When Elon Musk announced he would purchase Twitter, he made a strong point that it was a bid to uphold free speech online and planned to create a better platform to roll back some of its current content moderation policies. He said, “failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.”
A week later, he clarified his definition of free speech. “By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask the government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”
He did not say if people wanted more speech and emphasized less speech instead. I have a problem with his definition of free speech, given that some countries’ laws do the opposite.
Governing entities in many countries, especially ones that suppress free speech, create the “laws of the land” and give their citizens no say in the matter. So does Mr. Musk believe that countries like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and over 100 others will really “listen” to their people and pass laws that either allow or, as he says, “want less free speech” based on their requests?
If Musk stays true to this strategy, it will give countries that already suppress freedom of speech more incentive to enforce their own censorship goals. BuzzFeed recently highlighted a significant potential conflict of interest coming from some investments Musk will accept to help him buy Twitter:
“When Elon Musk announced his bid to buy Twitter last month, he said he wanted to make the social network a beacon for free speech. But as Musk scrambles to pull together funding for the $44 billion deal, the billionaire is also planning to accept financing for the deal from two countries that have historically restricted freedom of speech: Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
On Thursday, an SEC filing revealed new financiers for Musk’s takeover plan, including Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. Both countries impose harsh censorship to quash dissent: A Qatari law states that spreading “false or malicious news” can land you in prison for five years, while in Saudi Arabia, critics of the government have faced arrest and even murder. Saudi Arabia ranks number 166 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index, while Qatar ranks number 119, according to Reporters Without Borders.”
Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding Company already has $1.9 billion invested in Twitter and is just rolling over that investment into Musk’s bid for Twitter. To date, they have been passive investors. The big question is, with Twitter under Elon Musk’s leadership, will this fund become an active investor now?
To clarify, Elon Musk is a brilliant person with grand visions. However, suppose he ends up owning Twitter and keeps to this current “free speech” strategy goal? In that case, he is about to enter a minefield that could have good and potentially disastrous consequences, especially in countries where free speech is already suppressed.