Free-speech as an instrument of repression

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One of the more eye-opening discussions on Elon Musk’s attempt to take control of Twitter, and the Twitter board’s attempts to defend the company from the bid, have been playing out on Hacker News (here and, after Twitter’s response, here) – the popular discussion board for topics related to the tech industry. The first discussion has already racked up over 3,000 comments, considered high for topics on the platform – but most of them are emblematic of the difference between the industry’s cynical view of politics and that of those who have much more skin in the game, for whom it’s a problem of regulation, moral boundaries and, inevitably, the survival of democracies. (Here is one notable exception.)

For example, the majority of comments on the first discussion are concerned with profits, Twitter’s management, the stock market and laws pertaining to shareholding. The second one also begins with a comment along similar lines, repeating some points made in the ‘All In Podcast’, together with an additional comment about how “one AI engineer from Tesla could solve Twitter’s bot and spam problem”. The podcast is hosted by Chamath Palihapitiya, Jason Calacanis, David Sacks and David Friedberg, all investors and entrepreneurs of the Silicon Valley variety. A stream of comments rebuts this one, but in terms of it being an engineering problem instead of the kind of place Twitter might be if Musk takes ownership.

There have also been several comments either along the lines of or premised on the fact that “many people don’t use Twitter anyway, so Twitter’s board shouldn’t deprive its shareholders of the generous premium that Musk is offering”. Not many people use Twitter compared to Facebook – but the platform is in sufficient use in India and in other countries for its misuse to threaten journalists, activists and protestors, to undermine public dialogue on important government policies, and to spread propaganda and misinformation of great consequence. Such a mentality – to take the money and run, courtesy of a business mogul worth $260 billion – represents an onion of problems, layer over layer, but most of all that those running a company in one small part of one country can easily forget that social media platforms are sites of public dialogue, that enable new forms of free speech, in a different country.

If Twitter goes down, or goes to Musk, which is worse, those who are nervous enough will switch to Mastodon (I have been running a server for three years now), but if this is an acceptable outcome, platforms like Twitter can only encourage cynicism when they seek to cash in on their identities as supporters of free speech but then buckle with something Muskesque comes calling. Thus far, Twitter hasn’t buckled, which is heartening, but since it is a private company, perhaps it is just a matter of time.

Another point that grates at me is that there seems to be little to no acknowledgment in the Hacker News discussions that there are constitutional limits to free speech in all democracies. (Again, there are nearly 4,000 comments on both discussions combined, so I could have missed some.) As Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution reads:

(2) Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of 4[the sovereignty and integrity of India], the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

Musk has said he wants to take over Twitter because, in a letter he wrote to the company, it “will neither thrive nor serve [its free speech] societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed as a private company.” He also said separately that “having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilisation”. Yet his own conviction in the virtues of free-speech absolutism has blinded him from seeing he’s simply bullying Twitter into changing its agenda, or that he is bullying its hundreds of millions of users into accepting his.

He also seems unable to acknowledge that “maximally trusted and broadly inclusive” – by which I’m not-so-sure he means both the far-left and the far-right should be allowed to mouth off, without any curbs – points only to one type of social media platform: one that is owned, run and used by the people (Mastodon is one example). As another point from the ‘All In Podcast’ was quoted on the forum: “The elites have somehow inverted history so they now believe that it is not censorship that is the favored tool of fascists and authoritarians, even though every fascist and despot in history used censorship to maintain power, but instead believe free speech, free discourse, and free thought are the instruments of repression.” It’s hard to tell which ‘free speech’ they mean: the one in both the US and India, where it is limited in ways that are designed to protect the safety of the people and their rights, or the lopsided one in Musk’s mind that free speech must be guaranteed in the absolute.

I have no interest in listening to the podcast – but the latter is entirely plausible: while keeping the rest of us occupied with fact-checking The Party’s lies, lodging police complaints against its violent supporters and protecting the rights of the poor and the marginalised, the ministers can run the country in peace.