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Adapted by the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill from classical economics, which holds that free market competition produces optimal outcomes, the metaphor of a “marketplace of ideas” is frequently used in the law of free speech.
Foremost among current adherents of the idea marketplace is Elon Musk, the new proprietor of the social media platform Twitter. A self-described “free speech absolutist,” Musk says he wants to create a “common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner.”
Apparently, Musk believes that the market has excluded voices of the right and ultra-right. Since his $44 billion buyout of Twitter six weeks ago, the Tesla and SpaceX tycoon restored 12,000 banned accounts, including those of former President Donald Trump and prominent neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and QAnon conspiracists.
At the same time, Twitter deplatformed left-wing accounts identified as “Antifa” sites. Liberal influencers report losing thousands of followers. Moreover, the sacking of half the Twitter workforce has raised concerns about site security.
Musk’s actions had immediate effects. Hate speech on Twitter toward Blacks, Jews, and LGBT folks increased significantly. Right-wing users are reportedly “weaponizing” the site to harass women, activists, and minorities.
Why should we care about the goings-on at Twitter? A quarter-of-a billion daily users sounds like a lot – and it is – but not when compared to Facebook (2 billion daily users), YouTube (5 billion daily video views), or TikTok.
First, Twitter has been the go-to site for political and media elites. Disruptions in the platform will affect political communication in Washington, D.C. and state capitols, particularly among liberals, who are the most frequent tweeters.
Third, a right-wing takeover of Twitter, if it happens, would further conservative dominance of political news and commentary, which includes talk radio and the Murdoch empire of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.
Finally, when conservative media power is added to the influx of fat-cat and corporate donors in politics – unshackled by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v FEC (2010) that “money is speech” – and the influence of ideologically-driven think tanks, the marketplace of ideas is distorted.
Just as distortions in the economic marketplace require regulations such as anti-trust and truth-in-advertising policies, corrections in the idea market are also needed.
Musk discovered this truth for himself when Ye, the former Kanye West, displayed a swastika in a tweet and shared his liking of Hitler with the notorious podcaster Alex Jones. Musk suspended Ye’s Twitter account, calling it an “incitement to violence.”
Given Musk’s firing of content moderators and his freeing of hate speech purveyors, it is only a matter of time before Twitter faces calls for government regulation.
Musk’s own attempts to influence the marketplace of ideas have not worked as intended. Last weekend, he promised that a release of internal Twitter memoranda would show how the government supposedly violated the First Amendment by censoring the publication of the contents of the laptop of Hunter Biden, the troubled son of President Joe Biden, three weeks before the 2020 presidential election.
Instead, the Twitter Files showed content moderators decided not to highlight an unverified story published by the Murdoch-owned New York Post. As a private company, Twitter (and Facebook, which also decided to suppress the story) can decide (even mistakenly) what its site can post.
Musk presented no evidence of government interference, and if he had, it would have implicated the Trump administration, which was in office at the time.
True, Musk has a right to run his business the way he wants. Spending $44 billion, much of it in Tesla stock (with Saudi Arabians as the second largest investors), to buy an as-yet unprofitable company is a considerable risk.
So too is serving as a thin-skinned judge and jury of what posts and posters will survive on his platform.
Whatever his reputation as an entrepreneur, if Musk thinks free speech means only that which supports right-wing populists, he is going to learn some costly political lessons.
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