“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” – Harry S. Truman
By now most people are aware that the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, levied a successful takeover of the social media platform Twitter. The Tesla and SpaceX founder first attempted to buy a significant stake of public shares and got an invitation to the board of directors. Upon ideological disagreement, Musk declined a board appointment and instead opted for a cash offer to take Twitter private.
When asked what his interest was in buying Twitter, Musk stated the following:
I think it’s very important that it [Twitter] be an inclusive arena for free speech. Twitter has become the de facto town square. It’s really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.
For any rational human being living in a free society, you’d be hard-pressed to find fault with this statement. Musk describes himself as a free speech absolutist, which simply means that the Constitution does not permit limitations to free speech. By free speech, we refer to opinions, expressions, and the exercise of beliefs that don’t breach non-speech-related laws. But if you looked only at Twitter employee responses to this buyout, you might have concluded that Elon Musk’s intent is to usher in the Fourth Reich.
The reality is that Twitter, whose management banned President Donald Trump and spiked unfavorable press for the left, became an echo chamber, where leftist ideas went unchallenged. The left came to believe that the absence of competing thought meant it didn’t exist. Any aberration to leftists’ groupthink was extremist in nature, because they assumed that everyone holds the same beliefs as they do. In fact, they came to espouse that even competing thoughts amount to violence.
Free speech first came under this particular assault following the 2016 presidential campaign when failed candidate Hillary Clinton blamed her loss on “fake news.” Donald Trump came to embrace the term and would regularly use it in reference to a hostile corporate press. Not wanting to propagate Donald Trump’s attacks on their captured press, leftists came to adopt broader terms like misinformation and disinformation to describe competing ideas and stifle debate.
Trump himself came to embody disinformation to the left. They created entire lists where they sought to record and classify as many of his statements as a lie as possible, regardless of the veracity of his statements. Making Trump and his political spectrum synonymous with lying became their primary political strategy.
In making Trumpism synonymous with disinformation, they effectively discounted all of right-wing populism as disinformation. An entire fact-checking industry sprang up around reinforcing leftist opinions as factual truth. They embedded themselves within the corporate press and technology and became the gatekeepers of the public square. They locked out those who espoused right-wing thought. Perhaps most concerning of this leftist progression is the recent move of the Biden administration to institute a disinformation governance board, transferring this process from one of private enterprise to one with the force of government.
The end result of ham-fisted leftist censorship was a purge of the right wing from public debate and the rise of media and technology alternatives where ideological pariahs could speak freely. Out of this schism, Rumble, Gettr, and Truth Social were born. Free speech–supporting platforms like Gab, where the limitations of speech are the bounds of the law, saw exponential growth. This is where concern about government disinformation boards arises. If the law as written permits objectionable thought, then leftist objectors must work to prohibit that thought by law. This is where we find ourselves.
The problem with the divergence of the public square is that it created opposing tribal squares where ideas aren’t juxtaposed at all. In one corner, you have authoritarian left-wing censorship, and in the other a freer but right-wing echo chamber. Perhaps reopening the public square where partisan ideas might be challenged is the real value in Musk’s acquisition of Twitter?
Free speech exists not to protect the things we all agree on; those things don’t require protecting. Free speech requires protection to allow for competing ideas in the public square. Power dynamics shift, and culture shifts. You’re never more than two years away from the next election, and the weapons of censorship we permit ourselves today, we permit our opposition tomorrow.
*As of the date of publication, Musk has temporarily suspended the acquisition of Twitter pending user base verification.