Elon Musk, Twitter and “free speech”

It can’t be just me, but I really loath Elon Musk.

He reminds me of Donald Trump, only with a bigger ego and with more brains and a true fortune – he’s the world’s richest person. With eighty million Twitter followers, I’m not surprised that he recently became Twitter’s largest shareholder and now is attempting a hostile takeover of the platform. In response, Twitter has set up a poison pill which allows it to issue more shares of its stock if necessary, obviating his ability to get a majority of shares.

Without giving out too many details, I have a brother in law who had a run in with Elon. This was more than a decade ago but not before he was busy getting into the space business. SpaceX was bidding on government work and Elon’s ego of course got in the way. He started dissing NASA and engaging in behavior that was boorish at best and unethical and/or possibly illegal at worst. My brother in law, working through his lawyers, got an apology from Elon that smoothed things over.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk

It’s clear though that Elon hasn’t learned the lesson.

Two things really cemented Musk’s fortune. First was PayPal, and he was clearly an innovator in this space, figuring out that micro payment services were going to be a thing and people needed a broker to make these transactions. Most of us have to pay homage in the form of PayPal fees to Elon’s company. Just today a $205 bill I sent to a client in the UK was minus $9.49 in PayPal fees. It costs money, you know, to transfer British pounds to U.S. dollars but also they can get away with it because they don’t have much effective competition. Venmo? PayPal owes that one too.

But a lot of his fortune was made at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. I’m not talking just about his ability to pay little to no taxes, or the offshoring of his many companies for the same purpose. He’s hardly alone there but, Jesus, the guy is worth an estimated $270 billion dollars! He’s a compelling reason for a wealth tax. And the reality is he’d never notice the tax. It’s change that slipped into the cracks of his sofa.

Anyhow, Tesla was heavily subsidized by the U.S. government when it got started. The government does things like this all the time because the private sector won’t otherwise bear the risk of new technologies, electric cars in his case. Arguably, there is no more pressing need than addressing climate change. Solyndra, for example, spent $570M that was ultimately wasted. President Obama got hell for it at the time, but the government doesn’t expect all these ventures to succeed. It floods the market in the hopes that some of them would succeed, and Tesla did. It’s one of the world’s most profitable companies now, thanks to at least $2.4B in U.S. government subsidies.

So good for Elon for succeeding in a new market where so many others failed, but he’d not have much of his wealth if it weren’t for these subsidies. That’s because he likely wouldn’t have gotten into the market in the first place. I’m all for electric cars, but I can’t stand the thought of buying a Tesla, mainly because I see Musk’s face when I picture Tesla.

Now Musk wants to buy Twitter to let free speech flow again. It sounds like if he were running it, we’d all be able to post as often as we wanted to, with no restrictions. So it’s fair to think that Donald Trump’s Twitter account would become active again, and his lifetime ban would go away.

I don’t understand Twitter’s appeal. I barely use it, except to post that I have a new post that anyone can read. It has one tenth the user share of Facebook. The 280 character limit on posts still feels confining, and trying to follow threads among multiple posts is jarring. The incessant mention and tag symbols make it hard to parse. And it’s distracting. How do you get any real work done if you are tweeting all day?

But also, it’s a proven platform for hate and disinformation. Despite efforts to crack down on bogus accounts, they are still plentiful. There’s very little actual free speech on Twitter, because both posts and replies are drowned by often hateful and factually incorrect information. Unless you are very well read outside of Twitter, it’s hard to know what’s real or fake. As a solution to the free speech problem, it sucks. True free speech is frequently drowned out and little of it contributes to genuine dialog or true information or insight.

Also, the private sector doesn’t have an obligation to provide free speech. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits government from regulating free speech. Government doing this doesn’t seem to bother many Republicans, who are all about keeping teachers from freely speaking that Timmy’s got two dads. Anyhow, Twitter can set its own rules. Given how bad a job Twitter used to do at regulating its platform, going back to that seems counterproductive. Twitter’s current policies remain haphazard and largely ineffectual in promoting actual useful speech and communications.

But if we have to ensure free speech on Twitter, I have a modest proposal: ensure everyone who has an account is who they say they are and let them be the only posters. The number of checked (verified) Twitter users is still pretty small. If you are going to exercise your right to free speech on this platform, do it publicly. Their Twitter profiles should document the steps that Twitter took to verify their account, and when. Ensure that those posting go through periodic Captcha to prove they are a human. The same should be true for official accounts of companies, organizations and governments posting on the platform. Bullies should not be able to hide in fake profiles. If someone is defaming someone else on the platform, Twitter should help facilitate defamation lawsuits by aggrieved parties. That’s a tangible way to stop the bullying and intimidation rife on the platform.

I doubt Musk wants any of that. I too hide behind a Twitter profile but I’ll happily unmask if everyone else has to as well, or, more likely, I’d stop using the platform, which is of marginal value anyway.