The Price of Free Speech

Rory Hamilton – 4th November

“The bird is freed” announced Elon Musk last week as his takeover of social media network Twitter was finalised to the tune of £38bn ($44bn). His opening tweet as ‘Chief Twit’ indicates the underlying motivations and key factors which drove his decision to buy the company: free speech. 

In his first week as CEO, Musk has already moved quickly to announce key interventions which he believes will rejuvenate his new acquisition. Having fired almost all of its chief officers, including Vijaya Gadde who is believed to be behind the suspension of Donald Trump’s account after the Capitol riots in January 2021, Musk has also ousted the board of directors, leaving himself as the only Director. Furthermore, ‘code reviews’ are underway by Tesla engineers to essentially cut the wheat from the chaff and streamline the workforce by 25%, while Musk has also indicated his intention to overhaul the ‘Blue ticks’ of the platform which indicate the legitimacy of a source – currently for free. His proposal will introduce a £7 ($8) monthly charge for Twitter users to have a blue tick by their name, which Musk has said is “essential to defeating spam/scam.”

The takeover marks a critical juncture in the way the 21st Century develops, coming just a year after Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook conglomerate became ‘Meta’ and begun building the ‘meta verse’. The hotly anticipated ‘policy’ announcements made by each of the companies might once have been news only for those tuned into the tech industry, but the importance of the changes implemented by two white, straight, cis, billionaire men now leads us to question at what cost does our use of social networks come?

We await these policy announcement like governments and their budget statements (or leadership contests more recently). And yet the accountability of the platforms and those who run/own them appears hidden behind a virtual firewall. 

Undoubtedly, social media has added a great deal of good to the world as we know it, particularly advancing the way we connect with one another, improving access to information (beware the disinformation though!), and supporting research into digital technology that have ramifications like the Internet of Things which helps you control your heating from a distance, or your TV which responds to your preferences – but this advancement is not without its drawbacks.

Musk’s priority in taking over Twitter is to supposedly restore free speech, and reclaim the social space from the left-leaning liberals he claims hound people off the space. But this so-called free speech is out of keeping with his wish for Twitter to be ‘a digital town square’: in a town square you don’t find bigots screaming about far-right conspiracy theories, inciting action to violence at major events (Jan 6th), or decrying Covid vaccines. If people do that, they are ignored, or removed and not given the space to air views which have no legitimacy. Legitimacy which can now be bought for £7 a month. So to talk of defeating spambots and scammers (former Presidents included), the idea that anyone can self-legitimise only gives rise to an increase in disinformation and a clouding of the lines of legitimacy, and by extension authenticity.

Not to mention that ‘free speech’ can essentially be bought; what this move will do will alienate the voices of the marginalised further – people of colour fighting climate collapse in third world countries, and working class people in particular who cannot afford such a subscription service. It is a dangerous world when democratic participation (which is one facility that the platform offers) is at the whim of one or two people whose motivations appear self-serving at best and dangerously erratic at worst.

So why is Musk doing this? What interest does he actually have in free speech or social networks? There was a time when Musk appeared more than just an unhinged weirdo who had a shit-tonne of money. Well as one Guardian columnist accurately surmised:

“Musk’s takeover relies on the same sense of preternatural self-confidence that underlies his other successes. Tesla built an electric car when the conventional wisdom in the industry was that it was a niche product for eco-nuts, and it sells almost 1m a year, all at the luxury end of the market. SpaceX built reusable rockets, and almost single-handedly lowered the cost of getting things in to orbit, sparking a spaceflight renaissance that lets Musk credibly commit to sending a rocket – if not people – to Mars. Musk’s central thesis for Twitter is that there’s an opportunity if you bet the farm on the conventional wisdom being wrong.”

