When Elon Musk owns speech, it isn't free
Also: Republicans want to reframe the Paul Pelosi attack as a crime story. The mainstream media is helping them out.
By Noah Berlatsky
Billionaire tech and auto mogul Elon Musk says he purchased Twitter “because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square.” Musk sees Twitter as an open-air gathering spot where anyone and everyone can hop on a (digital) box and bellow at passerbys.
For Musk, that is “free speech” — a vigorous forum in which no one is asked to move along for providing misleading medical advice, or spewing blatant antisemitism, or inciting an insurrection. Musk himself had barely taken ownership of Twitter when he tweeted a homophobic conspiracy theory intended to downplay the attempted assassination of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which resulted in the severe beating of her husband.
Thank goodness homophobes, conspiracy theorists, and advocates for political violence can scream into the Twitter town square without fear of censorship!
But Twitter isn’t really a town square. It’s not a public utility, and it’s not a public space. It’s a private media company — essentially a publisher. Twitter has a lot more in common with a newspaper than it does with a bazaar.
Musk isn’t preserving public space. He’s using his vast resources to seize control of a publication because he didn’t like its editorial line. That’s not an example of free speech unbound. It’s an example of how the very wealthy can silence criticism and bury the public in propaganda.
As Hank Green, the CEO of Complexly, tweeted, “A lot of people who say they want ‘free speech’ actually just want to be the one in charge of which speech is free.”
Twitter has editorial standards aimed at safety. Musk doesn’t like them.
Twitter is obviously different from a traditional newspaper in many ways. It doesn’t pre-approve writers. You don’t have to pitch an editor before posting; anyone can sign up and start tweeting a few minutes later. Because Twitter’s editorial policy is loose, and because most writers don’t have direct contact with anyone at the company, it can feel like there aren’t any editors at all.
But there are. Twitter’s default assumption is that it will publish what you have to say. It has broad editorial standards. But that doesn’t mean it has no editorial standards. Twitter is like a local newspaper which runs every letter to the editor — but then decides maybe not to print that one with the death threats, or that one with the slander, or that one with the racist slurs.
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Twitter’s TOS provide a broad statement of editorial principles. For instance, its policy is that “you may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.” Twitter also refuses to print violent threats and can ban tweets or users for the glorification of violence. This is the policy under which the service deleted the account of Donald Trump, who used twitter to justify and encourage a violent attack on the Capitol.
Twitter made an editorial decision; it didn’t want to use its resources or its platform to promote violent insurrection. Elon Musk disagrees with that editorial stance; he thinks Twitter should allow people to organize violent insurrection using its resources and its platform. He thinks it should be a place where bigots and conspiracy theorists like himself reign supreme and can defame political leaders targeted for assassination by the far right.
Disagreements about editorial choices happen all the time. After the New York Times published an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton urging military incursions into US cities, many progressives protested, and they were joined by people on the Times staff itself. This led the paper to condemn its own editorial and its editorial process. James Bennett, the op-ed editor, ended up resigning in semi-disgrace.
Readers and staff feel like they have a stake in the media outlets they work for and support. Feedback and debate about what views should be promoted and shared by powerful institutions are part of a healthy democracy.
Very wealthy people like Musk, though, have power to shape the debate in ways that those with fewer resources do not. Specifically, if they disagree with the editorial line of an outlet they read, they can just buy it.
And, after a great deal of confusion and shilly-shallying, that is what Musk has done. He believes that Twitter should be more pro-insurrection and more open to hatred, transphobia, and bigotry. And so he used his vast wealth and power to change its editorial stance so that it will be more in line with his own. Bigots on Twitter duly celebrated the news by posting racist slurs and Nazi memes, emboldened because they feel, with some justice, that Musk is okay with them doing so.
There are obvious parallels here with the Murdoch Fox empire, or Jeff Bezos purchasing the Washington Post, or the reactionary Sinclair broadcasting company’s systematic takeover of local news. But wealthy people buying media to spread their own views has a long and depressing history. One example is that pre-Musk reactionary automobile magnate, Henry Ford.
The Ford template
Ford is generally known today as the man who first produced low-cost cars, bringing automobiles in the reach of the masses. He was also, though, a vile antisemite who dedicated his life to hatred.
In 1918, Ford purchased The Dearborn Independent, the local newspaper in his Michigan base of operations. He then used the paper to publish a series of 91 articles claiming that the US was being controlled by a vast Jewish conspiracy. The papers were distributed to his car dealerships throughout the country; sometimes they would even be placed in cars before purchase. Ford then bound the articles and released them in four volumes; the first one was titled The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem.
Ford was hugely well known and important — much like Musk — and his words and ideas were picked up and talked about across the world. Hitler admired him and was inspired in part by his propaganda.
So, was Henry Ford’s purchase of The Dearborn Independent a victory for free speech and an open town square? Of course not. Ford might have claimed that he was speaking out against tyrannical Jewish control, but that’s because he was a fascist liar. He did not purchase the newspaper to advance free speech. He purchased it to spread propaganda and hatred. Nor did his efforts lead to a freer world. He made the US a lot less safe for Jewish people, and in inspiring Hitler he helped plunge Europe into genocide, Nazism, and war.
Musk isn’t a committed evangelical antisemite like Ford. His reactionary views are more diffuse and confused. Also, he wants advertisers to continue to support Twitter, so he’s leery of going full Dearborn Independent. Musk has been assuring users and companies that work with Twitter that the site “cannot become a free-for-all hellscape” even as he immediately fired head of legal policy, trust and safety Vijaya Gadde.
We don’t know for sure what Musk will do with Twitter. Even Musk doesn’t really know what he’s going to do with Twitter. But we do know that when he babbles about town squares and free speech, he’s lying — either deliberately or because he’s a fool or both. And we know that his editorial decisions are likely to have real consequences. Making Twitter a safe space for insurrectionists, bigots, and fascists to organize will enable stochastic terrorism, death threats, and violent attacks on democracy.
Twitter isn’t a public forum. It’s a media institution, which, one way or another, expresses the values and the perspectives of the people who own it. Or, in this case, of the one person who owns it — Elon Musk, reactionary billionaire.
At $44 billion, the voice of Twitter is the opposite of free. Musk can afford it. For the rest of us, the cost is high.
The NYT follows Republicans in framing the Pelosi attack as a crime story
By Aaron Rupar
Friday’s home intrusion targeting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the ensuing attempted murder of her husband Paul Pelosi is huge news, given that the suspect, David DePape, appears to be a deranged MAGA deluded by conspiracy theories spread by Republicans and Fox News (as the below video illustrates).
Before assaulting Paul, DePape reportedly yelled “Where’s Nancy?” (She wasn’t home.) The Pelosis weren’t caught up in a wave of random San Francisco break ins — they were targeted in part because MAGA Republicans and their media echo chamber incite loonies like DePape to hate them.
And yet the New York Times’ main news story about the attack framed it as though it was a product of rising crime in San Francisco, noting that “the break-in and assault comes at a time when the city is awash in crises over crime and disorder in the streets.” This framing echoed messaging from prominent Republicans, which was more or less that the Pelosis have nobody to blame but themselves since Nancy is so soft on crime.