Today, the board of Twitter, Inc. (NYSE: TWTR) accepted a bid from Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla, Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLA) to purchase the social media platform for a reported $44 billion. The two competing political narratives emerging in the aftermath of the purchase are, from the right, that free speech will now return to the nation’s “public square; and from the left, that one man, particularly Elon Musk, should not have so much control over the social medium.
For example, according to Yahoo News!, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, reportedly lamented that the purchase is “dangerous for democracy.” She hinted that big tech companies should be held accountable by stronger rules. Other senators such as Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, are concerned that a Musk-run Twitter would reactivate former president Donald Trump’s Twitter account.
Mr Trump put a sock in the assertion that he would return to posting content on the platform, stating that he was going to stay focused on his new social platform, Truth Social.
I find criticisms of Musk’s ownership a bit disingenuous, especially inside the Washington, DC beltway. Jeff Bezos, another billionaire, dipped his toe into the media space when he purchased The Washington Post back in 2013. Unlike Mr Musk who apparently faced a hesitant Twitter board, company employees, and left media backlash, Mr Bezos had the blessing of The Post former owner, Katherine Graham, who believed Mr Bezos’ internet savvy was crucial to The Post’s survival.
At first, I thought Mr Musk’s intent for the purchase was neither here or there, but on further reflection having some insights into the new owner’s vision could guide how members of the political class approach Twitter as a medium for messaging. The political class has two options.
Under the first option, the political class could go on a regulation rampage. Mr Musk has already taken a preemptive measure by planning to take the company private, thus avoiding unnecessary regulatory scrutiny. Private or not, the political class could pursue yanking protections from liability currently afforded social media companies under Section 230 of the Communications Act.
The Act excuses social media platforms like Twitter from the liabilities brought on from the content posted by its users. If Twitter plays the role of a publisher or editor, it would lose the liability protection. However, under the law, Twitter is allowed to take editorial action against content considered lewd, lascivious, obscene, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.
If the political class decides that Twitter is a publisher, Twitter could find itself doing exactly what Musk wants to avoid: restricting free speech for the sake of avoiding liability.
Under the second option, the political class could focus on its continuous use of Twitter as a communications channel to its constituents. For example, most members of Congress and the Executive branch maintain Twitter accounts. Federal, state, and local government agencies also use the platform to share information.
Adding to Mr Musk’s vision for a freer public square versus creating the cognitive dissonance associated with using the platform while trying to regulate it to death may provide the political class with better political optics. The political class primary role is maintaining the image of an open society, distinguishing American society from an increasingly autocratic world. The political class is supposed to keep its hand on the narrative that influences the electorate to follow public policy.
By whittling down a medium that the public uses to express itself, the political class runs the chance of looking autocratic itself and hindering the spread of its own narrative.
25 April 2022
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