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Williams: Twitter weaponized free speech. If Musk loosens the reins, he jeopardizes democracy.

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Elon Musk’s statement upon announcing his acquisition of Twitter brought to mind another purchase, a decade earlier, by a man of similarly considerable wealth.

“In towns and cities where there is a strong sense of community, there is no more important institution than the local paper,” Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett said in a statement after he agreed to purchase the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other newspapers from Media General.

But seven years later, in an interview with Yahoo Finance, Buffett administered last rites to all but several newspapers in the U.S., declaring them ”toast.” The following year, he sold his newspaper holdings, including the Times-Dispatch.

What seemed like an attempt to preserve an institution fundamental to both community and democracy turned on a business decision.

Which brings us to Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and soon, Twitter, which he’s buying for around $44 billion.

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said in a statement Monday.

Nope. Not really buying that.

Democracy and humanity actually functioned better before we had Twitter and other online hosts of misinformation, incitement and hate for people to exploit.

I’m here for the free speech, but not for the abusive behavior Twitter has attempted to curb. I’m also skeptical of even more concentration of power and wealth in the hands of an obscenely wealthy few.

The idea of Musk as a guardian of First Amendment rights is disquieting, even to the American Civil Liberties Union, which he avidly supports.

“While Elon Musk is an ACLU card-carrying member and one of our most significant supporters, there’s a lot of danger having so much power in the hands of any one individual,” said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero in a statement that concluded: “We should be worried about any powerful central actor, whether it’s a government or any wealthy individual — even if it’s an ACLU member — having so much control over the boundaries of our political speech online.”

Frankly, I think hate speech and corrosive misinformation have been far greater problems on Twitter than stifled speech. And safeguarding free speech is much more complicated than “the tweets must flow,” the headline on a 2011 blog post by Twitter co-founder Bizz Stone.

“Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country,” Stone wrote in that January 2011 piece.

Or, some tweets could push a country closer to repression, autocracy and plutocracy — all in the service of greater profits for Musk.

“It could be really interesting for the bottom line of Twitter, which has seen problems posting a consistent profit. He could help the platform become profitable. “ says Marcus Messner, a professor of journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in social media. “On the other hand, some of the statements that he has given have been a little concerning, especially when it comes to limiting restrictions on free speech on the platform.”

Given its history of hosting misinformation and incitement, culminating in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and its ban on Donald Trump, Twitter is a digital stick of dynamite.

“The question is, what will Elon Musk do in regards to that? Are we going back to a time when anyone can say anything on Twitter, including inciting violence, or are there going to be some safeguards?” asked Messner, associate dean in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU.

“It’s always a balancing act, right? You don’t want to go overboard with limiting speech. But I think what the past has shown us is what’s happened on social media can become dangerous.”

Indeed, people seem to have lost the capacity to distinguish between facts and lies anymore, whether its Russians believing Vladimir Putin’s nonsense about the war on Ukraine or American citizens buying QAnon craziness or the lie of the stolen election. Trump continues to peddle that falsehood at every turn — reason enough to continue that Twitter ban indefinitely. If Musk is thinking otherwise, that’s bad news.

Musk, who has more than 85 million Twitter followers, has been called out in the past for tweets about Tesla that the Securities and Exchange Commission deemed misleading, which makes you wonder how much discipline the site will promote under his leadership. And I’m bothered by the potential power dynamic this acquisition creates.

If the super wealthy want to promote democracy, they should invest in struggling newspapers, fight book banning, and withhold the digital megaphone from folks who don’t believe in democracy.

Michael Paul Williams is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va.; read more of his columns on Richmond.com.

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