Elon Musk is all set to buy Twitter for around $43 billion, as his ‘best and final offer.’ He has already acquired 9.2 per cent of its shares. What he would like to do though is to buy up Twitter and change its functioning because it censors free speech, which Elon Musk believes, is essential for democracy and its future.
Here is what Twitter says about its policy of censorship on free speech on its site:
‘We will review and take enforcement action against accounts that target an individual, group of people, or a protected category with any of the following behavior in their profile information, i.e., usernames, display names, or profile bios:
‘…Abusive slurs, epithets, racist, or sexist tropes…
‘…we will still take action against these accounts if we receive reports about Tweets or Direct Messages that are in violation of our other policies…
‘…If an account’s profile information includes any of the abusive behaviors listed above, we will permanently suspend the account on the first violation…
The words sound like the issuance of a court, the preamble of a faceless but omnipresent judge; someone who might preside over the proceedings of a Kafkaesque trial before he sentences the suspect to death and damnation by hanging. Please note that Twitter reserves the right to interpret what exactly constitutes an offence.
But Twitter, like Facebook, is a company. Just a company. Its shares are up for buy and sell. Both forums favour ‘progressive’, and ‘liberal’ speech. Indeed, Facebook these days is so censoriously sensitive that your posts take time to hit the screen because their AI machines are running filters on every word; this is especially so if your track record as a writer or consumer has a record of ‘offences.’
Elon Musk is in effect a Libertarian, one who values the idea of liberty over all else. He has stated that he is socially and culturally tolerant and open, and financially ‘prudent.’
He believes in governments that least govern, by which he means the government must not interfere in your private lives, but makes lives in general easier. He certainly does not believe in elected governments defining free speech or censoring your thought. Our increasing and eager reliance on emojis to convey the harmlessness of our intent in each exchange is fundamentally an indication of our growing and craven preference for large, rounded, general feelings rather than eccentric and edged expressions of our individuality.
In these fluid and volatile social media times, the government is not the only agency that controls speech. It is Multi-National Corporations—which at one time were considered sources of social and political evil— as well. This amounts to a tectonic shift in our idea and practice of communication. Because non-State players do not abide by penal codes or the Constitution.
That’s why even when Chris Rock says he forgives Will Smith and refuses to press charges, you have the Oscar Academy, under pressure to appear good and correct, imposing a 10-year ban on the star.
Effectively, a non-State player, terrorised by the equally non-State backlash, has passed a life sentence on the actor. There is no law involved in this, only the perception of a feeling, and what that feeling might entail in terms of the cancellation of the Oscar Academy itself by social media addicts, whose numbers are legion.
Indeed, the way it is going, the function of the Greek chorus as the conscience of the play has now been usurped by social media: the tragedy can continue as comedy.
While technology flatters you with the addictive delusion (there are millions of men and women working for Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey or Bret Taylor from morning to evening without being paid a dime and still think they are doing themselves a favor; this is the international labor force that, unbeknownst to themselves, has destroyed the idea that labor has monetary value) that you have important things to say and you have a forum for saying these, the fear that their platform could be taken away from them at any given moment by a wage-less and silent robot itself controls thought.
That we have until recently in our civilizational evolution found in the State an enemy in whom we can easily trace the source of most of our free speech censorship, we are now confronted with the problem of experiencing the definition of free speech and its censorship to private companies—whose reason for existence is profit.
But none of it washes, really. A couple of years ago, when Jack Dorsey visited India, a bunch of well-known women posed with Dorsey as if he was the Messiah of the Media Freedom; it was as if they thought he was not a capitalist running a company, but an altruist running a liberal movement: A suited Christ propagating the new secular Gospel in 150 characters, or whatever was the limit then.
In Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, the disgraced colonial politician, Ralph Singh, says: ‘Understand the language I use. I am describing a failure, a deficiency;’ The articulation of our deficiencies cannot be always without causing offence. But mass platforms like Twitter and FB encourage what amounts to a forced conformism of speech he or she may not believe in given his individual experience. That someone like Jordan Peterson, a free-thinking and controversial academic from Canada, had to fight the government of his country and the social media for his right Not to use prescribed gender-neutral pronouns is an indication of where we are heading: toward totally policed thought, the perfect Stalinist dream.
Elon Musk puts the money where his mouth is. Unlike most billionaire businessmen across the world, Musk still comes across as a human being and not a corporation. And as a human being, he is aware of the inalienable condition of existence: the articulation of one’s deficiencies in a language that might often offend.
In short, Musk would like to buy Twitter so the platform is a place to communicate, not observe silence. He understands that human speech unless it is occurring in an Orwellian or a Stalinist society, cannot be worth anything without a measure of offence.
The real significance of Musk’s offer of $43 billion for Twitter is that it is the price of free speech. Finally, we have a number for our thoughts. But Twitter considers it as the price of its right to censorship. So in effect, $43 billion, the offer which Twitter will not accept, is the price of an enforced silence on humanity.
(CP Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal.)