It is said that a thing is only worth the price it will cost.
If that’s true, then protecting “free speech,” which Elon Musk has cited as a central reason he agreed to buy Twitter for $44 billion this week, may be worth twice as much as solving America’s homelessness problem, and seven times as much as solving world hunger. It’s worth more (to him, at least) than educating every child in nearly 50 countries, more than the GDP of Serbia, Jordan, or Paraguay.
In the days since Musk agreed to terms on a deal to take Twitter private, nearly all of Musk’s tweets have been about freedom and censorship on the platform. Like: “By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.” Or: “Truth Social (terrible name) exists because Twitter censored free speech.” And: “the extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all.”
Musk is so concerned about these things. What would Musk care about if someone who pushes the limits of electric-vehicle manufacture and plumbs the limits commercial space flight?
“Freedom of speech” has become a paramount concern of the techno-moral universe. This issue has been at the center of nearly all digital media discussions over the past two years. It is the subject that has led to the controversy surrounding Joe Rogan’s Spotify account and vaccine misinformation on Facebook. Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg gave a major speech at Georgetown in 2019 about the importance of “free expression” and has consistently relied on the theme when explaining why Facebook has struggled to curb disinformation on the platform.
“It does seem to be a dominant obsession with the most elite, the most driven Elon Musks of the world,” says Fred Turner, professor of communication at Stanford University and author of several books about Silicon Valley culture, who argues that “free speech seems to be much more of an obsession among men.” Turner says the drive to harness and define the culture around online speech is related to “the entrepreneurial push: I did it in business, I did it in space, and now I’m going to do it in the world.”
Learn More This is What Elon Musk Believes.
The motivation may lie in business itself. The most successful digital platforms are those that depend on selling data to advertisers and mining user content. From the platform’s perspective, more speech equals more cash.
But “free speech” in the 21st century means something very different than it did in the 18th, when the Founders enshrined it in the Constitution. While the ability to express your opinions without having to be imprisoned does not mean that you can broadcast disinformation to millions on a corporate platform, it is not equal to the right to do so. Techno-wizards see restriction as a threat to innovation and seem to have lost this nuance.
Tech titans who place a high value on the impossible may see the liberal consensus about acceptable speech in Silicon Valley as yet another line to cross. It can feel like a bold move to break the Liberal Conventions on Harmful Speech in Silicon Valley.
“Contrarianism is a big part of this free speech thing. If the left says, ‘I can’t do XYZ,’ that makes a lot of people want to do it more,” says Peter Hamby, host of America, Good LuckSnap. Writer at Puck News. “Contrarianism, whether it’s embodied by Elon Musk or Andrew Yang or Bernie Sanders or Joe Rogan, becomes this ideology in itself.”
Jason Goldman, who was on the founding team at Twitter and served on the company’s board from 2007 to 2010 before joining the Obama Administration, says the tech rhetoric around free speech has become an obsession of the mostly white, male members of the tech elite, who made their billions in the decades before a rapidly diversifying workforce changed the culture at many of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley.
They “would rather go back to the way things were,” Goldman says, “and are couching that in terms of ‘free speech’ or ‘we’re not going to allow politics to be part of the conversation.’”
Learn More Elon Musk, 2021 Person Of The Year.
Goldman says it’s “naive” to believe that Musk can throw out Twitter’s guardrails without degrading the platform. “To say you’re just going to allow for any type of abuse or harassment,” he says, “is an inherently anti-speech position, because you’re going to drive out a set of users who would use your product but no longer feel safe.”
The tech titans are often more literate than those in the rest of society because they were trained to be engineers rather than writers or readers. They might also have less understanding of social and political aspects of speech.
“Tech culture is grounded in engineering culture, which imagines itself as apolitical,” says Turner. He says that engineers often view the world as a set of problems and solutions. In that setting, speech is a collection of data points, which are circulated via a data network, instead of expressions of political or social ideas.
Focusing on “free speech,” as a way to justify relaxing restrictions on the platform, he says, is just “an engineering solution to a political problem.”
Whether it’s an engineering problem or a political one, it’s Elon Musks’s problem now.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME