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Elon Musk actually has a questionable record on free speech. That’s a problem for Twitter

Behind the fan base and the funny persona is a billionaire who isn’t afraid to weaponize his wealth against people who provoke his ire

Joshua Potash
New York
Tuesday 26 April 2022 17:39 BST
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Now it’s (mostly) official: Elon Musk has bought Twitter for $44 billion. The news is rife with speculation about the deal and its profitability, while on the platform itself responses range from calls for a mass exodus to jubilation over the supposed return of free speech. Yet among the many as-yet-unclear dimensions of his acquisition of a social media platform that acts much like the world’s public forum, Musk’s exact definition of “free speech” is one that might have international consequences, and implications for Twitter’s future.

There are numerous red flags in Musk’s checkered history that show him to be rather eager to suppress speech that goes against his interests. In one notable example, he publicly called Vernon Unsworth, the British caver who helped rescue 12 boys trapped in a mine in Thailand, a “pedo guy”, then paid $50,000 to a private investigator (who turned out to be a conman) to dig up Unsworth’s life. Why? All because Unsworth called the billionaire’s failed attempt to fly across the world and help the boys a “PR stunt.” Musk hired L. Lin Wood — the Trump ally and conspiracy theorist — to represent him in a defamation case brought by Unsworth, which Musk won. Unsworth’s solicitor, Mark Stephens, said in the wake of Musk’s victory: ““It is a pity that a bullying billionaire has been able to cast such a long shadow, and I just hope that nobody else has to go … toe to toe with Mr Musk.” A Guardian article about the lawsuit noted that “the case pitted a 64-year-old financial adviser earning a salary of about £25,000 ($33,000) against one of the richest and most famous men in the world.”

Then there are the Tesla employees like John Bernal, who was fired six days after posting a YouTube video of a Tesla accident. Or Martin Tripp, a process technician at Tesla’s battery plant in Nevada who blew the whistle on the company, who was ordered to pay his former employer over $400,000 after admitting leaking confidential information to a reporter. A former security manager at Tesla alleged to Bloomberg Businessweekthat Musk hacked and spied on Tripp after the former employee cast aspersions on Tesla’s environmental credentials. Most explosively, it was alleged that Tesla even misled employees and local police about a mass shooter during its apparent harassment of Tripp. A Tesla spokesperson denied the allegations.

The world’s richest man has also shown himself to be against free speech when that speech is encouraging employees to organize. Tesla worker Richard Ortiz was fired for trying to organize with the United Auto Workers, a move that was deemed illegal by a labor board. Additionally, Musk has personally used Twitter to illegally promote anti-union messages, as ruled by a California judge.

In 2018, the SEC charged Musk with making “false and misleading” statements to investors, in this case to drive up Tesla stock. And, incredibly, Musk has already broken the law in his bid to conquer Twitter. The SEC requires anyone who acquires more than 5 percent of a company’s shares to disclose their holdings within 10 days. Musk signed his initial Twitter filing 21 days after his initial acquisition of a 9.2 percent stake, 11 days late.

So, what exactly indicates that Musk will do a good job in taking over the social media company? Well, apart from his denials of allegations of wrongdoing, not much. Bloomberg, not a publication to make radical points, simply stated yesterday that Musk, “is not up to the task of running a media company” and expressed concern that the deal was going through largely because of Musk’s “enthusiasm for the deal,” not much of a criterion.

And Musk has certainly been showcasing this trait on Twitter, with a series of proposals like an edit button, banning bots (something Twitter already seeks to do), and an open algorithm (a proposal that would help the bot-builders he wants to ban.) At the moment it remains unclear how he would make the company more profitable, and the acquisition deal does require Twitter, and therefore Musk, to pay interest to the tune of $1 billion a year.

But even beyond these red flags of mistreating workers, anti-labor organizing sentiments, breaking the law and running afoul of the SEC, there’s an even greater concern: democracy. Musk has exhibited conflicting political views, claiming to be a libertarian while taking billions in subsidies and backing politicians from both parties. What remains consistent is his pursuit of profit, and the world’s richest man owning an international public forum does not bode well for the health of democratic society. He has already used Twitter to allegedly illegally attack unions and drive up stock prices, but there is now the very real possibility that he could use it to influence anything from elections to social movements on a much larger scale.

It’s difficult to know what’s next for the social media company, or what’s next for Musk as he takes over Twitter and sorts out lawsuits with the SEC, and Black employees claiming discrimination. What does seem certain is that legions of fans will cheer his every move. Musk has cultivated a base who see him as the patron saint of crypto-currency, an icon, a genius businessman, and more. This hero worship on the platform where Musk can influence discourse on countless topics, paired with his numerous free speech infringements, makes for a concerning combination.

Ultimately, a reckoning may come from billions of dollars in losses if he fails to monetize the platform sufficiently — and there may be some poetic justice if the world’s richest man digs his own financial grave after deciding to fly a little too high.

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