Twitter and Musk: Freedom of speech and beyond

ChennaiWritten By: Aritra BanerjeeUpdated: May 25, 2022, 06:13 PM IST

Elon Musk is currently in a process to acquire Twitter Photograph:(Reuters)

Story highlights

While the famous First Amendment Right appears straightforward on paper, its interpretation has been a source of contention among Americans since the rule was ratified. Because it's such a complicated and nuanced topic, it's understandable that many people are unsure what "free speech" actually protects

Last week was historic in the space of social media. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, announced that he would purchase Twitter, the micro-blogging site that he has used for years to promote his interests and construct his public image. He said in a statement “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”

While the famous First Amendment Right appears straightforward on paper, its interpretation has been a source of contention among Americans since the rule was ratified. Because it's such a complicated and nuanced topic, it's understandable that many people are unsure what "free speech" actually protects.  This article tries to explain how practical the promise of establishing Free Speech on Twitter is and also digs deep into the business impact that can take place after this historic acquisition.

Many people are echoing Musk's "public square" or "town square" argument to demand freedom of expression on all social media arguing that any speech that occurs in a public arena qualifies for First Amendment protection. Many have blamed that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google and YouTube are suffocating free expression by shutting down accounts that encourage violence or propagate misinformation, including that of former President Donald Trump's personal account.



The above is an output of ‘sentiment analysis’ done for the texts that appeared on Twitter during the period April-May 2022. The percentage of positive comments is 16.30% and negative is 13.77%

Key to note is the unusual positive sentiment from countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia showing people’s angst against authoritarian governments who use the platform to track opponents and spread disinformation. The negative comments largely focused on how an elite white man (Musk) who is detached from real issues like Apartheid, can never take a real stand for suppressed people with his promise of “Free Speech”.

Another analytical output is the word cloud. It is a basic but effective visual representation object for text processing that displays the most frequently used words in larger, bolder letters and with varied colors. The lesser the importance of a term, the smaller it is.


As is evident from the above image, words such as ‘Elite’, ‘White’ ‘Community’ etc. were predominant- reinforcing the sentiment analysis negative comments’ theme.

From the sentiment score and the word cloud it is evident that there is polarised perception on Musk’s Free Speech, almost equal numbers either side showing that there is no bias towards a particular sentiment.

What does it mean to have freedom of speech?

With some exceptions, speech in a traditional or designated public forum is protected. The right to use some inflammatory terms and phrases to convey political ideas is a part of freedom of speech. However, a person's right to express himself freely in a private setting, such as a store or on a company-run social media site, is not protected by the Constitution. Because they are publicly discussing their thoughts online in those venues, many users may consider their favorite social networks to be public forums. 

However, courts have decided that social media platforms are private and that hosting other people's speech does not make them public forums. In reality, if the government tried to restrict Facebook or Twitter's ability to decide what content is indeed allowed on their platforms, it would be infringing on those firms' First Amendment rights.

Free speech means different things to different people 

Twitter is utilized by people all across the world, and different nations have different free speech laws. Only 43% of people in all countries support legal protection for words that are insulting to minorities, while 39% support banning statements that are offensive to their religion or beliefs. Tolerance for statements supporting same-sex partnerships ranges from nearly universal approval (91%) in Denmark and Sweden to less than a third in Pakistan (27%) compared to only 16% and 18% in Turkey and Kenya respectively.

Musk's problem will be dealing with tweets from every other country on the planet, none of which guarantees free speech as vigorously as the United States. The European Union has warned him that new laws forbidding disinformation will be imposed on Twitter. Musk will need to think hard on what to do with Moscow, Tehran, and Kabul, all of which use Twitter to spread anti-US propaganda without reciprocity. These governments are all staunch anti-free-speech absolutists who, if given the chance, would silence all but their ruling classes around the world.

On the other hand, what to do about US foes on Twitter may be a true problem. This has previously been pointed out by Musk's detractors, including Jeff Bezos who indicated that the world's richest man might not be as principled as a free-speech absolutist when it comes to China. Beijing utilizes Twitter to spread its propaganda and perspectives but censors Twitter and does not accept any alternative viewpoints on Weibo. Most governments' preferred weapons of choice these days are words, so handing Beijing the one-way megaphone of Twitter is akin to handing your opponent your guns in a hot conflict. 

Musk’s track record

Musk himself has minimal tolerance for speech that is unpleasant to him or to his companies or those that reflect employee criticism of the workplace (as evident via his tweets, public speeches, and regulations at the firms that he leads). Musk has a lengthy history of censoring or penalizing anyone who publicly criticizes a project or practice at Tesla Inc. or SpaceX. Nondisclosure agreements and arbitration clauses must be signed by employees to prevent them from suing their company in court. Hundreds of Tesla employees have complained of racist, sexist, other sorts of harassment, discrimination, and unsafe working conditions while under Musk's leadership. Many have also claimed retaliation as a result of speaking up about issues.

Meanwhile, Musk publicly mocks others on Twitter, with more than 80 million followers and a fan base that he can enrage, from a local health official during the early days of the pandemic to Twitter's current CEO, Parag Agrawal.

Twitter beyond free speech

Despite having a far less user base than other leading social media platforms, many small businesses and brands are particularly successful on Twitter. Content makers use the platform to grow their fan base. However, the site as it currently stands lacks many features that draw businesses to sites like Facebook, which is a more seller-friendly platform. Twitter was started in 2006, and by 2010, it had a user base of 54 million people. There will be around 400 million users in 2021. Facebook and YouTube are behemoths in comparison. With an estimated 2.8 billion users, Facebook is quickly catching up to YouTube, which has 2.3 billion users. WhatsApp has a user base of 2 billion people. Instagram has one billion users, TikTok has 800 million, and Snapchat has 300 million. Size is an important factor when the company decides to drive advertising revenues and derive monetisation.

Going forward, Musk buying over Twitter should encourage businesses and entrepreneurs to join the platform even more. Musk is an ardent capitalist and will bring more business-friendly features to Twitter, so the platform is going to witness a deluge of corporates in its user base.