The Left’s support for civil liberties has always been contingent on its own relative strength or weakness.
How Elon Musk Should Manage Twitter Going Forward
Elon Musk's Twitter deal will have massive consequences across our society.
Elon Musk, the multibillion-dollar electric vehicle and rocket crusader turned crypto meme edgelord turned free speech aficionado, shocked the world on April 14 when he announced, via Twitter, that he was bidding to buy the popular social media platform outright at “$54.20 per share.” The news came just days after it was announced that Musk had bought a 9.2 percent stake in the company, making him Twitter’s largest shareholder, and catapulting the company into what major news outlets have described as “a week of chaos.”
The company had already been reeling from shocking news that Musk had decided to reject an offer to join Twitter’s Board of Directors, which Twitter’s CEO, Parag Agrawal, had announced, also by tweet, on April 10. Meanwhile, the “Technoking” of Tesla ran roughshod around Twitter’s current management and speech policies. Musk’s tweets ranged in tone from lighthearted and conjectural, “should Twitter have an edit button?”, to the apocalyptic: “Is Twitter dying?” In the weeks leading up to the announcement, Musk declared that “free speech is essential to a functioning democracy” and asked whether “Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle.” Days later he topped that statement by going so far as to call Twitter “the de facto public town square,” saying that its “fail[ure] to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.” Musk ultimately announced on April 21 that he had secured the funding to buy Twitter. On April 25, the news broke that a deal had been officially reached between Twitter’s shareholders and Elon Musk—poison pills, dismissals by pundits, and legacy media doomsaying be damned.
Months of legal delays followed April’s news. In the meantime, questions about how genuine Musk is in his alleged commitment to the First Amendment have arisen, or whether he is purely acting out his part as “glorified IT Tech Support for the Globalist American Empire,” to quote Darren Beattie.
Musk certainly took upon himself a tall order—particularly given the stakes. On the one hand lies the prospect of revitalizing free speech to a level not seen in at least a decade. The Globalist American Empire and its woke ideology thrive on censorship. Indeed, stifling dissident voices is arguably the only way in which this regime can hold itself together. If ideas could be circulated freely, without the censorious watchful eye of regime press apparatchiks, the GAE would likely topple within months. Which shows the arguably even higher stakes for the regime itself, which has consolidated around the new censorious norm that stifles the free flow of ideas and seeks to level all political discourse down to whatever insidious woke fad occupies the day’s news.
The Musk Twitter bid represents an existential danger to the regime. This has little to do with Musk’s own personal politics, which might be generously described as normie, or of the sort of humdrum liberalism that was commonplace a little over a decade ago. Indeed, it is because of Musk’s political naivete and social libertarianism—the variety similarly found in persons like Joe Rogan and Andrew Yang—that makes him the perfect vessel for a transaction of this kind. It is highly unlikely that a billionaire sharing Peter Thiel or Donald Trump’s politics, by contrast, would have been able to pull off this feat, given how dyspeptic those personalities are to the regime. But someone like Musk, who otherwise inclines to the Left on climate change, abortion, and LGBT issues, can get away with his aloof posturing—and use it to his advantage—to shore up the deal, while also justifying an overhaul of Twitter’s policies geared towards maximizing free speech.
Twitter’s importance stems not so much from the total number of users on the platform, which pale in comparison to other social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, as from its outsized role in shaping public narratives and elevating those personalities who would have the greatest impact on those narratives in turn. It is no coincidence that the man who perfected Twitter’s headline shaping art would ultimately find himself in the Oval Office. The perennial lesson of the mass media age—the medium is the message—is as true today as it ever was, and Twitter, for better or worse, remains the kingpin in shaping media narratives.
Therefore, the stakes of the acquisition are higher than ever. Musk should be prepared for a full-frontal attack by the GAE and its appendages in the media. Whether he succeeds or not is an open question, but in waging the battle, Musk will have become a hero and patriot in the eyes of tens of millions of his fellow countrymen. But Musk’s success will hinge on his ability to implement several critical reforms that will dramatically change Twitter’s direction. The following recommendations just broach the surface but would represent a promising start towards that noble goal of restoring free speech in this country—and the world over.
Clean House, Open Twitter’s Books and Records
Musk will have to decide whether to clean house, and if so, how extreme a facelift will be needed to right the ship. This will start with the current board of directors. Based on reports of severance packages for potentially outgoing directors, it appears Musk is already concocting a plan to replace the current Board, evidently hostile to Musk’s captaincy, with a new one that will agree with his broader vision. Though patience could be a virtue elsewhere, Musk’s speedy dealmaking on Twitter strongly hints that there is little time or desire for talking out fundamental disagreements about company philosophy. Better to start afresh with a new Board that agrees on the fundamentals, and then from there, build upon the whole product, with a view towards Musk ultimately having a more hands-off role once the dust finally settles and the platform is refashioned to his satisfaction.
