Free Speech

Twitter Is More Like a Traveling Circus Than a Public Square

It's a private company. Its owner can do what he chooses, even if it seems crazy.


Until fairly recently—namely around the time that the world's richest man, Elon Musk, bought Twitter—conservatives have been hyperventilating about the threat that social media posed to "free speech." Republicans proposed various big-government solutions to the problem, including having the feds commandeer these private companies and turn them into public utilities.

This led to proposed federal and state laws that ranged from mandating what these platforms must publish to micromanaging the details of their business relationships (e.g., forcing Apple to open its app stores to all comers). Big Tech foes' motivation wasn't principle, but pique. They were upset at content-moderation policies that they said discriminate against conservatives.

"We're trying to end the influence of Big Tech on American society as we know it, because…the Big Tech companies are enemies of the people," said the Heritage Foundation's President Kevin Roberts. "We want to always perpetuate free-market principles, but subsumed by this really important role, and that is our ability to operate in the public square using our natural rights."

The idea of perpetuating free-market principles by advocating the use of government to undermine "enemies" is an odd position for the president of a conservative think tank. It reminds me of when George W. Bush defended $8.5 trillion in economic bailouts by saying, "I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system." They're not really principles if you abandon them at the first sight of discomfort.

The Right defends its assault on the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law…") by depicting social-media firms as monopolies, even though anyone (even Donald Trump) is capable of starting a competitor. It's hard to start a successful one, though. But now Republicans have grown quieter after Musk overpaid for Twitter and seems to have set himself up as the app's main content moderator—a rather lowly job, if one thinks about it.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) famously declared that Musk's $44-billion purchase is "one of the most significant developments for free speech in modern times." Certainly, and I can assure you of something else I learned this week on Twitter: the creation of the erasable whiteboard is one of the greatest technological developments of the century.

To his credit, Musk has allowed Trump and the not-very-funny humor site, The Babylon Bee, back on the platform. However, he's smart enough not to return tweeting privileges to Info Wars' Alex Jones. Now leftists are expressing rage—and are proving that misunderstanding the First Amendment and free markets remain a bipartisan affair. (Google "Elon Musk is a threat to democracy" and you'll quickly see what I'm talking about.)

"Musk's recent actions and statements following his acquisition of Twitter raise serious red flags about the potential for harassment, intimidation, and disinformation that targets vulnerable communities and undermines our democracy," harrumphed the left-leaning Common Cause. The Right wanted to control Twitter because it thought its content-moderation policies were too extreme—and the Left believes they now won't be extreme enough.

I use Twitter, but recognize that it isn't a public utility and its operation has nothing to do with anyone's constitutional speech rights. Its moderation decisions, however dubious, do not involve government control of what you can say. It's a private company and you don't have to use it. You can find a nearly limitless number of alternatives for speaking your mind, such as starting a Substack newsletter no one reads or writing a letter to the editor.

The Twitter fixation reminds me that many people don't have enough to do in their lives, given the attention they pay to the latest inane tweets—and their intense focus on everything that Musk says on or does with the platform. Musk's biggest right-leaning supporters will end up disappointed as he stumbles his way through the process. Only a fool would believe that a mercurial billionaire will protect anyone's rights or uplift humanity.

It's certainly been a wild ride in recent weeks, as Musk has bickered with tweeters, announced new policies that sound oddly similar to old policies (e.g., shadow-banning), laid off employees, gave the remaining employees ultimatums (which led to more departures) and sparked questions about whether the company will even survive.

The blue checkmark fiasco—whereby Twitter sells verified status—backfired spectacularly. Now, it's even more difficult to tell real users from parody accounts. Instead of serving as a public square, Twitter functions like a clown show. Sadly, an entrepreneur who built groundbreaking electric-vehicle and space companies is wasting time on nonsense rather than sending people to Mars.

One need only follow the childish tit-for-tat between Musk and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich to understand why this Twitter takeover is a tempest in a teapot, but expect sky-is-falling chat about democracy and free speech to continue. Again, it's a private company. Its owner can do what he chooses. And you're free to get a life.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.