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Elon Musk Wants Absolute Free Speech On Twitter. What Does That Mean For Fake News, Hate Speech?

Musk who calls himself a 'free speech absolutist' has previously claimed that he is 'against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask the government to pass laws to that effect'.

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Elon Musk
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Back in March 26, Tesla CEO Elon Musk floated the idea of creating an alternative to Twitter after giving “serious thought” to how the microblogging site was ‘undermining democracy’. A believer of what may be touted as a rather radical (misguided?) brand of ‘freedom of speech’,  Musk who has tens of millions of followers on Twitter, has questioned the platform’s commitment to “free speech”. 

Musk, who is known for being a self-assigned “free speech absolutist”, has previously claimed that he is “against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask the government to pass laws to that effect”. 

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He has also claimed that “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.”

But what’s free speech and does Twitter really violate it? The answers more layered than meets the eye.

Freedom of speech and expression is one of the oldest ideals of democracy and predates modern international human rights instruments. One of the first mentions of the concept of freedom of speech and expression can be seen in the Athenian discourse of democracy dating back to 5th and 6th Century Greece. Today, the right to freedom of expression has been recognised as a human right by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international human rights law of the United Nations. 

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But what really is freedom of speech and expression and how free is too free?  Does an individual have the right to express everything that they feel or want to, meaning absolute freedom? Or are there certain checks in place on what a person is legally free to express? While freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental and constitutionally or legally protected right in several countries, most nations have put the freedom under the relative context of the ‘harm principle’. Meaning, a person is free to speak their mind as long as it doesn’t harm the rights and liberties of another person. 

The other factor deciding what falls under the realm of free speech is the 'hurt sentiments' principle. States often project that anything that "hurts sentiments" may result in "harm" or disorder and can thus be censored. 

The debate between absolute freedom of speech as opposed to freedom of speech with certain restraints was perhaps best propounded by the 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, one of the brightest guiding lights for modern liberalism and individual liberty. His 1859 essay ‘On Liberty’ provided an insightful discourse and arguments on “freedom of thought and discussion, for liberty of tastes and pursuits, and for limits on the authority of society are often repeated in contemporary debates regarding freedom of speech and association”, Manchester University political science professor Leonard Williams had written in 2009. 

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A hardcore proponent of maximising the realm of freedom of speech and expression and removing the restraints on free speech from government or official orthodoxy and censorship, Mill wrote that the only reason to take away another person’s freedom of speech was when they harmed another’s.

With regard to the “harm principle” and limits on absolute freedom, Mill wrote, “…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” 

With regard to ‘unorthodox content’, or content which is believed to be fringe, niche or contrarian, Mill adopted a utilitarian approach to liberty by asserting that the  suppressing nonconforming viewpoints by those in power allow “guardians of orthodoxy wrongfully presume their own infallibility”. Simply put, Mill argued that what appears unorthodox, fringe or even a false or incorrect view today may later turn out to be both widely accepted and true.

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Mill was staunchly against leaving orthodoxy unchallenged in which case it became a “deda dogma” and counter that any doctrine, no matter how true, needed to allow alternative ideas to even adapt with changing context and understandings to lend further vitality and truth to the doctrine. 

While Mill’s arguments, which later paved way for the “marketplace of ideas” theory and formed the bedrock of the absolute and fierce individualism and liberal democracy espoused by the West (especially the United States), may be read as a fierce defence of liberty and free speech, the doctrine of absolute free speech may have become a double edged sword. 

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When Mill wrote his defence of absolute freedom, he had little knowledge of how the world would change in the next few centuries. Today, fake news, online campaigning and misinfornation have been known to sway everything from commercial user behaviour to “free and fair” elections. 

Just like free speech can be used to illuminate and debate, it can also be used to attack, harass or cancel. So what then is to be done? 

Legal scholars like Tim Wu of Columbia University, however, have argued that the traditional issues of free speech popularised by Miller and others —that "the main threat to free speech" is the censorship of "suppressive states," and that "ill-informed or malevolent speech" can and should be overcome by "more and better speech" instead of by censoring it were based in a time when there was a scarcity of information. With the internet and digital shift, there has been an information explosion. Each day, new and unheard-of ideas and information creep into the internet in one way or the other and find their way to people’s screens and brains.

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Now with Musk potentially intending to remove all restraints from what a person can or cannot say on Twitter, The impact of Musk’s takeover of Twitter may not just be limited to free speech.

In keeping with his maximalist views on free speech, the tech-billionaire has been critical of the “permanent suspension” that the social media platform co-founded by Jack Dorsey implemented on the accounts of certain users like former US President Donald Trump who was banned by Twitter for violating its guidelines regarding fake news and hate speech or inciting content.

He has also made allusions to his discontentment with Twitter’s lack of transparency with user activity like the promotion of certain posts over others. In recent TED talk broadcast, Musk said that Twitter’s algorithm should be based on an open-source model, enabling Twitter users to see the Twitter uses to determine which tweets are promoted and which are hidden on users’ timelines. Musk has touted open-sourcing as a better alternative to “having tweets sort of being mysteriously promoted and demoted with no insight into what’s going on”.

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While this sounds like technical jargon, there is a sharp political angle to it. Changing Twitter software at such an algorithmic level would basically reveal the true role of computers and algorithms in policing social content. Right-wing, alt-right and Conservative social media users in countries like the United States, for instance, repeatedly claim that the Twitter algorithm is biased against them. 

So how will Musk’s takeover of Twitter affect free speech on the platform? 

For one, the billionaire may bring back the accounts of beleaguered users like Trump and others who had been banned for posting violative content. Musk has also declared a war on bots and fake accounts, vowing to take down all of them in a bid to rid Twitter of fake accounts imitating how humans use Twitter. 

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And yet, Musk’s measures to implement total freedom of speech on the platform may exacerbate the problem of fake news and misinformation. It may also give space to air deeply problematic ideological content or divisive views that can be accessed by large audiences. 

Free speech experts like David Kaye, a professor of law at the University of California who has collaborated with the United Nations on matters of free speech told The New York Times that Musk’s takeover of Twitter could lead to real-world political conesequences. 

Kaye posited that if “world leaders see they have this space and it’s unmoderated, they could push to see how far they can go.”

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Experts also fear that a total ban on censorship and allowance for every user to post content unchecked may lead to chaos and hate speech. Twitter’s rules for content and community guidelines has helped reduce hate speech and fake news to some extent, as several studies have found. A 2021 study by New York University's Center for Social Media and Politics found that Warning Twitter users about potential adverse consequences of their use of hate speech can decrease their subsequent posting of hateful language for a week. 

The idealism of Twitter acting as an “online town’s square” where every individual has their own voice and ability to be heard is often eclipsed by the platform’s propensity to over-amplify fringe belief systems, toxic and controversial content often leads to the opposite of the fruitful discourse that Twitter envisaged. Instead of becoming a place for the world to commune and hold discourses at a global level, Twitter debates are often polarising and serve as veritable breeding grounds for cancel culture. 

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Whether Elon Musk’s new proposals for Twitter will make it a better place for exchanging ideas and engaging constructive discourse or turn it into a “free-for-all-hell show” of competing toxic content and abuse is for time to tell. But perhaps this might be a good time for the Tesla CEO to refresh his readings on modern liberal political thought. For his free speech absolutism to work, Musk will have to find a way to marry freedom of expression and through to the “harm principle” on Twitter and strike a balance between rights and reality so that freedom of speech benefits all. 

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