Musk’s house cleaning will likely also have to extend to the rank-and-file, particularly to those employees who anticipate being uncomfortable with his leadership style or who might not otherwise add value to the overall product. Musk previously toyed with the idea of shutting down Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, which had remained vacant since the COVID-19 lockdowns: perhaps he will make good on his word. Furthermore, there has been quite a bit of talk about establishing political parity on the platform: in other words, a platform of equal satisfaction to Democrats and Republicans alike, with no favoritism for one or the other side. Towards that end, perhaps Musk will replace disgruntled and deadweight employees with new ones who will add much needed political diversity to the corporate culture. A graphic had been recently circulating on Twitter about how upwards of 98 percent of the company’s employees were liberal or Democrat. Even former CEO Jack Dorsey, concerned about this disparity, acknowledged in 2018 that the few conservative employees at the company “don’t feel safe to express their opinions.”
While it may be difficult, especially in the tech industry, to square a 50-50 ideological split, Musk should still commit to parity. Some resentful employees will depart due to irreconcilable political differences, and those who remain onboard should be evaluated on a merit-based scale: how much value can they add to the company, first and foremost, and second, whether they share Musk’s resolute commitment to political diversity, setting aside their own, personal convictions. If they are unable to meet that threshold, they should be shown the door. To better realize this goal, Musk may wish to add geographical diversity to Twitter, perhaps relocating from San Francisco to the more conservative-friendly enclaves of Dallas, Atlanta, or Miami. Or, following many other large corporations in the post-pandemic world, switch to a virtual or hybrid model in which Twitter is no longer bound to hard-and-fast geographical limits.
In keeping with the spirit of a corporate shakeup, Musk may also want to open Twitter’s mysterious algorithms to avoid indiscriminate shadow banning of conservative users. Musk may also seek to rework the algorithms so that users themselves are empowered to customize their content preferences (liberals can tune out Donald Trump, while conservatives can self-select against AOC). Certain users would also like to have a digital postmortem on why they failed to generate exposure on a certain tweet based on the censorious algorithms of yore, or why they might have been purged of followers or failed to reach a wider audience because of an algorithm that preferentially selected on the basis of ideological content. These users deserve answers, and Musk should make it a priority to be transparent with them.
Musk should fire Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s General Counsel, who already demonstrated by reports of her “crying” at the meeting the day after the Twitter deal was made official that she remains a partisan for the old order. Gadde therefore cannot be trusted to competently execute Musk’s vision in matters of legal policy—and crucially, content moderation—moving forward.
Bring Back Trump
In line with the above sentiment, the name Twitter cannot be mentioned in the same breath without reference to its all-time most famous user. While our 45th President has been suspended from the platform for almost two years, no individual—Musk included—has managed to so adeptly master Twitter’s platform as a vehicle for political salesmanship. Trump’s absence from the platform no doubt accounts for a significant portion of its lost cachet. Twitter afforded Trump a complement for his idiosyncratic, hard-hitting, brand of polemics, a style that meshed with a platform that forced users to deliver bite-sized information in pithy, salesman-like bits. And Trump demonstrated the power of the platform as it vied competitively with much larger platforms like Facebook and YouTube during the mid to late 2010s.
Though he has indicated his distaste for indefinite suspensions, Musk has not taken the option of limited periodic suspensions completely off the table. Of course, the logistics still need some hashing out: Elon has yet to provide any specifics as to how regular these suspensions would be, how long they would last, and what the process would be for leveling them. At this still early stage, it does not seem like a Musk-run Twitter would hand out as many suspensions—and certainly not indiscriminately—as became commonplace under Dorsey and Agrawal’s leadership. Where suspensions are considered appropriate, presumably they will be leveled with as much frequency against wrongdoers on the Left as they are currently against the Right.
Set New Industry Standard for Speech
Parag Agrawal once said in an interview that Twitter’s role was “not to be bound by the First Amendment.” In sharp contrast, Musk has stated that the benchmark for content moderation will be “that which matches the law” and that he is opposed to “censorship that goes far beyond the law.”
Dorsey, speaking with Joe Rogan in 2020, said that any would-be speech prohibitions should be scoped down “first and foremost to doxing.” A prescient, high-profile example of this involves Taylor Lorenz of the Washington Post, who exposed the identity of the woman who runs the famous “Libs of TikTok” Twitter account. In this case, there was a real and proximate nexus between the doxing incident and a real-life injury. The owner of the targeted account was subject to personal harassment, which included unwanted strangers visiting the homes of relatives of the doxed account’s creator. Moreover, the “Libs of TikTok” owner was forced to relocate to a safe location to avoid harassment and potential physical injury. This is a clear example of when it would be appropriate to temporarily suspend the account of the violator who subjected an innocent person and their relatives, a group that sought to remain anonymous for their own safety, to real-life harm through doxing.