And you could believe that conventional wisdom is wrong: people are willing to pay for subscription streaming services, and have been willing to pay subscriptions to news outlets for years. And what has Twitter become? It has increasingly drawn journalists and politicians to the space owing to its ability to react to and share events in real time. Not to mention, how often people complain about the amount of unwanted ads they see on their feeds, so why not turn social networking on its head? Pivot away from ads to recent re-centre the user in the experience by making it paid? There’s certainly a business case for it, and if I were in anyway profit-inclined I might suggest this would be a smart move. However, much of this also goes in the face of the evidence: we’ve already heard about Netflix’s plan to introduce a cheaper streaming service, featuring advertising, in order to counter its stagnating (and falling) income; likewise, the subscription to newspapers digital and physical has been in decline for years, mostly owing to the threat of social media platforms like Twitter – a move to make the two more similar thus sends Twitter into the same declining spiral journalists and editors elsewhere struggle with.

But Musk’s profit-geared plans, and Netflix’s alternative platform suggestions appear to misread the room. People aren’t leaving Netflix because its too expensive, they’re leaving because it strayed too far away from being a space where you could access all your old time classic films and a few really strong TV programmes, with a small selection of high quality Netflix-developed products. Now I’m thinking “I seriously don’t know what to watch, but I’d rather watch anything that’s not Is Is Cake? ”A recent Twitter thread (ironic) by Professor Paul Bernal of the University of East Anglia demonstrated the key flaw in Musk’s thinking:

As Bernal says, “they’re the community he should care about, not the right-wing-nut-job community”. Meanwhile, the right-wing-nut-jobs want to be on the same space as liberals and socialists like us because they enjoy ranting at us, and once we’re all driven off by the ideologists and nut jobs Musk allows on, they will get bored, because its not as fun when they haven’t got our anger and frustration to take joy from.

Musk’s ideology is ultimately one that pits ownership against legitimacy: ownership of content, ownership of space, ownership of connection. Why are companies like Twitter, Netflix, or Facebook/Meta haemorrhaging profits ($21bn at Meta in three years)?

We could easily say its because of the ‘soulless PR campaign featuring Zuckerberg’s sickly digital avatar’; or because of its failure to produce popular alternatives to its direct competitors (the Facebook Portal alternative to Amazon Echo has been killed off, and Instagram users spend 10% less of the time watching ‘Reels’ than TikTok users spend watching those short-form user-generated videos); or we could even say it’s because Facebook and Instagram rely so heavily on advertising to generate profits that users no longer see content they want to, and the platforms have become mobile billboards placed in the pocket of everyone in the world (almost).

I would argue that none of these are the real reason the world of social media is at tipping point. Sure they all make a significant contribution, but the context in which these changes have occurred is all the more important. 

The pandemic should have been a time for these companies to flourish and really prove why they are so cutting edge, but what it showed was how much humans value connection. Connection that’s physical, connection that’s digital, but connection nonetheless. We want connection without having to wade through the pages and pages of hate-speech, or feel we’re stuck in an echo-chamber that doesn’t develop ourselves as human beings – we want progress, not stagnation. 

Hence, the question of what purpose social media should serve really must sit at the heart of this critical juncture in tech development. Social media has been described as the ‘public conversation layer of the internet’ and I think that’s quite apt, but conversation must be protected. The ability to buy your legitimacy poses a threat to us all, not least when you consider the national security ramifications and the vested interests of governments in pushing certain agendas. A paid verification scheme opens the door for governments like those in Saudi Arabia to buy public internet space and use it to quash free speech.

We must consider the internet, and networking platforms on it, a public good. Access and legitimacy should be free and protected for all, but this free speech does not mean freedom from responsibility or accountability. You are expected to behave as a responsible citizen in your day to day life, in return you are granted freedoms to access certain services, and enjoy a pleasurable life. Your digital world should be no different. 

Once again, the regulation on this cannot be left up to the minds of a small few who are not representative of the wider population. Do you really think that Elon Musk has your best interests at heart? So why should we ask them to regulate themselves?

We need national and international regulatory bodies – with teeth – that can act to preserve public interests on digital platforms, and protect the rights of the most marginalised online, as they do in areas like employment discrimination, and provide opportunities to gain access where they might otherwise be excluded.

