One suggestion I have for Twitter's possible future owner, Elon Musk
Twitter — and all big tech platforms — should invite a counterinsurgency.
News broke today that billionaire Elon Musk has offered to buy Twitter. All of it.
If you’ve spent even a little time on Twitter in the last week or so (and maybe even if you haven’t), you likely already heard about Musk’s nearly $3 billion purchase of Twitter stock, which currently makes him the largest shareholder with a 9.2 percent stake in the company.
Musk had been telegraphing his move in the days and weeks leading up to it with a series of public musings questioning Twitter’s political and ideological impartiality and its handling of speech and censorship issues. He interspersed all of that with a series of general jabs at woke culture and online liberal orthodoxies. For those at home who’ve long shared Musk’s concerns not only with Twitter but also with the dominance of hegemonic liberal culture on tech platform governance more broadly (but have lacked the several billion dollars needed to do anything about it), his tweets were thrilling and his actual purchase was nothing short of messianic.
Shortly after the news broke, it appeared as if both the Tesla founder and Twitter’s leadership had come to an agreement that Musk would join the company’s board, with Twitter’s newly appointed CEO Parag Agrawal (who once famously stated that Twitter’s role was “not to be bound by the First Amendment”) heaping some very strategically-driven praise on his newfound frenemy.
But less than a week later, the plan fell apart and Agrawal announced that their new activist shareholder would not in fact be pushing for his changes from within the tightly regulated, child-proof confines of Twitter’s board of directors.
It’s clear now why that happened. As many speculated, Musk’s invitation to the board was more of a containment strategy by Twitter than a good faith attempt at collaboration. Joining the board would have restricted Musk from taking any more than a 14.9 percent ownership stake in the company and would have also obligated him to further fiduciary responsibilities that might have limited his criticism and reform attempts. Musk clearly has larger ambitions. It remains to be seen whether the company take-over actually happens and what Musk has planned if it does happen.
In the meantime, I have one suggestion.
I should state upfront that what I’m about to propose is far from a comprehensive solution to the problem of Big Tech censorship. As I’ve written about before, these companies are in some ways victims of their own success, what with having monopolized the flow of speech and information for pretty much everyone on the planet. As such, private self-governance is not likely to solve this problem, as much as Big Tech clings tightly to the belief that it can. But for now, a little billionaire activism pointed in the right direction might not be the worst thing.
It’s well-known that a major source of ideological bias and censorship at companies like Twitter is their very passionate and vocal rank-and-file employees who are disproportionately plucked from a highly-educated, progressive demographic pool — one where the line between social justice activism and professional obligation has all but disappeared. Given the unprecedented power and influence concentrated at these companies today, going to work for one of them has become less about contributing to the growth of a successful company or producing new innovations and more about joining something of a ministry of culture — an elite institution where the best and brightest can impose and enforce their benighted class’s enlightened and progressive values over the country’s media, culture, and politics. In its most potent form, these activities are concentrated and institutionalized at tech companies in the form of “safety” and “misinformation” departments tasked with censoring and imposing speech controls using extremely arbitrary standards that seem to change day to day based on the fleeting partisan, ideological, and electoral context of the moment.
So with that in mind, perhaps one thing Elon Musk might do if his credit card isn’t declined and his impulse purchase actually does go through is hire a group of people whose job is to literally do the exact opposite of all of that.
In other words, if there are employees at Twitter whose job (either formally or informally) is to look for any reason to ban users and censor information, there should also be employees whose job is to look for any excuse to defend the free speech of users and combat the censorship of news and information. It would be an intentional invitation of a counter-insurgency, made up of people who are every bit as zealously dedicated to defending speech rights and press freedoms as many current employees are to their social justice causes and misinformation anxieties. And by design, this department would exist in an overt tension with those who seek to protect the "safety" of users and combat "misinformation."
A pro-speech, anti-censorship department at Twitter (and other Big Tech platforms for that matter) would address two primary issues.
The first issue is that advocating for the freedom of speech and the combating of censorship, in our present political environment, requires people dedicated to doing that and nothing else. It simply isn’t something that any individual, or group of individuals, can “balance” among other competing duties.
Part of the reason for this is that, just as your Human Resources director was literally trained to spread the gospel of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, anyone whose job is to “protect user safety” or “combat misinformation” is likely to have come straight out of a social justice madrasa. But perhaps the bigger reason is that censorship today largely relies on social pressure, shaming, and mob intimidation. It works because nearly everyone, to some degree, is sensitive to these tactics. Most people have their lives to live, families to raise, and simply aren’t willing to experience a social death no matter how lofty the principles at stake. Protecting speech and advocating against censorship in today’s pressure cooker of a political environment requires people who are completely indifferent to the mob — people whose sole job is to not care in service of those higher ideals (think someone like Edward Snowden). In other words, in addition to having an understanding of and commitment to civil liberties, free speech, and press freedoms, these counter-insurgents would need to demonstrate a track record of not caring — an appetite for cancellation. Hard to find, perhaps, but they are out there.
The second issue addressed by this initiative is that, as I just mentioned, censorship and the curtailing of speech happens as a result of pressure and intimidation, and specifically the kind that that is internally exerted directly onto the CEOs and top executives of Big Tech companies. At the moment, activist employees are essentially an unopposed lobbying force within these companies, making these confrontations a one-on-one showdown that put CEOs and top executives in a very vulnerable position. Even Twitter’s recently departed CEO, Jack Dorsey, who was generally seen as one of the more civic-minded, pro-speech executive leaders within the world of Big Tech, repeatedly found himself having to bow to pressure, as he did with the censoring of the Hunter Biden laptop story during the 2020 election (a move which he later admitted was a mistake).
The solution to this is obvious: The social justice warriors need some healthy competition, so that the heat of the mob can at least somewhat be redirected away from top leadership and instead be funneled into a “team of rivals” dynamic within these companies. Only then can these fights cease being a referendum on the personal virtues of one tech company CEO.
So that’s my humble suggestion. If Musk does end up owning Twitter outright, then I imagine it might be tempting to focus first on who needs to be fired. But as I’ve said, the ideological capture of the educated professional class is so pervasive at this point that trying to staff an elite tech company that’s free of wokeness mania and disinfo panic would be likely trying to bail out the ocean. So Elon, if you’re reading, my advice would be to first think about the very specific kind of people who need to be hired.