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26 April

If only freedom of speech was as simple as Elon Musk thinks

People need to be able to express themselves without abusive pile-ons or threats.

By James Ball

There is something about the debate around “free speech” that can make one long for the comforting blanket of censorship. With the participants talking at cross purposes, it quickly ends up becoming the rhetorical equivalent of nails down the blackboard.

This mind-numbing version of what is a fundamental debate about our liberties is set to come to the fore as Elon Musk — the world’s richest man, and the inventor of buying up companies and then pretending you invented the thing — has agreed a deal to buy Twitter and take it private.

Musk, 50, has a maximalist conception of free speech usually adopted by teenage boys and libertarian men in their early 20s, before they realise its limitations and grow out of it. This is essentially the romantic (until you try living it) notion that we should have the fewest limits possible on speech, including hate speech, and rely on the robust marketplace of ideas to sort things out. Perhaps most tediously for the 96 per cent of us on the planet who do not live within the United States of America, this position is often conflated with — and used interchangeably alongside — the First Amendment, which prevents the government from taking action to curtail speech and the media, but which does not restrict private actors from doing so.

For most of us in liberal democracies, private actors are far likelier to curb our free speech than the government is. Mark Zuckerberg won’t allow any photo containing a woman’s nipple — even if breastfeeding — on Facebook. Employers often dismiss staff for unwise social media comments or footage, as Tesla did only last month. One car company’s erratic CEO (yes, obviously Musk) once cancelled a customer’s order after deeming a blog post he had written to be rude. Consequences can come in all shapes and sizes, and Twitter’s prospective new owner doesn’t seem averse to dishing a few out himself.

This alone would be enough to complicate Twitter and Musk’s free speech dilemmas, but there is a crucial additional aspect of the debate. For Musk free speech is about freedom from interference, usually from government or tech “censorship”, a model known as negative liberty. But for many people, especially women, LGBT people and people of colour, free expression also relies on being given the positive freedom to speak without having to face huge and abusive pile-ons, harassment or threats. That need for structures to create a place in which people can freely express themselves is known as positive liberty, and it relies on thoughtful and careful moderation.

One outcome of all of this would be Musk having to quickly learn that creating his free speech haven is much more complicated than he might imagine. The other outcome — where Musk just pushes his naive free speech policies on Twitter anyway — is a social network where people just like him can say whatever they want… to an audience made up only each other, because everyone else has either shut up or quit, leaving an online community by edgelords and for edgelords.

That does, of course, already exist. It’s called 4chan. It has about 200,000 concurrent users, rather than Twitter’s 200 million. If that’s what he wants, it would’ve been much cheaper to buy that instead.

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