Finally, I come back to connection. If we want to achieve real connection in the digital world, and maintain the relationships, interests and engagement we get out of social media networks, then we need to consider the ownership of these platforms. By no means do I think that ‘nationalising’ Facebook or Twitter would be a beneficial, sustainable, or even sensible (let alone affordable) thing to do. 

But what if there was a social media platform made by the users, built for the users? At Common Weal we emphasise the need for localised democracy and building small, strong local communities. So here’s my idea: small, localised social networks could present an alternative to the monopolisation of our digital channels and provide the space to build a digital democracy.

Without digital democracy, common ownership, and independent regulation, can we ever really have free speech, or are we merely slaves to our billionaire overlords? So much for freeing the bird, if anything, the cage has just got bigger and it’s about to be invaded by vultures.

12 thoughts on “The Price of Free Speech”

  1. Am I reading you correctly – are you saying that you support people “not [being] given the space to air views which have no legitimacy” in the context of a literal or digital town square? I find this troubling. Shouldn’t a town square be exactly the kind of public place where people can come to air their views, and where they’re not removed solely because some arbiter (and who decides who that is?) decides that their views are not legitimate? Doesn’t a commitment to freedom of speech require all views to be able to be aired, no matter their legitimacy (as long as they’re not inciting violence, which has been against the law for a while)?

    For example, you seem to suggest that people “decrying Covid vaccines” shouldn’t be able to air their views on Twitter. On what basis have you decided that this view is not legitimate? Many new ideas that are initially controversial end up becoming accepted as new understanding and evidence emerges (the history of science abounds with these). What if it turns out to be the case that Covid vaccines are more harmful than public authorities led us to believe? Should people be allow to air their views about it belatedly then? Or does their view remain forever illegitimate?

    More importantly, shouldn’t all ideas should be able to be aired on principle? It seems to me that’s the only way to even begin to honestly explore an issue, and also the only way to discredit bad ideas.

    It’s a sad day when even a think tank like Common Weal is no longer supportive of freedom of speech.

    1. Rory Hamilton

      There is a fundamental flaw in the concept of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ which you suggest here. In principle, yes all these views have equal standing and are equally able to be discussed, but that’s not the reality when we look at social media/print media/broadcast. In reality, space and ‘air time’ is based on money and power – Musk’s takeover of Twitter should be a clear example of that. When we think about who dominates Britain’s newspaper industry we think of Rupert Murdoch or Paul Dacre, who make up the 3 companies that own 90% of our print press, and 80% when you include online (https://www.mediareform.org.uk/media-ownership/who-owns-the-uk-media). The influence that small groups have owing to money, power, and influence is entirely disproportionate to the influence that those with equally important views, such as the migrants and asylum seekers coming to the countries for safe haven. And yet, consider who is villanised, and who is made a scapegoat for all of our woes.

      The marketplace of ideas is a meritocratic fallacy that implies all views are equal and good views will naturally cancel out the bad ones. And ultimately, this is why our ‘free speech’ isn’t free at all. What I’m suggesting is not that ‘free speech’ is bad, I’m suggesting that it is co-opted by vested interests and our freedom to speak is at the whim of those who deem it in their own interests (i.e. money and power). There is no such thing as free speech right now and our freedom to speak does not mean the freedom to harm others; it is inevitable that the views of one will impinge on the views of another, but there is a responsibility placed on us to be good citizens which means we have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable and exploited from harmful views/words/actions and ones which take away more freedoms than the singular freedom of expression it upholds.

      As I say at the end of my article, “Access and legitimacy should be free and protected for all, but this free speech does not mean freedom from responsibility. You are expected to behave as a responsible citizen in your day to day life, in return you are granted freedoms to access certain services, and enjoy a pleasurable life. Your digital world should be no different.”

