from the come-on,-don't-be-ridiculous dept
I’ve been trying to explain this in all sorts of ways: Elon Musk’s understanding of free speech does not have anything to do with actual free speech. And, for the most part, it seemed that people who understand this stuff got that. But I remain surprised at how many otherwise intelligent people seem to be extraordinarily confused by it, and continue to falsely insist that Musk “supports free speech.” I’ve seen it a few times now from people who I know for sure know better, and it leaves me perplexed that they’re misrepresenting it. In this case, I’m going to call out famed venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.
I should note that I quite frequently agree with Marc on many things regarding both innovation and policy, and I find that I learn a lot when listening to his ideas. Indeed, this post is somewhat in response to his appearance on Russ Roberts’ Econtalk podcast, where I agreed with almost everything Marc was saying about innovation.* I also know that Marc, at times, reads Techdirt, and once even told people at his firm, A16Z, to read my posts on Section 230 (which resulted in three separate A16Z employees reaching out to tell me). Of course, he also blocks me on Twitter, so his feelings towards my writing apparently vary with the seasons.
Anyway, as noted, there was plenty of interesting stuff in the interview, but at the very end Russ asks him about Elon Musk and the Twitter takeover, and it’s important to note here that Marc’s firm has pledged $400 million towards Musk’s deal, even as Marc himself sits on the board of Twitter competitor Facebook. But his answer to Russ’s question just struck me as bizarrely wrong, especially from someone who historically always seems to have a lot more nuance in his thoughts.
Roberts: Tell me what you think of this brouhaha, to use a very brick-and-mortar word, over a very rich man, buying a very important information source called Twitter. And then making different rules than the rules they’re making, and maybe different rules than the government’s rules and what are your thoughts on that? You’ve been writing a lot of interesting things on Twitter about it.
Andreessen: Yeah, well I will start by saying something I know will shock you: this is not the first rich man in history to buy a critical information source. [Laughter] In fact, there’s a rather long history of this kind of thing happening, and, in fact, virtually every information source we have today, there’s a very rich person at the head of it who either owns it or controls it, so you know, starting with the Sulzbergers and working your way through the hierarchy.
So, on the one hand there’s a bit of a crocodile tears thing happening where people… I guess the Casablanca thing where people are “shocked” by the gambling happening in the casino. Yes, rich people are going to buy things, including these things.
Obviously, that is not what people are upset about. People are upset that he is pro free speech. And we live in this — to me — completely bizarre moment where the good among us have decided that free speech is not good, but bad. And that someone who is staunchly pro free speech is, therefore, bad.
And in my view, it’s this extraordinary ethical and moral regression, you know, that’s kinda happened over the last ten years. And it’s been almost completely not talked about, because the people who talk about such things are in on it. You know, there’s a part of it. Nobody’s advocating for speech restrictions more than journalists, which is just a completely bizarre turn of events.
Andreessen: Here you have a guy, I mean, we’re both 50. We happen to be the exact same age. You know, I won’t speak for him. I’ll just say that it was completely normal for like kind of well-intentioned liberals of our generation to consider the classic ACLU view on free speech, which is “free speech is good” and it’s encoded into the Constitution for a reason, and it’s deeply entrenched in our culture for a reason, and it’s incredibly valuable and that basically all social progress from all recorded history has come from people being able to express themselves and that these are very hard won, both legal and cultural rights that people have. And so, it’s inspiring. It’s inspiring to have a guy like that step up and say, look, I not only believe this, but I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and do something about it.
So I don’t know anything beyond what he’s said publicly, but in public, he’s been very strong on this so far and I think it’s great.
So, right, almost all of that is utter nonsense. First up, beyond claiming that he is for free speech (and perhaps donating a few million to the ACLU), Musk has shown zero indication that he is actually for free speech, and his actions have suggested quite the opposite. Leaving aside that it just came out that he had a woman who accused him of sexual misconduct agree to an ironclad NDA (which is not very free speechy), over and over again Musk has indicated that he is not at all actually interested in free speech. Let’s just discuss a few of the ways that is clear:
- He gave a full-throated endorsement to the EU’s Digital Services Act, an internet regulation plan that actual free speech defenders have called out as an attack on free expression and human rights. Twitter had been among the most vocal companies pointing out the problems of the DSA, including the issues with its anti-free speech “delete first” approach. And Musk immediately endorsed it.
