The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday December 7th

Column: Elon Musk isn't for free speech — he's for misinformation

Elon Musk, courtesy of Pool/Getty Images/TNS.
Buy Photos Elon Musk, courtesy of Pool/Getty Images/TNS.

I am in awe of social media. 

I was as chronically online as a teenager could be throughout my middle and high school years. While much of the internet can be incredibly psychologically damaging, there is no denying its power. 

So, it concerns me that Elon Musk bought a platform with that kind of power with the same impulse control that I exercise when I see a sweater that I like at Target – which is to say no impulse control at all.

The spread of misinformation in this country is appalling. Last week, far too many people claiming the 2020 election was stolen were elected to political office. School boards are grappling with hysteria and banning books that affirm the experiences of queer people and people of color.

A right-wing propaganda network pollutes the hearts and minds of too many people while claiming to be “news.” And the same great tool that helps me keep up with old friends and make new ones can create a horrible environment of disinformation and hate speech.

And, thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the companies who manage these platforms are rarely — if ever — held accountable for the content that is spread through their services.

Elon Musk understands social media's power and what he can gain from it. He’s a Reddit guy. He saw firsthand how the "r/wallstreetbets" GameStop saga short-circuited the stock market.

That’s what scares me about this whole blue check thing. Aside from being a blatant money grab and a terrible business model, all of his talk about the check mark being a “great leveler” when it is behind a simple $8 per month paywall covers up the real outcome of this move.

It makes the ethos of being an “official” account available to whoever wants to make a bunch of bots to influence the market at a low flat rate.

No matter the motivation, Musk is not the hero of the common man that he is claiming to be. By firing content moderation staff and eliminating the basic reasoning behind verifying accounts, he has opened the floodgates to make Twitter not just chaotic, but dangerous.

It’s worth mentioning that, traditionally, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to Twitter. When a person’s account is banned for hate speech, a private company does that silencing, not the government. The First Amendment requires state action to be applicable. Musk seems to be trying to circumvent this logic by claiming that Twitter is “the de facto public town square.” 

Musk seems to be invoking the Public Forum doctrine in First Amendment law: specifically that spaces like public parks or stages have a tradition of being a place where people go to share ideas. Think of the Pit.

For spaces designated as a traditional public forum, restrictions on speech are hard to justify in court, especially if the restriction is based on the speaker’s viewpoint. This is why we can’t seem to get rid of Gary, the Pit Preacher.

Musk thinks that Twitter is — or at least should be — subject to this body of law. But again, the important distinction is state action. The only way the First Amendment would apply here is if Twitter were owned by the government. 

Musk isn’t solving any first amendment or free expression problem by buying the company; he’s just imposing his own misguided values on a social media platform with millions of users. 

This is not a free speech issue. 

The framers of the Constitution couldn’t have imagined what Twitter was in their wildest fever dreams. Letting the masses loose on a platform where anything can be presented as the truth without challenge and where engagement is not fact-based but instead algorithm-based goes beyond anything the Constitution’s protection of freedom of speech could even conceive of. 

Already, we have seen the more immediate consequences of a Musk-owned social media platform. One Twitter user with $8 and a dream tanked the stock prices of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly after creating a verified impersonation account and tweeting that their insulin is now free. 

As a tool, the platform is no longer useful for journalists, experts or normal people just looking for credible sources. And a website that at its best can help people find community and collective power, is already starting to become flooded with misinformation and hate speech.

The internet has the power to democratize information. It is where I — and so many of my peers — first encountered conversations about sexuality, race, climate change and many of the issues that we may or may not face in our schools.

Unfortunately, every indication of how Musk’s leadership at Twitter will go points to that dark side of the internet being let loose without any guardrails.

@willrchristen

opinion@dailytarheel.com

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