      1. Rory,

        Thanks for replying. I mainly agree with you when it comes to Big Tech and social media – “that [free speech] is co-opted by vested interests and our freedom to speak is at the whim of those who deem it in their own interests (i.e. money and power).” That’s why I didn’t comment on the particularities of how social media does and should work. I also didn’t comment on that because I don’t use social media as I am deeply uncomfortable with its effects on individual psychology and social discourse and tolerance. I am more interested in the fundamental issue of freedom of speech, and while I understand (I think) and have sympathy with your point of view, I think it still undermines freedom of speech too much.

        It’s the fundamental issue of controlling ‘free speech’ which I’m concerned about. You say “our freedom to speak does not mean the freedom to harm others […] there is a responsibility placed on us to be good citizens which means we have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable and exploited from harmful views/words/actions and ones which take away more freedoms than the singular freedom of expression it upholds.”

        I agree that freedom of speech comes with great responsibility – that’s one of its key values – the acceptance of responsibility. But the problem is in how we define “harms” when it comes to words, and in the issue of some people protecting others from “harmful” speech. Who decides who the vulnerable are and how they should be protected? Do the vulnerable get to decide if they need protection or who should protect them from speech? I can’t see a way around this that doesn’t basically stop freedom of speech (again, other than by making illegal incitement to violence, etc, which has been in law even before our new hate speech laws were introduced). You seem to put “views/words/actions” into one category but views and words are very different from actions. (Psychology research shows there’s a very complex relationship between beliefs, views, attitudes and actions.) Harmful actions are already illegal but if we decide to limit the expression of some views and words but not others, then we don’t have freedom of speech. I personally cannot see a way where censoring speech takes away more freedoms than upholding free speech. What is deeemed harmful or ethical changes as society changes. What you or I consider ethical views now might in a future time be considered harmful. And if we’ve agreed that “harmful” views should be censored, then where are we? Free speech is fundamental to a free and democratic society. If some views cannot be debated, if some words cannot be spoken, then we are on a dark path.

        And regarding being “granted freedoms to access certain services,” I would argue that some freedoms – such as to speak, to gather, to meet friends and family, to make a livelihood, to accept or refuse medical treatment – should not be at the whim of government (or other authorities) to grant or remove.

        P.S. It’s also interesting that you refer to a ‘marketplace of ideas’. The idea of a marketplace is indeed what social media has become with its corporate gatekeeping and censorship. However, I don’t see free speech as a marketplace and nor do I see the hypothetical town square as a marketplace but simply a public space, open to all, which can host the sharing of ideas – though I do miss the days when town squares regularly held markets with local stallholders selling local produce!

        1. Rory Hamilton

          I really enjoyed engaging with your reply Alison – its exactly the sort of exchange which challenges my own views that I value.

          Let me address your latter two paragraphs first, because I think they help answer your discussion of ‘harms’ and the ownership around that idea: regarding access to services in exchange for the freedoms we grant ourselves, we’re getting into deep ideological territory here. Take Liberalism, for example. Not the neoliberalism post-Thatcher, or the ‘liberalism’ of the Lib Dems or even the US Democrats. But pure Lockeian/Millsian/Rawlsian Liberalism built under the premise that the individual is paramount and individual freedoms (rights and liberties) are exclusive from the realm of the state to act in. This is ultimately about the freedom of choice – does the government allow you to make that choice based on its interventions or is the society run by the state essentially laissez-faire?

          Perhaps at one point (and to a certain extent now as well), individuals genuinely did have freedom to make this choice and the institutions of the state were a) not so extensive as to provide the foundations for daily life and b) these institutions were not so integrated that human interaction necessarily relies on certain state interventions or the private sector (i.e. NHS, education, Policing, post, internet).

          So considering how much state intervention already exists as a bedrock of society, without living anarchically, the underlying nature of how we live our lives is already at the whim of governments/authorities to grant or remove. In other words, if we do not conform to social norms then more often than not we end up restricting ourselves of the ability to engage with others because of that *choice* of behaviour, and if that behaviour is so against the social norms that they harm others then the consequences for that behaviour necessarily restrict that choice because of the harm it does to others.

