Elon, you have no idea what the hell you’re talking about

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Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at the Axel Springer Award ceremony in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Tesla Inc. will be added to the S&P 500 Index in one shot on Dec. 21, a move that will ripple through the entire market as money managers adjust their portfolios to make room for shares of the $538 billion company. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Image Credits: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Elon Musk is embarrassing himself on the global stage again by proudly bruiting a grade-school level of familiarity with the immensely complex concepts of free speech, censorship, rights and privileges of individuals and government authorities. The fact that this aggressively ignorant person is likely to take over one of the largest communication platforms on Earth should scare the shit out of you.

Here is what the richest man in the world said earlier today, on the platform he intends to acquire:

By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.

Elon’s got one thing going for him. He has demonstrated an apparently innate facility to pack more willful and privileged ignorance into a single sentence than almost anyone on the planet.

These statements are so fundamentally wrong — factually, ethically, practically, and in every other way, that I hardly know where to begin.

For one thing, he might want to look at the most elementary descriptions of what constitutes free speech and censorship. Censorship is when state authorities limit the speech of the people under their power. Free speech is the guarantee that no action defined as speech is illegal outside a few harmful examples, like harassment, hate speech and other special cases (under constant negotiation) that we as a society have decided constitute or exacerbate crimes.

But this is an unbelievably complicated and nuanced concept, not a big thick line with censorship on one side of it and gratuitous lack of any restriction on the other. The courts are constantly — as in, at all times in legal history there are huge cases setting new precedents — literally defining and redefining what is meant by “that which matches the law.” We have a whole branch of government whose job it is to interpret the law. There is no simple solution or algorithm or set of hard and fast rules that govern this, and the idea that Elon seems to either assume there is or, propose one be drawn up, is the first sign that he has zero clue what he’s talking about.

Next is “censorship that goes far beyond the law.” Presumably he means “censorship” such as moderation by private actors like companies, which isn’t censorship (only governments can be censors) but actually, by definition and legal precedent, an expression of free speech by those companies.

By seeking to limit what private companies (as they are considered under the law Musk seems to care so much about) do in this context, he is proposing limits on their free speech. By suggesting that the government be the one to define and impose these limits, he is literally proposing a system of censorship.

This isn’t some weird twist of logic, it’s what the words he said actually mean. He just had no goddamn idea what he was saying.

Will Elon Musk put Twitter on a collision course with global speech regulators?

Next up, “If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.” OK! There actually are lots of proposals along these lines, Elon. Right now the country is in the thick of a real and terrifying battle over actual free speech in which teachers are being told — by their govenments, which makes it censorship! — which topics they can and cannot teach in schools.

Florida and Texas and others want to limit free speech; in fact they’ve succeeded. Who asked them to do that? “The people”? Did “the people” will that math textbooks that mention black mathematicians from history be banned from use? Or that explaining why someone might have two dads is forbidden by law? The idea that government action is by definition the will of the people is one of the most naive things I’ve ever encountered. Is Elon aware that voting rights are being systematically dismantled and bills are being written by lobbyists? Does he know the history of gerrymandering, redlining, voter suppression and general ratfuckery that makes up the history of “asking government to pass laws”?

What the fuck do you know about “the will of the people,” Elon? Born rich and now rich beyond measure, this is a man who has no idea who “the people” are. He thinks they want vacuum tunnels they can load their $80,000 cars into to shorten their LA-SF commute or bicoastal lifestyle.

He may be surprised that “the will of the people,” outside the sycophantic bubble of his replies, is that billionaires probably shouldn’t exist at all. “The people” may very will tell him, if he asked, that his unfathomable riches should be liquidated and directed to reducing things like world hunger — the thing Elon said he’d solve if someone sent him a plan, and then forgot about. Probably because he has no idea what it’s like to be hungry, either!

More relevant to the Twitter news, this baby’s-first-free-speech-debate take on one of the most complex and contentious topics in history means the plans he has for the social network must be truly, truly foolish and uninformed.

It’s not rocket science: Why Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover could be bad for privacy

You may be surprised to hear this, Elon, but “the people” have been talking about this for centuries. Maybe audit a freshman course on ethics and philosophy, or just have someone summarize the reading list into a few bullets. Other people, like the brightest minds of every generation since we’ve been able to record it, have considered these topics in detail long before you were born into fortune and privilege. Your take is beyond ignorant, because it asserts knowledge where there is none, asserts superiority over something you have never even considered. You could run a Hyperloop through the vacuum that is Elon Musk’s knowledge of civics. A Dragon spacecraft could safely float in the void that is Elon Musk’s understanding of the cultural and legal labyrinth of expression and identity in a free society.

What this all portends is an incredibly simplistic and harmful take on free speech and moderation on a platform that desperately needs a sophisticated, humane and responsive one — something that Twitter, Facebook and everyone else have been trying (and failing, but slowly advancing) to do for over a decade. Something Elon Musk appears uniquely unqualified to ideate or administrate.

Elon, your ideas on free speech are not what I would call evil or abhorrent, by a long shot — they’re just wrong. They’re wrong because you are ignorant of the most basic context and precedent surrounding these concepts, as well as the highly specialized situational knowledge that informs the creation and management of a modern communication platform. You simply have no goddamn idea what you’re talking about.

A complete timeline of the Elon Musk-Twitter saga

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