The world's richest man, Elon Musk, a 21st Century Citizen Kane with similar delusional and megalomaniacal tendencies, is now set to own what he admits is probably the world's most important "public space".
Musk, who describes himself as a “free speech absolutist”, will take over Twitter for $44 billion, promising to make the platform an “inclusive arena for free speech”. He says he will make Twitter – a forum he uses regularly to advance his causes – “better than ever” by introducing new features, making its algorithms open-source, stamping out bots, and authenticating “all humans”.
Despite the deeply questionable implications for global democracy of concentrating such power over a key agenda-setting forum in a single plutocrat, it is true that some of Musk's ambitions are worthy. Algorithm transparency and rooting out bots are to be applauded, if difficult. But the clear implication in Musk's advocacy of "free speech" – that he wants to reduce moderation of online content – promises to make Twitter a far nastier, brutish arena. It would be, it is widely assumed, a place where the banned Donald Trump would again be welcome and "free" to preach sedition, where intimidation and abuse would swamp debate, and where users' timelines would be awash with even more racist trolling and misinformation.
In this regard Musk is standing against the tide of history at a time when governments and international organisations, like the EU with its Digital Services Act, are rightly trying to regulate the output of the digital giants.
Political economist John Stuart Mill, articulating the classic case for freedom of speech, famously wrote of the "marketplace of ideas", suggesting that in an environment where ideas can be debated, the best will rise to the top. But Mill, far from advocating a laissez-faire approach to controlling that marketplace, warned that assuming good ideas would simply edge out the bad ones is illusory and that minority views need a helping hand.
Unfettered market forces are no guarantor of truth, and Mill’s concern was not merely for the variety of opinion but also for the discovery of truth. The market would not choose what is true but what is popular.
On social media that helping hand is moderation. Research into online harassment shows clearly that when platforms fail to moderate effectively, the most marginalised often withdraw from posting to social media as a way to keep themselves safe. Certain types of speech and their causes inevitably predominate. Moderation of online excess is key to a functioning marketplace of ideas, contrary to the Musk view.
His reasons for taking control of Twitter, however, aren’t really about free speech at all, but about owning the world’s loudest megaphone. Democracy must find ways of controlling its volume and on/off buttons.