          The point I make in the article is more that we should regulate who controls those definitions because social media, as it were, is a Wild West, and the lack of intense scrutiny enables free speech to become a co-opted issue. It’s the lack of accountability which is the problem. As I say, our human interactions are dependent on state and private sector interventions, the difference being that the state can be voted on (i.e. you express your freedom of speech at the ballot box and therefore the government can take measures to represent your belief in certain ideals around freedom of speech), whereas the private sector is a law unto itself, therefore unaccountable barons like Musk or Zuckerberg are not voted on, they are accountable to themselves and their shareholders mostly, therefore whoever buys the most has influence over what is harmful and what is not.

          Re the ‘marketplace of ideas’: the concept of the marketplace is essentially what the public space you suggest it – people are free to have the choice of all the ideas out there because theoretically they share the same public space, but some of the vendors at the marketplace have a lot more money because certain people gave them start up capital, so they were able to buy very loud PA systems, invest in enormous colourful signs, and give away loads of sweets for free to entice people to their stalls. The smaller vendors cannot compete so they go elsewhere, and the public space becomes entirely co-opted by those vendors who have the extra money share their dangerous ideas – mostly under false pretences (i.e. the free sweets).

          The idea that airing all views will naturally weed out the bad/dangerous/harmful/insensitive views is flawed in this sense and we need accountability and scrutiny to be able to interrogate who funds those who shout loudest and why. The point of debate is not to have black and white understandings of issues, it might have to be different shades of how to address it, and this would be far more interesting. Instead a debate about how to address the issues at hand, how far we need to go etc. We can have a debate about the scale or the why of racism or climate change, for example, but we should not have a debate about whether this exists or not – we know it does because this debate has been resolved before.

          P.S. I’ve recently found a resurgence of local markets starting up in various places I’ve been to, and things like the Common Home Plan, the support for local food chains embedded in that piece of work would absolutely encourage a new flourishing of town markets.

  2. Quite apart from your failure to understand the concept of free speech, you demonstrate your regressive tendencies by your flippant use of the offensive and woman-denying term ‘cis’ in an article where it has absolutely no relevance.
    Are you suggesting it would all be ok – or at least different – if Zuckerberg put on a dress and called himself Marcella?
    FWS absolute capture by gender identity ideology is why I stopped subscribing. If you want to change the world, or even scotland, you need to start supporting the rights of 52%of the population, rather than pander to the idea that we don’t count because of a few men who want to rampage over our rights. Which you apparently support.

    1. Rory Hamilton

      Re my understanding of free speech I’d recommend looking at my discussion with Alison and Simon in the other comments, and to address using the term ‘cisgender’ see below.

      Using the term ‘cisgender to describe Musk and Zuckerberg was not flippant, rather deliberate in fact, and not irrelevant, as I’ll explain here. Firstly, to clarify, cisgender is not offensive language: ‘cis’ derived from the Latin to describe ‘on the near side’, in this context merely describes someone identifying their gender with the sex they were born with; I am not seeking to “deny women”, rather I hope to recognise that people identify themselves differently. If you found this term offensive, I feel that is subjective.

      Secondly, why did I use the term in this context? Why did I feel the need to describe the two most powerful individuals in social media using an expansive range of indicators? I feel it is important we recognise the privileges and challenges faced by those holding positions of power. My article draws attention to the need for scrutiny and being aware of the dangers of leaving control of major international platforms in the hands of very few. I think it is important to understand who those few represent.

      Musk and Zuckerberg are both white – neither has had to face racial discrimination, and in Musk’s case may even have benefited from racist institutional structures to build his wealth.
      They are both billionaires – they represent the interests of a particular class, and own the means of production (i.e. of information), and therefore can use wealth to exploit those who do not, and are not hindered by their income.
      They are both straight – neither has faced discrimination for their sexual orientation.
      They are both men who identify as men – firstly, this recognises that they have not had to face patriarchal structures which prevent many women from rising to top positions, particularly in the tech industry (women make up less than 25% of senior level positions: https://www.globaldata.com/data-insights/technology–media-and-telecom/women-representation-in-big-tech-companies-in-2091371/); secondly, this recognises that in addition to benefiting from patriarchal structures, they have not faced discrimination on the basis of their gender identity.

