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Elon Musk is Twitter's new philosopher king. It's not looking promising.

How Elon Musk's college dorm room views on free speech are going to wreck Twitter.
Photo illustration: Elon Musk wearing robes, holding up the Twitter logo with the hand and a blue book in his right hand.
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, whose takeover bid for Twitter was accepted Monday, has been regularly tweeting out ideas pertaining to “free speech” over the past few days.

These lofty tweets, interspersed between jokes and memes on his chaotic timeline, now carry significant weight: They’re likely signals of how the megabillionaire plans to try to reform the social media site should he close the deal.

And they are … not promising.

Musk is essentially now in the position of a philosopher king whose aphorisms and stated principles could have the power to single-handedly reshape one of the most influential public squares on the internet. The picture emerging from these tweets is that he hasn’t really thought through the complex dilemmas that he will have to tackle while overseeing the company. And he’s going about it in a way that’s likely to demoralize the very people who would help him enact any vision he has.

Here are a few thoughts on some of his most notable recent tweets.

Tweet #1: Musk’s first stab at defining what he means by free speech raises many more questions than it answers, starting with the question of matching the law.

Twitter is a corporation that has users all over the world, many of whom reside in countries which have vastly different and, at times, diametrically opposed, rules on speech. Does Musk intend to comply with the different rules of authoritarian governments that sharply limit free speech, and the European Union’s newly passed policy requirements for social media platforms, including moderation and open algorithms? If so, how? Would complying with some authoritarian state rules not conflict with his earlier position of refusing to block Russian news sources through his Starlink satellite broadband service because he’s a “free speech absolutist”?

This is to say nothing of the obvious fallacy that laws on speech in a country reflect “the will of the people.” Twitter operates in non-democracies and semi-democracies where the public has little to no input on the law; and the most robust democracies in the world are currently struggling to play catch-up with new speech challenges posed by the internet. This is not the clarifying principle Musk seems to think it is.

Then there is the issue of Musk introducing a principle that could render Twitter entirely unusable. Twitter already “matches” U.S. law in that its content moderation is protected by the First Amendment. What Musk seems to be implying, based on his other comments that Twitter’s content moderation is overly suppressive, is that he envisions Twitter as a place where anything that isn’t currently illegal under U.S. law flies. But does Musk, a tech executive who seems to care a great deal about products that work well, appreciate what that might mean for the usability of Twitter?

As NBC News’ Ben Collins, a reporter who covers disinformation and extremism, has pointed out, social media platforms and online forums that have sought to be entirely unregulated have often been swamped by bot networks, spammers, extremist harassers, purveyors of child pornography (which is illegal, but bound to surface in spaces that are unregulated) and all kinds of vicious bigots who aim to intimidate users. “Moderation is different than free speech. Moderation is hard — it’s extremely hard,” Collins explained in a segment on Rachel Maddow’s show recently. “In fact it’s an art, not a science.” Using the example of Tik Tok taking down a video in which a kid trying to make slime accidentally made napalm, he explained how social media sites constantly have to make unexpected judgment calls on taking down material that isn’t necessarily illegal but does cross a red line for safety of users or to make a space functional. There's a good chance Musk has his own red lines too.

Additionally, algorithms, which social media sites use to prioritize information on user feeds and maximize engagement to boost their bottom lines, have huge implications for what kinds of speech a platform considers worthy of public attention. Unless Musk wants to drop any algorithm and keep Twitter purely chronological, he should be prepared for critiques of what his algorithms mean for speech in the public sphere. Speech isn't just about what you can say, but who gets to hear it.

Tweet #2: This tweet is another case of an overly simplistic principle masquerading as a profound one. There is no way to measure how much one is “upsetting” each side of a debate, nor is there any consensus on what constitutes “far left” or “far right.” It seems plausible under this principle that Musk could deploy something akin to the Facebook strategy — tweaking the algorithm to favor or disfavor right-wing media sources in order to protect his business model and ensure the approval of right-wing pundits and users — in a bid to create perceived balance between the right and the left. But the idea that such an enterprise constitutes neutrality is an illusion — it’s a political game involving value judgments, and it's influenced by profit motives. (If Twitter trends to the right because of Musk's takeover, doesn't he have a financial incentive to nudge balance that way?)

Another issue is the fact that views on free speech don't correspond in obvious or predictable ways with where someone stands on the political spectrum. Musk seems to think free speech is a right-wing hobbyhorse. The reality is, however, that many on the American right today clearly favor aggressive government censorship at odds with the spirit of the First Amendment; meanwhile, there are some on the left, like myself, who are skeptical of Big Tech's ability to, for example, censor political disinformation without stifling political dissent, and who favor a relatively light touch with moderation. How would upsetting people from the right and left in equal measure lead to the right answer on free speech?

Tweet #3: That last noteworthy tweet is Musk sharing a meme mocking Twitter’s top lawyer, Vijaya Gadde, who, among other things, oversaw the moderation team which controversially blocked the circulation of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden in 2020, a decision which Musk recently described as “incredibly inappropriate.”

In this case, I agree with Musk’s objection to that specific decision. But his method for communicating his opinion on it was obnoxious and domineering — Musk’s tweet (predictably) had the effect of sending harassers and racist trolls in the direction of Gadde. Maybe Musk expects her to leave or plans to fire her if he takes over the company, but it’s still an unprofessional and immature way to criticize a top executive at a company you’re planning to oversee.

Even if Gadde is expected to leave the company, it sets a bad precedent — other employees (and potential hires) will take note and may get the impression that Musk is willing to publicly dunk on people whom he disagrees with in front of his tens of millions of followers instead of initiating a serious private conversation with them. It could drive away some serious talent, while also encouraging loyalist behavior. To be clear, Musk is free to criticize Gadde all he wants, but if he actually wants to improve Twitter and make the company itself a place for free expression of ideas, this is unlikely to be an effective way to go about it.

All in all, Musk’s free speech tweets dodge any serious reckoning with the fundamental riddles posed by Twitter and every other major social media platform. Talk of matching the laws of countries is not actually a north star — it is precisely because the internet has generated categorically new questions about speech that didn’t exist prior to the recent emergence of these platforms that these issues are so complex and contentious. Tackling them requires not just intelligence, but also humility, curiosity, careful thinking and prudence. Let's hope Musk grasps this in time.