keep paying someone who publicly slags them? Would Bloomberg, Bezos, or Soon-Shiong? Maybe, but I tend to doubt it.

Some of the other complaints about Musk are less on the mark:

Musk has repeatedly sought control over what journalists, bloggers, analysts and other researchers say about his businesses, their products, and himself.

Memorably, the Tesla CEO berated and cut off an analyst on an earnings call in 2018. “Excuse me, next, next. Boring, bonehead questions are not cool,” the CEO said after a question about his company’s capital requirements. The automaker had just posted its worst quarterly loss in its history. Musk later apologized for this, and now sometimes skips speaking on Tesla earnings calls.

Read the rest of this for details, but that mainly consists of criticizing his critics — which is just another form of free speech. Asking people to edit his Wikipedia page seems pretty petty, but it’s not a violation of free speech to campaign for outcomes in crowdsourcing, even if it’s risible on other grounds.

The next criticism, however, is very much on the mark:

Musk and Tesla have also sought — not always successfully — to silence customers. For example, Tesla used to compel customers to sign agreements containing non-disclosure clauses as a prerequisite to have their vehicles repaired.

In 2021, Tesla asked customers to agree not to post critically to social media about FSD Beta, an experimental driver assistance software package that some Tesla owners could test out using their own cars and unpaid time to do so. …

Meanwhile, in China, Tesla has sued customers who complained about safety issues with their cars, and sued a social media influencer there for defamation. The influencer, Xiaogang Xuezhang, posted a video demonstrating issues with Tesla’s and another automakers’ automated emergency braking systems.

And that’s about as much as we should excerpt, but be sure to read the rest. The CNBC analysis by Lora Kolodny seems fair and rather textured, even if some of the arguments don’t hold up quite as well as others. Suffice it to say that Musk isn’t an “absolutist” in practice as much as he may be in theory, a failing that many have when it comes to professed values. That is something that should be kept in mind before cheering too loudly for Musk as a free-speech savior with his purchase of Twitter, at least to the extent that the speech in question isn’t extolling one Elon Musk.

Instead of offering substantive criticisms of Musk himself (as Kolodny does), critics and media platforms are attacking the idea of free speech itself, and unmoderated spaces as some sort of “absolutist” version of it. It’s nonsense. The same laws that apply to speech in other public spaces would be just as applicable in Twitter — laws that prohibit actual physical threats (technically assault), incitement to riot, and civil restrictions related to slander, libel, defamation, and so on. Furthermore, Musk has proposed that Twitter should continue to restrict those kinds of actionable speech from going public to the extent that the platform can do so. He’s not pledging to eliminate the algorithms used for moderation, but merely to calculate them to conform to legal requirements and then to make them open-source so everyone can know how they operate.

That’s not free-speech absolutism. It’s normal First Amendment public-square discussions, only without the kind of bullying from the governing class that has pushed other billionaires into viewpoint suppression and quasi-censorship. The freak-out by America’s national media outlets and journalists over free speech gives us a very revealing look into an industry that has spent the last couple of decades squandering its credibility.