Look up. The birds are flitting in the skies. It feels like freedom, right? One often associates the notion of freedom with these avians, with their ability to move without restraint. Now, open your phone and wander around on a platform depicting another avian, Larry the Bird, symbolising Twitter’s/X’s values of freedom and opportunities. It all changed last year with Larry’s new owner. He had a different vision of freedom and was accused of imposing it on others, thus, caging Larry and ending Twitter’s/X’s era as a safe platform for all.
With his notorious purchase of Twitter (later renamed as X), the billionaire Elon Musk raised worries over the limits of freedom of speech in social media. As a self-claimed “free speech absolutist”, Musk restored thousands of banned accounts, such as that of ex-President Trump. However, the Twitter/X acquisition by Musk was not extraordinary in monetary terms, but also due to the change in direction that the social media was set to take.
Musk believes that the limits of free speech are clearly set by lawmakers. He simply adds that if people are not pleased by these limits, then they ought to demand changes in the legislation. Put simply, Musk does not believe that he acts outside the law. Whether his actions, such as restoring thousands of banned accounts (which were supposedly banned due to a legitimate reason), are morally acceptable is a different question. Some moderation is necessary and in its absence, the so-called “free speech absolutists” are destined to face the consequence of inaction.
Nowadays, our social media platforms are filled with content spreading hate towards certain marginalised groups such as immigrants. Without taking the necessary steps to control such content, society fails to create a platform in which people can freely, and more importantly, safely, share ideas, beliefs and concepts. The toleration of hate speech cannot be justified in the name of protecting free speech. For instance, the Anti-Defamation League’s data shows that less than one-third of posts that have been flagged as anti-semitic have been appropriately sanctioned. Now, at what costs do the so-called “free speech absolutists” seek to protect their dream notion? It should not be at the cost of social welfare and the targeting of marginalised groups.
Let us take the argument to its purest logical form for why such absolutism is destined for catastrophic failure. The founders of Twitter/X sought to create a platform where people can freely share their opinions on various topics. This engagement with one another was supposed to facilitate discussions and spread differing ideas across the world. However, for such discussions to be possible, there was supposed to be monitoring of what accounts could potentially say. The very ideas and beliefs behind Twitter’s/X’s founding cannot be possible if certain users feel unsafe using the platform. Therefore, it is not viable to allow free speech absolutism if we seek to protect members of our diverse Twitter/X community. Free speech has its price: what is freedom of speech for one group, can mean the silencing of another.
The allegations against Musk for allowing the restoration of banned accounts do not simply come from certain liberal commentators as some claim. Even among his fellow “free speech absolutists”, there are concerns over the transformation of X under his ownership. Musk is hypocritical, applying the rules of the X selectively, and seeking to pursue decisions favouring himself. For instance, you are more likely to see Elon Musk’s tweets, as they are boosted artificially to promote his ideas. At the same time, journalists criticising Musk and his policies are destined to have their X accounts sanctioned. Hence showing that even in his beliefs the transformer of X is not consistent. One cannot be a “free speech absolutist” and ban accounts for being called out for his policies. It seems that Musk uses the arguments of certain conservatives to pursue his vision of X. He does not believe in free speech absolutism, it just gives him the tools to allow certain ideas to be promoted when they face wider public criticism. This can be seen by his hypocritical handpicking of how certain accounts are banned for criticising the owner of X. If Musk is indeed a “free speech absolutist” he needs to stick to it even if it results in discussions questioning his ideas.
The contrasting picture is likewise worrisome. The monitoring of the platform’s content potentially leaves too much power in the hands of a few decision-makers. The risk of allowing the content to be judged by these individuals’ biases rather than by tweets’ true merits is too high. The difference between these two choices is simply in who acts in the role of content moderator. Hence, in the name of creating a safe environment for discussions one cannot delegate too much power to an individual or group. There should be clear mechanisms of checks and balances ensuring that Twitter/X remains true to its mission of providing a space for freedom and opportunities.
The solution to the Twitter/X dilemma is not that simple. Whether one is a free speech absolutist or believes in content moderation, it is clear that if X wants to maintain its historic legacy, it needs to create a safe environment for its users. Whether it is through more rigorous checks and balances or through a more systematic approach to dealing with current challenges; a compromise between the two camps is needed as the stakes are far too high. One thing is clear: Larry’s freedom defines our own.
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