It’s easy to overestimate the importance of Twitter’s survival or demise, and not just because the overwhelming majority of people have made the wise decision to have nothing to do with it all along. What may be more consequential than Elon Musk’s vehicle-fire-style management of his new $44 billion business is his reinvigoration of one of Silicon Valley’s stupidest ideas: that instant, unfettered publication of “free speech” is an end in itself, an unalloyed good and a result of lightly supervised technological platforms.
Contrary to the impression one might get from the government-subsidized automaker, Musk didn’t come up with this idea any more than he invented electric cars or space travel. The notion that all Americans should be able to say whatever they want in any context without consequences is a long-festering misinterpretation of the First Amendment that ignores its first word: Congress, the only entity it prohibits from restricting speech.
The Bay Area’s tech titans, like a bunch of computer science majors unburdened by the study of history, government or English, seized on this fallacy to simplistically justify their abject recklessness.
Mark Zuckerberg, for example, made this brand of grade-school constitutional scholarship his supposed business ethos years ago, famously declaring in 2018 that Holocaust deniers had a right to worldwide publication on his platform. Two years later, the Facebook chief executive had finally thought better of it, banning misinformation about the Nazi genocide amid rising anti-Semitic violence and, perhaps more important to him, an advertising boycott.
Befitting Musk’s much-vaunted genius, he underwent the same intellectual evolution more rapidly. Last month, he cited his tolerance of an account using public records to track his private jet as evidence of his “commitment to free speech.” Last week, he suspended that account along with those of several prominent journalists who cover him.
Earlier this month, days after declaring an amnesty for harassers, bigots and charlatans suspended under Twitter’s previous ownership, Musk expelled the musician formerly known as Kanye West for posting an image of a Jewish Star of David combined with a Nazi swastika. In a tortured attempt to suggest he was not restricting First Amendment-protected expression, which he was, Musk asserted that the rapper and former Kardashian had violated the company’s rule against inciting violencewhich he hadn’t.
At the same time, Musk openly yearned for Donald Trump to return to the platform even though he is under investigation by Congress and the Justice Department for inciting the violence of Jan. 6, 2021. Last week, the billionaire also disclosed Twitter’s internal deliberations on Trump’s removal from the site days after the insurrection, spinning the documents as some sort of exposé. He argued that the former president may not have violated Twitter’s rule against fomenting violence and therefore was a victim of political bias.
This epitomizes Musk’s misapplication of freedom of speech. At the time of his removal from Twitter, Trump occupied the nation’s most powerful government office. The First Amendment was meant to protect the expression of publishers and other citizens from the likes of Trump, not the other way around.
Moreover, in inciting violence and sedition, Trump was engaging in forms of expression to which the Constitution famously does not extend. The idea that some important corollary of free expression requires a publisher to distribute any government statement, let alone act as an accomplice to state-sponsored violence, is as stultifying as Twitter itself.
None of this is meant to overlook the likelihood that every Big Tech profession of free speech absolutism, or any other principle for that matter, is reverse-engineered to justify practices developed for the sole purpose of maximizing profits. The problem is that Musk’s argument is widely mistaken for a serious one regardless of his motives.
In reality, the First Amendment exists because speech is important, powerful and dangerous, a rationale directly at odds with the lazy and self-serving notions of freedom espoused by Musk and Zuckerberg. We have to protect speech because it matters, not because it doesn’t.