How Elon Musk should shape Twitter — sans the sink


News reports Wednesday seemed to start out like a bar joke: The richest man in the world walks in carrying a sink . . .

Of course, it was a joke — a colossal joke. The question is whom the joke is on.

For Elon Musk, the punch line was appropriately delivered on Twitter, the company he’s taking over Friday at an inflated price. Calling himself “Chief Twit,” Musk posted the video with the caption “Entering Twitter HQ — let that sink in!”

For the Musk-phobic, it was as funny as a drive-by shooting. CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem denounced Musk’s taunt as “fundamentally cruel.” After all, when Musk was first reported to be buying the company, employees were so traumatized that leadership had to offer emotional support just to “get through the week.”

The reason is less the fear of Musk bringing bathroom fixture than free speech into San Francisco headquarters. Twitter has created one of the largest censorship systems in world history — a system widely condemned for a pattern of political bias and viewpoint intolerance. 

Outgoing CEO Parag Agrawal is unabashedly hostile to traditional views of free speech. Soon after he took over, he pledged to regulate content and said the company would “focus less on thinking about free speech” because “speech is easy on the Internet. Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard.”

For employees who are true believers of this censorship scheme, the joke no doubt feels like it’s on them. The censorship skill set may not be quite as much in demand in a Musk-owned firm. While Facebook, Google and other companies are still committed to corporate censorship, Musk has pledged to restore free speech principles to Twitter.

But the joke may still be on Musk if he yields to Twitter’s corporate culture or the mainstream media’s unrelenting pressure. Democratic leaders like Hillary Clinton have turned from private censorship to good old-fashioned state censorship.

Clinton has called on foreign governments to step in and pass laws that would force Twitter to continue to censor opposing views. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently repeated this call for global censorship at the United Nations to the applause of diplomats and media alike.

Parag Agrawal
Parag Agrawal pledged to regulate content when he took over as Twitter’s CTO.
Ellian Raffoul/Twitter/AP

Musk may have to yield to such domestic laws, but he can use his platform to inform citizens of those countries they are being censored and controlled in what they are allowed to read.

The most important thing in America is for Musk to hit the ground running at Twitter

First, he needs to order the preservation of all records. There are well-supported examples of biased censorship, including the burying of The Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story before the election. There are also allegations of back-channel communications from the government to manage a type of censorship-by-surrogate system to evade the First Amendment.

Second, Musk should focus on the First Amendment as a model for Twitter’s content-management policy. It has become a mantra on the left that free-speech objections to social-media censorship are meritless because the First Amendment does not apply to private corporations.

This is a knowingly cynical and senseless argument. The First Amendment has never been the sole and exclusive measure of free speech. It concerns the greatest threat to free speech at the time of the founding. But corporate censorship on communication platforms is an equal, if not greater, threat today to free-speech values.

Twitter logo on phone and in background
Musk recently denied previous reports alleging that the billionaire would slash 75% of the workforce at the social media company if he takes over.
Gregory Bull/AP

Musk could call these anti-free-speech advocates’ bluff. Former President Barack Obama flogged this false line at Stanford in April. He started by declaring himself “pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist.” He then called for the censorship of anything he considered “disinformation,” including “lies, conspiracy theories, junk science, quackery, racist tracts and misogynist screeds.”

Like many others on the left, Obama claims to be a free-speech champion but narrowly confines such fealty to government censorship. He emphasized, “The First Amendment is a check on the power of the state. It doesn’t apply to private companies like Facebook or Twitter.”

While the First Amendment does not bind private corporations, there is nothing preventing one — like Twitter — voluntarily assuming such protections for free speech. Even with some adjustments for a private forum, what I call the First Amendment Option would create a default in favor of free speech that doesn’t exist on these platforms.

There’d be narrow exceptions for threatening, unlawful and a few other proscribed categories of speech. Twitter can tap into a long line of First Amendment jurisprudence limiting the scope of such speech regulations. Even with a private company’s greater flexibility, a First Amendment-based policy would establish much better protections for free speech.

In other words, Musk could show up at Twitter with precisely the standard long dismissed by censorship advocates — and then let that sink in. 

Jonathan Turley is an attorney and professor at George Washington University Law School.


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