Elon Musk's Twitter stake purchase is bad for free speech?

Tesla founder Elon Musk's decision to buy Twitter stake suggests that he wants to bring the social media platform to heel.

| Updated on: Aug 22 2022, 11:26 IST
Elon Musk
This may be just another piece of performance art from Musk, who has alternately endorsed and pooh-poohed Bitcoin to great effect. (REUTERS)
Elon Musk
This may be just another piece of performance art from Musk, who has alternately endorsed and pooh-poohed Bitcoin to great effect. (REUTERS)

Elon Musk just bought a $3 billion stake in Twitter Inc., because when you're the world's richest human you can toss billions around like poker chips. This may be just another piece of performance art from Musk, who has alternately endorsed and pooh-poohed Bitcoin to great effect. He's also taken to Twitter to hype altcoins such as Dogecoin and Shiba Inu, while simultaneously warning followers: “Don't bet the farm on crypto!”

“True value is building products & providing services to your fellow human beings, not money in any form,” he cautioned, which may be easy advice to give when your net worth is $273 billion, your electric vehicle company is surging and you can shoot your own rockets into space.

So maybe we should take Musk's Twitter investment as more of the same from the guy who has pondered the meaning of life while sipping whiskey and smoking weed during a podcast and once mysteriously claimed he had “funding secured” to take Tesla Inc. private. But I suspect there's something more serious informing Musk's decision to invest in Twitter, even if he revels in buffoonery: Maybe he wants to bring Twitter to heel.

Consider the poll he conducted (on Twitter, of course) 10 days ago. “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy,” it says. “Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” More than two million users responded to that question, with 70.4% of them voting “no.”

A day later, Musk, who fashions himself a “free speech absolutist,” was on the social media platform again: “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?” This time he didn't bother with a poll, asking: “Is a new platform needed?”

All of this follows Musk's ongoing battle with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has been monitoring his Twitter posts for a very good reason: They move markets. Musk maintained in a court filing that the SEC's oversight seems “calculated to chill his exercise” of free speech.

So despite ample room in which to exercise his speech — and aggressively trying to curtail the free speech of some of his critics — Musk evidently feels aggrieved. What's not clear is why Twitter is his target.

His Twitter rants and raves have been wide-ranging and unfettered. He once tweeted, then deleted, a meme comparing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Hitler. He's tweeted transphobic memes. He's slagged a British cave explorer as a “pedo guy.” That's a lot of free speech, and Twitter hasn't done a lot to curtail it.

One explanation for Musk's sensitivity might be found in his libertarian leanings. Belated efforts by social media platforms to constrain some of the most virulent forms of political propaganda have raised the hackles of that crowd (along with far-rightists and Trumpistas). Now Musk has at least fired a shot across Twitter's bow by purchasing 9.2% of its stock — which is also much less expensive than doing the same to Facebook (a 9.2% stake in Meta Inc. would have cost him about $58 billion).

Does Musk want to take over Twitter? I don't think so. The company's financials aren't great, and running social media companies is hard. The car crash that is former President Donald Trump's social media experiment, Truth Social, is a cautionary tale for Musk. Does Musk want to name some people to Twitter's board of directors? Maybe. That would allow him to have some say over its affairs without spending too much time or money.

That's worrisome, because it's not ideal to have a free speech absolutist who isn't absolutely in favor of free speech at the helm of — or even close to — a media company. Musk has already received a nice pop on his Twitter stake. The shares jumped 26% on Monday after his investment was disclosed in a regulatory filing. He'll stick around longer, of course, and speculation that Twitter may be in play will further inflate his holdings.

But Musk probably isn't in this for the money. He's in it to make a point. And he's in it to scare Twitter's management. Somebody who has complained that his free speech is being “chilled” should, perhaps, be sensitive to those nuances. But that would assume that Musk is more of a philosopher than a bully.

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First Published Date: 05 Apr, 10:20 IST