Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has issued a warning about the threat that censorship on Twitter and other platforms poses to civilization.
Musk said Thursday that the reason he’s trying to buy Twitter is not to make money but to turn it into a bastion of free speech.
He said that by restoring free speech online, he hopes it can help to reduce the “civilizational risk” to freedom and democracy from excessive and opaque restrictions on expression.
Musk revealed his motivations behind his offer to buy 100% of Twitter while speaking at a TED event in Vancouver, Canada, on Thursday.
He explained said that Twitter had become “kind of the de facto town square,” a space where important conversations should be able to take place with as few constraints as reasonably possible.
“It’s just really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law,” Musk said.
Getting the balance right between freedom of expression and protection from harmful speech is a matter of existential importance, Musk told the audience on Thursday.
The made the comments on the same day he made global headlines by offering to buy Twitter for over $40 billion in cash.
Twitter announced later on Thursday that it is reviewing Musk’s offer and would take decisions that it believes are in the best interest of the company and stockholders.
Reports later emerged that the company was looking to block Musk’s takeover attempt, perhaps by diluting existing stock in a move known as a “poison pill” tactic that would make it more financially challenging for an acquirer, though the company declined to comment.
Musk told the audience in Vancouver that his aim in seeking to buy Twitter was to transform it into an “inclusive arena for free speech,” taking it private and making it open-source for maximum transparency.
“In my view, Twitter should match the laws of the country,” Musk said, acknowledging reasonable legal caps on free speech like direct incitement to violence or the equivalent of crying “fire” in a movie theater, for example.
“But going beyond that and having it be unclear who’s making what changes to where, having tweets mysteriously be promoted and demoted with no insight into what’s going on, having a black box algorithm promote some things and not other things, I think this can be quite dangerous,” he said.
“My strong, intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization,” Musk added.
Describing his vision for Twitter as a bastion of free speech as important for democracy and for “the function of the United States as a free country,” Musk argued that the more that public trust in Twitter as a public platform is increased, the “civilizational risk is decreased.”
One of the things Musk said Twitter should do is open up its algorithm to public scrutiny, akin to how open-source software is shared on platforms like GitHub.
If people’s tweets are “emphasized or de-emphasized, that action should be made apparent so anyone can see that action’s been taken so there’s no behind-the-scenes manipulation, either algorithmically or manually,” Musk said.
Asked about the limitations of algorithms to accurately tell the difference between merely “obnoxious” tweets and ones that break the law, and about the need for human moderators to get involved in making the difficult calls, Musk acknowledged he doesn’t have “all the answers.”
In the interest of promoting maximally unfettered discussions in a forum that serves as a “town square,” Musk said it’s better to err on the side of free speech.
“If it’s a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist,” he said, adding that in case of especially controversial tweets, then the algorithms should be set so as not to “necessarily promote that tweet.”
He also said Twitter should be less eager to permanently ban problematic users from the platform, suggesting temporary “timeouts” instead.
Musk insisted that the Twitter algorithm should be open source and that any manual adjustments should be transparent and identified so that people could monitor whether something was done “to promote, demote, or otherwise affect a tweet.”
“It won’t be perfect, but I think we want it to really have the perception and reality that speech is as free as reasonably possible,” Musk said.
“A good sign as to whether there is free speech is if someone you don’t like is allowed to say something you don’t like. And if that is the case, then we have free speech.”
Musk has in the past questioned Twitter’s commitment to free speech.
Last month, he polled his 80 million Twitter followers, asking if the platform adhered to free speech values.
He received 2 million votes, with more than 70 percent of those who responded voting no.
Twitter has repeatedly denied claims of censoring some minority and politically conservative viewpoints.