Elon Musk’s Twitter purchase brings free speech into sharp focus


Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter in a $44 billion deal has opened a new front in the culture wars, specifically over what constitutes free speech in the 21st century. While considerable pearl-clutching ensued following Musk’s offer over the prospect of a billionaire controlling a major social media platform, a more substantive debate emerges from the language used by more temperate observers.

At issue are freedom of expression on the one hand and “content moderation” on the other.  Defenders of content moderation on social media, whether they do so directly or implicitly, place greater value on some forms and substance of speech than on others. What is often lost in the fog of battle over speech is that free expression and authentic content moderation are not necessarily at odds. Rather, it is those who either unwittingly or intentionally conflate distinct concepts and cloak speech suppression through “content curation” more appropriate to professional media who complicate the issue.

Elementally, there is a meaningful distinction between utterances in the public square — of which Twitter and other social media platforms now form a prominent part — and the journalistic and other developed “content” traditionally delivered by professional media. The internet flattened and democratized access to information, giving rise to independent citizen journalism, and simultaneously expanded the public square. This technological step-change blurred (but did not eliminate) the lines between substantive “content”— the product of investigative journalism, subject matter expertise, relevant personal and professional experience, and the like — and “expression” more broadly defined.

The ideological fault lines revealed by the contretemps over Musk’s bid for Twitter highlights this confusion. Content moderation can be applied to either expression or content to the extent necessary to eliminate truly inappropriate or offensive material. In contrast with “straight” content moderation, content curation — the process of determining coverage, story selection, editing, fact-checking and the like, and which includes some measure of content moderation — best applies to the professional media output of a publisher, not to posts on a social platform.  

Expression, in contrast with the standards expected of published media, need neither be informed nor even defensible; at its best, expression can serve as a catalyst for published content, informing professional media hypotheses, which are subsequently confirmed or refuted through research and investigation. Suppressing expression not only inhibits speech; it suffocates the “Fourth Estate” by denying it the oxygen necessary to produce output intrinsic to public discourse.

That trust in media currently sits at all-time lows is a given; various reasons are offered for declining trust in the media. Many believe that journalism has strayed from a “just the facts” approach marked by relatively unbiased inquiry and transformed into something that looks more like advocacy. This colors not only the lens through which news is reported — see the rise of so-called “news analysis” features in major newspapers — but also what is deemed newsworthy.  This inverts the practice of journalism into an inductive discipline, whereby reporting output conforms to a narrative, rather than how consumers of media understand (and prefer) it to work: as the result of a deductive, fact-driven empirical inquiry. When media content is seen as predetermined, faith in the profession and its contrivances are compromised. As this same approach has been applied to expression on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter over the past several years, user satisfaction and engagement have suffered. A December 2021 poll by The Washington Post reported that 72 percent of those surveyed distrusted Facebook; a similar poll undertaken by Newsweek in October 2020 revealed that registered U.S. voters distrusted Twitter even more than Facebook.

Restoring trust in media requires drawing a clear, good-faith distinction between the standards that should apply to expression and media content. Expression is the easier of the two: It should be free, full stop. It’s why we have a First Amendment — and the reason that it is listed first among our enumerated Bill of Rights. This means putting an end to the suspensions, shadow-banning, and other forms of speech suppression — molding content in a manner more appropriate to a publisher — by Twitter and other social media companies. Moderation of genuinely objectionable content should not be controversial; banning The New York Post and The Babylon Bee for material out of favor with progressives most certainly is — or should be.  These platforms maintain they are not publishers as described in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act; they can prove it by resisting calls for “content moderation” which seek to suppress expression by conflating curation with the actual moderation of content. 

Resurrecting the traditional respect accorded professional media — and reversing declining standards in content curation — is the greater challenge. There are no halcyon days of appropriately and expertly produced content to which we may return; absent the aforementioned checks and balances of technology-enabled distributed journalism, historically the ability to challenge narratives was limited. The biases of the past may not have been as overt — and a less concentrated media landscape may still have conveyed “all the news fit to print” in the aggregate, albeit across multiple outlets — but they were undoubtedly present.  

Still, even today one would hope a journalistic ethos and level of professional integrity exists capable of delivering the curated content necessary to allow major media outlets to recover such lost respect. A start on defensible standards might include rejecting obvious ideological bias in reporting and story selection; renouncing advocacy outside of the op-ed pages; avoiding errors of both commission and omission in coverage (the latter most recently witnessed with the Hunter Biden laptop suppression fiasco); returning to deductive, empirical investigative journalism; and defining expertise objectively, rather than by whether a given viewpoint neatly fits a preconceived narrative.

The importation of concepts appropriate to traditional media curation into social media content moderation constrains speech and harms civil discourse. Moreover, applying now-degraded journalistic standards to expression exports a failing oversight regime nevertheless properly applied to the creation of professional media output to a medium where it is not only inappropriate, but risks amplifying the same debased standards now pervasive in traditional media.  

A healthy representative democracy demands a readily accessible public square for the expression of opinion across the ideological spectrum. Similarly, it requires a media complex able to provide the quality of information critical to maintaining a well-informed citizenry.  Understanding the distinction between expression and content — and the standards that should apply to each — may allow both traditional and social media to regain their potential as instruments of a freer and less distorted marketplace of ideas.

Richard J. Shinder is the founder of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy, and a frequent lecturer, speaker and panelist on business and financial topics. He has written extensively on economic, financial, geopolitical, cultural and corporate governance-related issues. Follow him on Twitter @RichardJShinder.