Of course, Twitter’s important role in shaping the public narrative cannot be overstated. Ultimately, if Twitter (or any other platform) is to retain its clout as a vehicle for free speech and narrative formation, there is a strong, bipartisan argument that these platforms should not be exclusively controlled by a cadre of oligarchs united around a common worldview. Musk’s break from what many Americans observe as the regime’s monopolizing of thought, though noble, is likely too risky a gamble to stake America’s long-term prospects for free speech overall. That is because the marketplace naturally prefers consensus and groupthink to dissident views. It took the world’s richest man, rich enough to forfeit concerns over the “economics” of the acquisition, to prioritize the common good over personal profit and take a sledgehammer to the oligarchic thought monopoly. That is a rarity, especially given the extraordinarily high price for dissent, knowing that the regime can mobilize all its institutional forces against any would-be dissident.
The lesson of Musk’s Twitter acquisition should be to make use of the opportunity to contemplate how free speech might be preserved in a way that is not dependent on a single individual going forward. This is exactly the sentiment articulated by outgoing CEO Jack Dorsey, who said: “In principle, I don’t believe anyone should own or run Twitter. It wants to be a public good at a protocol level, not a company. Resolving the problem of it being a company, however, Elon is the singular solution I trust. I trust his mission to extend the light of consciousness.” Heeding Dorsey’s call, for free speech to survive online indefinitely, the best solution might be some form of public-private compromise.
The most salient consideration is regulating elected officials, who under the proposed regime should be accorded broad-based immunity on social media platforms, particularly on their public accounts. An elected official who uses Twitter should probably only be regulated by congressional rulemaking: the censorship laws currently in place for individual congresspersons should likewise govern their social media presence. And even then, only a congressional supermajority should be allowed to vote on whether a sitting lawmaker should receive a temporary suspension. All suspensions, save the most egregious violations (e.g., murder, sex trafficking, child pornography, etc.), should be time limited.
If a time-limited censure is deemed appropriate by the requisite supermajority, the social media company should operate as an independent check on congressional overreach with their own independent review board. But unlike Facebook’s Oversight Board, which now can unilaterally and indiscriminately ban the accounts of elected lawmakers, the totally privately owned review board in this case should only retain veto power over congressional censure: in other words, it cannot act as an offensive censorship sword, instead limited to a reactive or defensive shield, or check, on governmental overreach.
Presidents of the United States should receive blanket immunity, save a conviction in accordance with the procedures laid out in Article II of the Constitution, which immunity should persist by authority of executive privilege for the entirety of the ex-president’s lifespan. Any exceptions should track the high threshold established in Article II, in full recognition that no president has ever been convicted for a “high crime” or “misdemeanor” in the history of the United States.
Take Twitter Private
Musk has made clear his desire to take Twitter private, allowing him to have maximum control to repurpose the platform so that it conforms to his new standard for speech and avoids many of the pitfalls that made Twitter so prone to a hostile takeover in the first place. All of these are good ideas, and necessary, if Musk seeks to make public what has long been hidden under the hood—a messy, albeit vital, operation that is bound to air the dirty laundry to the chagrin of those formerly in control. Taking Twitter private also would allow Musk to bypass the harshest regulatory scrutiny exacted by the SEC for public companies, an agency with which Musk has long had what might graciously be described as an acrimonious relationship.
Taking Twitter private would buy time to allow Musk to see just how bad the institutional backlash will be. Put another way, there is no use in making a company public if that means that the agencies, acting under the auspices of policing “consumer protection,” will instead abuse that prerogative as a pretext for public speech gatekeeping, wherein, for instance, the SEC might make a punitive case of Musk’s example.
Musk may use the period in which Twitter remains private to develop the technologies that would allow Twitter to be retrofitted into a decentralized platform, the first social media platform of its kind. Indeed, he has already floated the idea of making Twitter subscription services payable in cryptocurrencies, perhaps a way of easing towards the grander vision of eventually transferring Twitter wholesale onto the blockchain. In addition to accepting payments in crypto, Musk may also consider—in solidarity with the overall DeFi movement—to commit a significant percentage of Twitter’s balance sheet to Bitcoin and other decentralized assets and make that figure available for the world to see.
To that end, if Musk finds the institutional counterattack even more hostile than expected, he may seek to reincorporate Twitter overseas, perhaps to a crypto-friendly environ such as Latin America, or to a country that has provided hospitable conditions for Musk’s other business pursuits, like Germany or Switzerland. The distance afforded through the creation of an international outpost would help quash the most heated domestic regulatory fires.
Finally, a move overseas would potentially allow Twitter the ability to enlist on a foreign exchange in the future and be governed by a less restrictive regulatory regime, one less likely to harbor a personal grudge against Musk. Obviously, this would be something of a last resort scenario, and likely only a short-term corrective until the dust settles at home.
The tremors from Elon Musk’s Twitter deal, which have and will continue to reverberate across virtually every facet of our society—not only technology and finance, but throughout the larger economic, political, and media worlds—present an opportunity to reflect over how our society is currently organized, and why it has reached a point where so many Americans feel that the survival of speech literally hangs in the balance, potentially determined by the actions of one enigmatic billionaire.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.