Elon Musk, Twitter, and restoring free speech

Elon Musk, Twitter, and restoring free speech

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Elon Musk’s accomplishments are undeniable. He developed Tesla into the top-selling electric vehicle, founded SpaceX, the spacecraft manufacturer, launcher, and maker of Starlink communications satellites, and co-founded of Open AI, a company that strives to make artificial general intelligence beneficial to all. He was Time’s 2021 Person of the Year and is among the three wealthiest individuals in the world.

But Musk is not a typical CEO who attempts to align themselves with the woke sentiments of their employees and customers. He has created controversy by his outspokenness, particularly through his comments on Twitter that challenge the mainstream views on issues such as freedom of speech and the government’s attempts to control it and arbitrate the truth.

Musk added to the controversy with his $44 billion purchase of Twitter, the money-bleeding social media platform. He said he did this to protect free speech and has exposed, with independent reporters’ investigations of the Twitter Files, a large government effort to control and suppress speech on significant issues through Twitter, such as Hunter Biden’s laptop and Covid information.

After having acquired Twitter and starting its shake-down, Musk tweeted: “This is a battle for the future of civilization. If free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead.”

Musk has received much criticism for taking on Twitter. He has been accused of diverting attention from his other companies to deal with Twitter, the Tesla shareholders being particularly unhappy with its stock’s decline.

Musk has been blamed for merely switching the control of speech from the government (and from the former Twitter employees whom he fired) to himself by those who think that people are incapable of deciphering the truth and need government regulations to protect them from false claims.  

Some critics have called out Musk for calling himself a free speech absolutist without seemingly understanding the principle of free speech and not acting on it consistently.

Musk, like all of us, is fallible and has made mistakes. Despite criticizing government interference in business, he has taken billions of dollars of government subsidies for Tesla. He has tweeted recklessly, without careful fact checking and with poor word choices, inviting lawsuits from both Tesla shareholders and the SEC. Despite claiming to be a free-speech absolutist, he has significant business dealings with China, a country that ruthlessly controls speech – and lives – of its citizens.

At Twitter, Musk has waffled and made U-turns in his decisions (about what counts as free speech and what doesn’t). Instead of applying rational principles in his decision making, he has resorted to the majority vote (whether to step down as the CEO, or what policies to choose).

But Musk’s mistakes should be viewed in the context of his achievements. Musk has contributed to human flourishing not only by developing Tesla and SpaceX and co-founding Open AI. By taking over Twitter and shaking it up, he has exposed the government’s successful efforts to control speech through paying or intimidating Twitter.

We now know that freedom of speech in America has been endangered by government efforts and by Twitter’s voluntary or involuntary co-operation. We should care because, as Musk recognized, without freedom of speech, our civilization will collapse into tyranny.

Without the ability to speak up and criticize the government, we cannot hold it accountable (for example, for hiding information to win elections or scientific data and medical opinions to justify pandemic policies) and prevent it from dictating our lives, as in China, Iran, and other tyrannies.

To improve the poor state of free speech today, we must know the cause and understand the cure.

Freedom of speech – defined by Ayn Rand as “freedom from interference, suppression or punitive action by the government” – has eroded because the government has interfered, suppressed, and threatened with punitive action (besides the Twitter Files, consider the grilling of the Big Tech CEOs by Congress over controlling “misinformation and disinformation”).

The cultural acceptance of the government’s violation of the First Amendment and cajoling Twitter to shadow ban or remove tweets that don’t align the government’s version of the truth, stems from universities that indoctrinate their students into believing that they are not capable of thinking for themselves, there is no absolute truth, and that they need the government to arbitrate the truth and tell them what to think.

Restoring freedom of speech (and to avoid mistakes such as those made by Musk) would require consistent adherence to rational principles. That is exceedingly rare today (see my previous post). Given the state of education and culture and the government violating the Constitution, it would be unrealistic to expect that of Musk.

Instead of focusing solely on Musk’s mistakes, we should thank him for his contributions to human flourishing, including exposing the government’s violations of free speech. We should learn (or re-learn) the principle of freedom and other individual rights, demand that the government adheres to them, and apply them ourselves in business and in the rest of our lives. Only that would protect free speech in the long term.

Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.

She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.

Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.