Musk to champion free speech at Twitter?
Michael Moore taking it to GM in the 1980s had a distinctly different paradigm
In the late 1970s, Beatles legend George Harrison bought the “world’s most expensive cinema ticket” by funding Monty Python’s first film, Life of Brian. Had superfan Harrison not set up HandMade Films to fund the film at £3 million, Python members claim the film would never have been made. This past week, Elon Musk paid nearly $3 billion for:
Musk’s views on free speech:
Elon Musk @elonmuskFree speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?
More than 2 million participated in the free speech poll, with nearly 30% responding Yes to a baiting question; and the day after the tweet above, multiple news outlets reported Musk was seriously considering launching his own social media platform that used an open-source algorithm that prioritized free speech and minimized propaganda. Instead, less than 2 weeks later he bought 9% of Twitter’s stock (with perhaps the option to still launch his own platform if he so chooses).
It’s worth noting some of Musk’s past behavior as it relates to how he tweets “freely”:
In 2018, [Musk] was sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission for tweeting that he had “funding secured” for Tesla to become a private company. The SEC accused him of misleading the market (a claim Musk denied). As part of his 2019 settlement with the commission, Musk’s tweets about many aspects of his company now have to be vetted by lawyers before he posts them. It’s an agreement that the SEC has accused Musk of violating repeatedly.
Twitter’s views on free speech:
Stated company purpose:
We serve the public conversation. It matters to us that people have a free and safe space to talk.
Leading company principle:
Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right — but freedom to have that speech amplified by Twitter is not. Our rules exist to promote healthy conversations.
In an era when social media executives are designated by D.C. to be the gatekeepers of safe and free public discourse, Twitter’s former CTO, Parag Agrawal succeeded Jack Dorsey as CEO. According to Twitter’s website, Agrawal as CTO was “responsible for Twitter's technical strategy, leading work to improve development velocity while advancing the state of Machine Learning across the company.” Nothing in his company bio suggests he worked on what constitutes ‘free speech’ on Twitter.
In a 2020 interview, Agrawal said this in about the rise of misinformation on the social media platform:
Lichfield: You're caught in a bit of a hard place as somebody in the audience is also pointing out, that you're trying to combat misinformation, you also want to protect free speech as a core value, and also in the U.S. as the first amendment. How do you balance those two?
Agrawal: Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation. The kinds of things that we do about this is, focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed. One of the changes today that we see is speech is easy on the internet. Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard. The scarce commodity today is attention. There's a lot of content out there. A lot of tweets out there, not all of it gets attention, some subset of it gets attention. And so increasingly our role is moving towards how we recommend content and that sort of, is, is, a struggle that we're working through in terms of how we make sure these recommendation systems that we're building, how we direct people's attention is leading to a healthy public conversation that is most participatory.
How the times have changed? Arguably, social media makes it possible for anyone (not banned from the platform) to have a public voice more so than at any point in history. And the free speech guaranteed in the US Constitution was for citizens (which was only defined after a very bloody Civil War), who formed a much less representative democracy than we have today. And Twitter’s current CEO believes the company should be more focused on the opportunities afforded by machine learning in a scatterbrain world than the most fundamental democratic right or what constitutes ‘healthy public conversation.’
Is Musk a modern day Don Quixote?
In 2013, Bezos bought the Washington Post, which is currently the 2nd largest digital news provider with a purported 3M subscribers. Given Musk reaches nearly 81M Twitter users from his handle alone, the appeal to have a corporate stake in an influential social media platform is obvious. The New York Times is the largest digital news provider and their ambitious goal of 10M subscribers pales in comparison. Granted, paying for news is not the same as reading it for free, but if audience reach is the ultimate goal and younger users are born into a social media world, Musk buying a large share (more than 4 times the number of shares owned by Jack Dorsey) of a text-first social platform (vs. Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat) has some logic.
Many are speculating what Musk’s goals/intentions truly are but will he take a cue from an earlier day Don Quixote?
