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Elon and Free Speech

Elon Musk has made the news for spending billions to buy a share of Twitter for the alleged purpose of providing free speech. The problem with this claim is that having any company controlling a large portion of the world’s communication is inherently bad for free speech. The same applies for Facebook, but that’s not a hot news item at the moment.

If Elon wanted to provide free speech he would want to have decentralised messaging systems so that someone who breaks rules on one platform could find another with different rules. Among other things free speech ideally permits people to debate issues with residents of another country on issues related to different laws. If advocates for the Russian government get kicked off Twitter as part of the American sanctions against Russia then American citizens can’t debate the issue with Russian citizens via Twitter. Mastodon is one example of a federated competitor to Twitter [1]. With a federated messaging system each host could make independent decisions about interpretation of sanctions. Someone who used a Mastodon instance based in the US could get a second account in another country if they wanted to communicate with people in countries that are sanctioned by the US.

The problem with Mastodon at the moment is lack of use. It’s got a good set of features and support for different platforms, there are apps for Android and iPhone as well as lots of other software using the API. But if the people you want to communicate with aren’t on it then it’s less useful. Elon could solve that problem by creating a Tesla Mastodon server and give a free account to everyone who buys a new Tesla, which is the sort of thing that a lot of Tesla buyers would like. It’s quite likely that other companies selling prestige products would follow that example. Everyone has seen evidence of people sharing photos on social media with someone else’s expensive car, a Mastodon account on ferrari.com or mercedes.com would be proof of buying the cars in question. The number of people who buy expensive cars new is a very small portion of the world population, but it’s a group of people who are more influential than average and others would join Mastodon servers to follow them.

The next thing that Elon could do to kill Twitter would be to have all his companies (which have something more than a dozen verified Twitter accounts) use Mastodon accounts for their primary PR releases and then send the same content to Twitter with a 48 hour delay. That would force journalists and people who want to discuss those companies on social media to follow the Mastodon accounts. Again this wouldn’t be a significant number of people, but they would be influential people. Getting journalists to use a communications system increases it’s importance.

The question is whether Elon is lacking the vision necessary to plan a Mastodon deployment or whether he just wants to allow horrible people to run wild on Twitter.

The Verge has an interesting article from 2019 about Gab using Mastodon [2]. The fact that over the last 2.5 years I didn’t even hear of Gab using Mastodon suggests that the fears of some people significantly exceeded the problem. I’m sure that some Gab users managed to harass some Mastodon users, but generally they were apparently banned quickly. As an aside the Mastodon server I use doesn’t appear to ban Gab, a search for Gab on it gave me a user posting about being “pureblood” at the top of the list.

Gab claims to have 4 million accounts and has an estimated 100,000 active users. If 5.5% of Tesla owners became active users on a hypothetical Tesla server that would be the largest Mastodon server. Elon could demonstrate his commitment to free speech by refusing to ban Gab in any way. The Wikipedia page about Gab [3] has a long list of horrible people and activities associated with it. Is that the “free speech” to associate with Tesla? Polestar makes some nice electric cars that appear quite luxurious [4] and doesn’t get negative PR from the behaviour of it’s owner, that’s something Elon might want to consider.

Is this really about bragging rights? Buying a controlling interest in a company that has a partial monopoly on Internet communication is something to boast about. Could users of commercial social media be considered serfs who serve their billionaire overlord?

4 comments to Elon and Free Speech

  • Re: “The next thing that Elon could do to kill Twitter”:

    Why would he want to kill Twitter ? He’s about to invest a lot of money and reputation into it. How could he make money from Mastodon ?

  • Onan the Barbarian

    I didn’t know about Gab. I read the Wikipedia page you linked to. What I found most “interesting” there is how a person or group operating their own communication channel can still be obstructed in various ways: hosting companies refusing to host servers, app stores refusing to distribute apps, payment companies refusing to process payments, and so on. It looks like there’s quite a long way to true freedom.

    I guess you can’t have it both ways. Any technical, legal or other measure that good guys can use to block bad guys can also be used by bad guys to block good guys. The problem will always be who decides who’s good and who’s bad. Of course, who has the power gets to decide. Unless you trust that your government, and any other government (or corporation!) that may have a global reach on the internet, will always be run by good guys, I’d rather err on the liberty side and not block anybody. Having a few nazis spread their shit (which few people will listen to anyways) is a price that I’m willing to pay for living in a free country and a free world. I like that much more than the alternative: having nazis or other bad people in command and not being able to speak AGAINST them, which is already happening right now in several countries.

    I don’t trust Musk any more than any other corporate overlord, but not having all the internet monopolies controlled by people who sing by the same tune can only be a good thing. And I’m quite amused to see how lots of left-wing people suddenly discovered the danger of corporate control of the internet only when one who doesn’t belong to their circle entered the game.

  • Bill: he doesn’t want Twitter to do what it’s been doing. One option is to buy it (latest news that failed), the other option is to replace it. Replacing it would be much cheaper.

    Onan: True there are various ways of obstructing companies that do bad things. All you have to do to avoid being obstructed is have a limit to how evil you are. Facebook does a lot of bad stuff and no-one even talks about blocking them!

    There is not an option of not blocking Nazis and preventing Nazis from blocking others. Autocratic governments will control what happens in their jurisdiction regardless.

    If you think that the current management of Twitter and Facebook are left-wing then you are seriously misinformed.

  • Onan the Barbarian

    “All you have to do to avoid being obstructed is have a limit to how evil you are.”

    That is a bit naive. Because, as I wrote, the problem is who decides what’s evil.
    And I suspect the reason why no one talks of blocking Facebook isn’t that they aren’t being evil enough. It’s because they’re big enough that they can get away with it.
    Yes, autocratic governments will control what happens regardless. My point is that if you think that the same could never happen in a “free country”, you might need a reality check. And if that needs to happen I’d prefer governments to do it rather than corporations. At least governments are supposed to be accountable to electors, although that might need a reality check too.

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