      Far be it from my intention for you to interpret this as “denying women” or “rampage over the rights of women”, rather I seek to be inclusive of everyone and acknowledge two of the most powerful men in the world have faced almost no barriers to success and we should recognise how this influences their decision-making.

      I hope this answers your comment.

  3. “If you don’t believe in free speech for people who you hate, fear and disagree with, then you don’t believe in free speech,”
    -Ricky Gervais

    1. Rory Hamilton

      As Voltaire famously said: “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

      However this phrase is a myth. He didn’t say it and more importantly, he spoke in a time when speech was severely curtailed by the state (when France was under absolute monarchy, and executions without trial for speaking against the King was very common).

      For sure, I believe in the right of people I disagree with to freely express their views, but we should not pretend that people should be able to get away with saying anything they like without facts being challenged and due scrutiny applied. Free speech does not equal freedom from consequences.

      1. I’m a little concerned by the line of thinking that lies behind several of the comments above. The idea that there should only be ‘free speech’ for those whose views are accepted as having legitimacy is particularly concerning. It was thought at the time that Galileo’s views had no legitimacy when he suggested that the earth revolved around the sun – maybe some views held today that are viewed as lacking legitimacy will be proved correct in the fullness of time. It is also dangerous to suggest that ‘hate speech’ is any view that someone claims to be offended by. So, for example, should someone be denied the right to argue their view that abortion is morally wrong on the basis that some other people take offence at that view being aired? If that is the case, we will have no free speech at all.

        1. Rory Hamilton

          Gordon, I fear you may have focused too much on some comments and not enough of the context. The point I will continue to make is that free speech for all and access to free speech for all should be protected. We must also accept that our free speech is dependent on our willingness to engage in exchanges of ideas that do not de-legitimise the existence of others or wish harm upon others.

          I’m afraid I don’t think the example of Galileo is borne out – Galileo was an astronomist working in the scientific sphere, therefore evidence can be used to build and support claims which prove the correctness of his claims in the fullness of time as you say. On the contrary, political ideals and discussion of human rights are not necessarily dependent on hard factual evidence, much is subjective wouldn’t you say? Political ideas are based on moral, ethical, and philosophical considerations, and my argument is that we should not entertain suggestions in the public sphere which imply certain people are more deserving of life than others for one. That is hate speech.

          Hate speech is not merely offence; I’m offended by the Rwanda deportation scheme, I’m offended by austerity. I’m willing to debate whether austerity is an effective tool of economic management; I’m not willing to debate whether humans deserve to be treated like animals and shipped off to somewhere that puts their lives at risk. We should not entertain the idea that this is in any way moral or ethical, it is a slippery slope to fascism.

          As I say regarding the ‘marketplace of ideas’, as wide a space as possible which makes space for all ideas does not necessarily guarantee that abhorrent policies like those promoted by fascists will be rooted out. Public debate deserves to be a safe space where everyone can feel included, how is that possible if there are not guidelines which protect people from harmful ideas?

          Not only do we not currently have free speech, but free speech itself is not unconditional.

          1. Thanks for taking the time to reply. I think we disagree over the extent to which we should engage in debating ideas we may find immoral or unethical. For example, both sides in the abortion debate have positions rooted in ideas of morality and over what is ethical, but yet come to completely different conclusions – my view is that more dialogue and understanding of each other’s viewpoint would be a good thing.

  4. florian albert

    ‘I’m not willing to debate whether humans deserve to be treated like animals and shipped off to somewhere that puts their lives at risk.’

    The problem is that not everybody agrees with the interpretation you lay out here. I am against the ‘Rwanda scheme’ but I do not think that it – putting people forcibly on a plane – involves treating people as animals. Many countries do this as a matter of routine.

    ‘it is a slippery slope to fascism’

    I have been hearing this from leftists for much more than half a century now. With each passing decade I am less and less convinced. On the evidence available, I would say that the public is equally unimpressed.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top