An ordinary citizen in Flint, Michigan who stood up to General Motors:
Flint was the birthplace of General Motors (GM) in 1908. On February 11, 1937, a 44 day sit-down strike for a wage increase in Flint led to the United Auto Workers union's first major success and inspired more than 7 dozen strikes in the next two weeks in Detroit alone. (Prior to social media, that was incredibly fast.) By the mid-1980s, the company permanently closed multiple plants eliminating more than 30,000 jobs in Flint and moved manufacturing offshore to Mexico. Michael Moore, who had many family members work at GM and whose uncle was part of the aforementioned sit-down strike, went on an odyssey to understand the toll of plant closures on his hometown and see if he could talk to GM CEO, Roger Smith, which he documented in his film, Roger & Me.
After the plant closures, crime had skyrocketed in Flint and in one poignant scene, Moore documents former plant coworkers standing on different sides of the prison bars. By the end of the documentary, Moore finally got to speak to Smith at the chairman's annual 1988 Christmas message in Detroit:
Moore: Mr. Smith, we just came down from Flint where we filmed a family being evicted from their home the day before Christmas Eve. A family that used to work in the [GM] factory. Would you be willing to come up with us to see what the situation is like in Flint, so that people..
Smith: I've been to Flint, and I'm sorry for those people, but I don't know anything about it, but you'd have to..
Moore: Families are being evicted from their homes on Christmas Eve.
Smith: Well, I'm..listen, I'm sure General Motors didn't evict them. You'd have to go talk to their landlords.
Moore: They used to work for General Motors, and now they don't work there anymore.
Smith: Well..I'm sorry about that.
Moore: Could you come to Flint with us?
Smith: I cannot come to Flint. I'm sorry.
After the film’s ending credits, Moore wrote “This film cannot be shown within the city of Flint. All the movie theaters have closed.”
What we all understand to be ‘good business’ today was just the beginning of a growing socioeconomic trend that was tearing apart American communities across the country. Moore may not have realized in the moment how he was not just documenting Flint but rather America’s manufacturing collapse. By attempting to bring CEO Roger Smith to Flint, the director’s goal could not have been to reopen the plants. Watching the film shows he isn’t so naïve. But his film does an extraordinary job of showing the human costs of ‘good business.’
Musk and Twitter
Unlike Moore, Musk has a seat on Twitter’s Board of Directors and regardless of how media outlets say Board members do not set company direction, Elon will clearly have influence through his shares, vote and Twitter handle. Moore could only ask Smith questions; Musk can answer and steer direction. How will Musk respond to:
Propaganda: How will disinformation be treated going forward? To say only those speaking against vaccines and disseminating ‘stop the steal’ are the only individuals spreading disinformation is blatantly disingenuous. Individuals across the ideological spectrum speak in half-truths, hyperbole and knee-jerk reactions. Will rules now be universally enforced regardless of narratives promoted?
Truth: Should there be a concrete definition of what constitutes an authoritative news source? Will he push for a more egalitarian, principle-based approach that makes an effort to distinguish ‘fact-based’ vs. ‘opinion’ and does not prioritize any source above another?
Justice: Does Musk intend to pressure Twitter execs to reverse woke mob verdicts and reinstate those pushed onto alternative platforms? As Tucker Carlson spoke at length on his Monday night show, which still ranks as the top cable news show among adults 25-54, “censorship now defines America's public conversation.” It’s not just Trump who adamantly believes neoliberals ‘shut them up’ and pushed them out of the public square.
Harassment: Should Twitter do anything beyond coordinating with the proper authorities for legal infractions? Should an online social community reflect how in-person communities react to individuals being harassed in front of their eyes?
Public good: Does Musk agree with those that believe internet and social media companies function similar to public utility companies and should be regulated as such?
Press freedom: According to the United Nations, “on average, every five days a journalist is killed for bringing information to the public.” Will Musk prioritize journalist protections to strengthen democracy, even if those journalists are criticizing him?
While Musk can potentially influence the broader American dialogue on freedom of speech, the role of technology in the digital public square and how we as citizens can engage in healthy conversations, it’s also just as (or more) likely he gets bored with product enhancements and finds something new to focus on before the end of the year. And maybe another documentarian can capture what happened to the broader American community left in the wake of social media not being able to address freedom of speech in modern times.
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