Elon Musk is set to take Twitter private, and in doing so, to create his vision for the future of the platform. Specifically, Musk has said that he views Twitter as a “digital town square,” and as a self-described “free speech absolutist,” believes in removing content restrictions, even for posts that are harmful or offensive. Allowing all voices to be heard, Musk reasons, is “the bedrock of a functioning democracy.” Unfortunately, Musk’s facile approach ignores some important differences between the traditional town square and the one online: Removing all content restrictions without accounting for these differences will harm democratic debate, rather than help it.
The concept of a “marketplace” of ideas has its origins in a dissent in an early twentieth century Supreme Court case authored by Oliver Wendell Holmes and echoed in later court decisions. Using the economic model of supply and demand as a metaphor, our free speech jurisprudence is based on the premise that ideas should compete with each other without government interference. In other words, the answer to bad speech isn’t censorship, but more, and better, speech. Ultimately, as with the free market for goods and services, the best ideas will prevail and the worst ideas will fail. The market model, while imperfect, offers some compelling justifications against censorship and in favor of having ideas tested through robust debate.
The problem is that social media platforms like Twitter are nothing like a real public square. In my Information Warfare class, I illustrate this by showing a clip from an anti-fascist film created by the U.S. Department of War in 1947. The scene depicts what we think of as a traditional “speaker’s corner” in a public forum, with the speaker espousing offensive, and anti-democratic, views. I ask my students to watch the clip, and identify the ways in which the scene is different than when those same sentiments are expressed on a platform like Twitter.