[Editor’s note: This is a version of an article published in the Out of Frame Weekly, an email newsletter about the intersection of art, culture, and ideas. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.]
Tesla CEO Elon Musk became Twitter’s largest shareholder on Monday after buying 9.2 percent of its shares. Musk’s announcement he would bring big changes sparked speculation that he would expand freedom of expression on the platform as he has criticized Twitter’s policy in that regard.
Looking forward to working with Parag & Twitter board to make significant improvements to Twitter in the coming months!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) Apr 5, 2022
However, Musk accepted a seat on Twitter’s board the following day, and board members have no say in Twitter’s content moderation policy, according to Reuters. The PayPal founder is also prohibited from owning more than 14.9 percent of Twitter shares while on the board, meaning he can’t buy the social media company in full until after his term ends in 2024.
So whether Musk will limit Twitter’s censorship remains unclear.
In any case, some reacted to Musk’s investment with partiality, fearing that the billionaire who would influence Twitter could be dangerous. An analysis in The Washington Post claimed (via vague claims) that his Twitter share “could be bad news for free speech.” Bill Clinton-era political commentator and labor secretary Robert Reich tweeted, “What could go wrong if an oligarch determines what freedom of speech is?” One wonders whether Reich and the After would have raised similar concerns about “oligarchs” restricting online speech if a tech titan who shared their political beliefs had bought the bet.
What can go wrong when an oligarch determines what freedom of speech is?
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) Apr 4, 2022
The point is, billionaires should are the ones who define what freedom of speech is, at least on the platforms they fund and own. Social media companies are built with private capital and if anyone wants to change the way those platforms are run, they have to take control through the free market.
It is not easy to do that, and change is not always perfect or fast, but it is preferable that this power be distributed among wealthy entrepreneurs because they are interrelated and it prevents the power from being concentrated in the state, the greatest and most inexplicable monopoly. (To quote Musk, “government is just the biggest corporation, with a monopoly on violence and no recourse.”)
The reason the private sector is preferable to the government in this case is that it has more incentives to do what consumers want. As the famous economist Ludwig von Mises said in Economic policy: thoughts for today and tomorrowa businessman “does not rule conquered territory, independent of the market, independent of his customers. […] This ‘king’ must remain in the favor of his subjects, the consumers; he loses his ‘kingdom’ as soon as he is no longer able to serve his customers better and at a lower cost than others with whom he has to compete.”
Politicians, on the other hand, answer the public through elections that may be years away, in which candidates notoriously make promises they will not or cannot keep, and in which voters may or may not have the incentive to follow the many policies at stake. Bureaucrats are even less responsible, many of whom have been in office for decades and never have to confront voters.
People who advocate for government regulation of social media (whether they think it’s censoring too much or too little) might answer, “You shouldn’t be the richest man in the world to influence social network policies.”
But this amounts to condemning the fact that there are high positions of power on top of social media companies. However, it’s not clear what would make this power more accessible, as long as these platforms exist. To assume that “the people” would essentially be in charge to the extent that the government controls social media companies is to ignore the facts of the public choice economy: that politicians and bureaucrats act in their own interest, which is not necessarily in consistent with that of their citizens. Making companies “accountable” to the government actually makes them less accountable to ordinary people because it requires them to follow government mandates rather than the will of consumers.
It’s quite contradictory to argue against concentrated power when your solution is to give more power to government. The state that regulates online speech is more dangerous than Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg that controls it, as the state is the motive behind much of the online censorship we see today.