The Poison that Failed

Updated: Apr 27

So the poison pill did not work. The $44 billion Twitter deal is done, despite skepticism among critics whether Elon Musk could raise that kind of money to make the platform a private entity. And with the takeover of 15% of Twitter comes a barrage of fears from concerns over complete private control to private monopoly issues, from the impacts of the promised decontrol over free speech. The focus now shifts to the free speech that Musk has promised (if you’re an absolutist) or threatened (if you’re a cancel culturist). Thankfully, I am somewhere in between.

If Twitter does follow the First Amendment (1A) norms, of course, we must remember that 1A interpretations have varied over the decades. From the landmark Gitlow v New York (1925), which allowed punitive action against Benjamin Gitlow for distributing leaflets that called for a government overthrow, to New York Times v Sullivan (1964), where inaccuracies in an advertorial were allowed for "larger purpose" reasons, the U.S. Supreme Court has judged free speech in various ways. Privacy has often been a confusing intermediary in free speech cases, such as in the Jackie Kennedy-paparazzi case, but I believe this is an ongoing process of discovery:

Free speech is a constant work-in-progress as new intermediaries interject both freedom and speech.

Image of Elon Musk's profile
Elon Musk

Even in its unattainable utopian or dystopian form, “absolute free speech” can mean cyber-lynching on social media; and cancel culture can imply censorship by vested, albeit social, interests. A good middle ground is needed just as we do in the real world, where teaching Critical Race Theory should be required at all advanced levels, but felling historical architecture or banning books is a process of trying to shroud rather than remind ourselves of our history. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy in December set out to consolidate who’s in and who’s out of the U.S. idea of democracy, rather than set out to (re)define democracy itself. Even though free speech featured on the agenda, what we still don’t know is, is cancel culture democratic or undemocratic?

It takes independent research to even tell us that the most extreme social media voices, including those who peddle lies and hatred, are the most amplified voices, as Donald Trump, Jack Posobiec, the IT Cell of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and hundreds of thousands of users who have harnessed the algo-logic will verify. The new law in the European Union (EU) and the proposed one in the U.S. aim not at thwarting free speech but at strengthening citizen rights, so they should be welcomed.

The proposed Digital Services Oversight and Safety Act of 2022 rightly recognizes the need for “comprehensive transparency,” but must also identify the consumer as a citizen while protecting their rights.

The growing guardedness about governments among critics is a natural outcome of societies that are avidly welcoming extreme-right politics of hatred—and of the fact that politicians are at the forefront of divisive rhetoric leading to hatemongering. To do so, they are using private platforms that don't have to follow the First Amendment. So it is small wonder that governments are super-reluctant to act. As governments are reluctant to act, global corporations can find their conscience and act.

This may seem contra to conventional corporate methods of the illusory free marketplace. Whether it is a marketplace of ideas or products, this is a free-for-all bazaar that relies on who shouts the loudest. In this marketplace of amplification, free speech should mean Twitter algorithms are tweaked in such a way as not to interfere with the loudest voice.

Through history, speech is treated as the task of the speaker. But really, free speech is nothing without a free audience.

That is why being deprived of the advantage of virality extreme speech offers is a first step to real freedom in speech. Back to Twitter: If Musk is a “free-speech absolutist” in the present ecosystem, it would mean reinforcing the power of hatred in society, and there is no doubt Musk knows this—at least by now. There's a need for responsible private parties to step up. Let’s hope he helps Twitter mix ethics and business responsibly.


Shashi has headed reputed media colleges in India, and is a recent addition to the Board of IC4ML, but no longer owns a Twitter account. If you still wish to reach him, you may email him at Views are personal.

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