- While he keeps insisting that he is for free speech, and whatever he means by that, whenever he needs to get towards specifics, it’s about how he will take down speech: namely his insistence that he has to get rid of spammers and bots on the site (though he seems to imply all bots are spam or scams, but that’s not true). Again, spam is actually the number one reason why we need content moderation. If you do none, then your platform fills up with garbage. Musk has similarly said that he plans to get rid of “bad” and “wrong” content on the site, but leave the rest. Which, you know, is kind of how all content moderation works, and something Twitter has spent a tremendous amount of effort trying to get right in a manner that actually enables more free speech on the site. If anyone should understand this, it should be Andreessen, who is on Facebook’s board and has seen that company go through a similar process.
- Musk has a long and fairly detailed history of silencing or punishing people who say things that are inconvenient for his self-image. We’ve already mentioned the flight attendant on his plane and the NDA, but reporters digging into Tesla have found that he uses NDAs to silence people all the time, and those NDAs are ridiculously broad. He’s also fired union organizers at Tesla. Tesla fired an engineer for social media postings that highlighted problems with Teslas. His lawyers at Tesla have threatened to sue critical users on social media. He threatened to sue an online critic to the point that they would no longer write about Tesla. He has tried to drag critical journalists into court. He even banned a journalist from buying a Tesla because of mild criticism about a Tesla launch event starting late. Then there’s the employee who emailed Musk to complain about sketchy contracts and was forced to resign and later accused of criminal behavior. And how can we forget the truly bizarre story of an attempt to frame a whistleblower employee who the company had already sued for $167 million. Musk’s repeated behavior does not suggest someone who “believes in free speech.” It suggests someone who is eager to stifle speech that is critical of him.
- Just this weekend, Musk happily met with Brazilian authoritarian leader Jair Bolsanaro, where it is said they “discussed free speech.” I would assume, by that, they mean things like Bolsanaro’s executive order barring Twitter from removing any pro-Bolsanaro disinformation or harassment, and not Bolsanaro’s long history of suppressing speech of the media and his critics.
Similarly, while I’m sure you could find some reporters who are against free speech if you looked, I do not think it’s even remotely accurate to suggest that reporters who are focused on the social media or political beat are “advocating for speech restrictions,” let alone being the most vocal in doing so. And, really, I mean, every few weeks we seem to get the media elite whining about the exact opposite, whether it’s Harper’s ridiculous letter on cancel culture or the NY Times’ silly and ahistorical whine about how free speech includes “the right to speak… without fear of being shamed or shunned.”
People in the media are also the ones who are out there all the time facing down a long string of censorial lawsuits, sometimes even those filed by Andreessen’s acquaintances.
Look, free speech is a complicated subject, especially with regards to social media and content moderation. But it’s the wider internet that is the enabler of free speech. It’s what allows anyone to create their own websites or their own web services. It’s what allows anyone to create their own offerings and to give more people the ability to have a voice. Andreessen’s own efforts in creating, and later popularizing, the first graphical web browser really was a huge step towards enabling more free speech around the globe.
But it’s beyond ridiculous for someone in Andreessen’s position, and with his background and knowledge, to claim that Musk somehow “believes in free speech” and that the media “does not.” The people who are concerned about Musk’s approach to Twitter, for the most part, are not “upset that he’s pro-free speech.” They’re concerned that he doesn’t seem to have a clue about how free speech actually works, the he has a long history of retaliating against critics who use their speech, and that the kind of “free speech” he has suggested there needs to be more of on the site is the kind where people are harassing others, and they believe Twitter actually enables significantly more free speech when it has in place some very minimal policies (certainly a lot less stringent than Facebook) that try to keep harassment off the platform.
* The one other exception, though, was the weird bit where Marc mocked California for giving him $800 in gasoline tax relief for having two cars — something he insists multiple times that he actually received, despite the fact that, while it was proposed by the Governor, it has not actually happened yet and is facing pushback from the legislature.