Twitter’s decision to accept Elon Musk’s $44 billion offer has helped expose this country’s free speech divide. On the one hand, many conservatives are expressing hope that Musk will bend Twitter’s content moderation policies away from political censorship and towards an embrace of free expression. Sounds great to me. On the other hand, many progressives are calling Musk’s public commitment to free speech a “threat to our democracy.” And they are backing that assertion up with action.
One organization called the Open Markets Institute issued a release that called for the FCC, FTC, and DOJ to block Musk’s purchase of Twitter. The group argues that the transaction poses a “direct threat to American democracy and free speech.” And its release cites the Telegraph Act of 1860, among other statutory authorities, in the context of arguing that federal agencies should block the deal.
But the FCC has no authority to block Musk’s purchase of Twitter. And while I am not in a position to speak for the DOJ or the FTC, I am not aware of any basis upon which any federal agency could lawfully block Musk’s purchase, particularly in the name of advancing free speech. But that certainly won’t stop people from trying. Indeed, it strikes me that many of the interest groups that will endeavor to derail this deal are not going to do so because they’re interested in the neutral application of competition and antitrust laws. Instead, they will be motivated by a desire to prevent the free exchange of political views on Twitter.
So how did we get here? How did we reach a point in American discourse where there is no longer a broad, bipartisan agreement that free speech is a good thing?
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that free expression enjoyed a home solidly within the American mainstream. Ahead of the 2012 election, for instance, President Barack Obama gave a speech at Facebook’s Palo Alto headquarters in California, where he praised the free flow of information over social media — describing it as “part of what makes for a healthy democracy.”
But flash forward a few years and a few miles down the road. Obama just gave a speech at Stanford University where he spoke about free speech on the internet as “a threat to our democracy.”
That is quite the 180. And it reflects a broader cultural change in this country that is bigger than any one person. I would argue that the pivot point in this transition likely centers on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. That seems to be when a lot of media gatekeepers and elite opinion-makers started to publicly question whether wide-open political discourse on the internet could be compatible with their preferred outcomes at the ballot box. It appears that this moment in time marked a turning point for them — one in which they walked away from a decades-long, liberal embrace of diversity of views and towards an illiberal tendency to cancel ideas that diverge from an approved political orthodoxy.
That trend continues to manifest — not just in our culture but in our government. You can see it in the recent decision by the Department of Homeland Security to stand up a so-called “Disinformation Governance Board.” Talk about Orwellian.
Here’s the obvious truth: free speech is not a threat to democracy — censorship is. The people that argue otherwise are simply trying to maintain their control over the political narrative.
Just look at their arguments. The pro-censorship crowd claims that Twitter must stick with its current approach to content moderation—an approach that resulted in locking down the New York Post’s account, banning discussions about the potential origins of COVID-19, and eliminating conversations about the efficacy of cloth masks—or else the website will be flooded with terrorist speech and cesspool content. They’re gaslighting. And it’s an intentional distortion.
What Musk has said is, “For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally.” And that, “A social media platform’s policies are good if the most extreme 10% on left and right are equally unhappy.” That hardly sounds like a threat to democracy.
Indeed, Musk is right when he says that “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy.” Or as the late, progressive editor of the New York Times, John Oakes, put it back in 1954: “Diversity of opinion is the lifeblood of democracy…The minute we begin to insist that everyone think the same way we think, our democratic way of life is in danger.” What’s old is new again.
For my part, I am optimistic. I am hopeful that Musk’s purchase of Twitter will help turn the tide in this country away from censorship and towards a renewed embrace of free speech. But I think we can and should do more than simply place hope in the hands of any one billionaire. That is why I have encouraged Congress to adopt common-sense, pro-speech protections that will promote free expression in the digital town square. Doing so would promote transparency, accountability, nondiscrimination, and user empowerment. I hope those reforms make it across the finish line.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.