the “absolute freedom of expression”… with variable geometry

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Twitter’s new boss, Elon Musk, is often described as a libertarian for whom freedom of expression is the most important principle. But, in reality, he appears to be a very pragmatic entrepreneur who can put this principle aside when it comes to protecting his economic interests.

He came, he saw, he settled, he redeemed. Elon Musk, the multi-billionaire boss of Tesla and SpaceX, has just added a line to his CV: owner of Twitter. The famous social network accepted, Monday, April 25, the offer of approximately 44 billion dollars from the richest man in the world after playing cat and mouse for two weeks.

In early April, when Elon Musk made public his desire to buy Twitter, the board of directors pouted. Could he really raise over $40 billion in cash (most of Elon Musk’s fortune is in Tesla or SpaceX stock)? Should we hand over the keys to the network to a whimsical entrepreneur who, according to his “Twitterian” desires, makes fun of Bill Gates’ physique, accuses someone without the slightest proof of being a pedophile or even flirts with illegality by tweeting sensitive financial information about one of his companies.

“Absolutist of freedom of expression”

Elon Musk himself had hinted that he might not be able to raise the funds during a speech at a TED conference. Eventually, he not only raised the necessary $44 billion, but Elon Musk also managed to convince shareholders that his plan was the right one.

All’s well That ends well ? Not so fast. For many commentators, this is only the beginning of the story. A story which, moreover, risks turning into a nightmare according to most “liberal” observers (in other words, on the left of the American political spectrum).

Everything would come from the conception that Elon Musk has of freedom of expression. He describes himself as an absolutist of this principle. The billionaire’s first “tweet” as the new owner of Twitter was to recall the importance in his eyes of the “freedom of expression which is the foundation of any democracy in good health”.

For critics of the Tesla boss, this self-proclaimed “absolutism” is precisely what makes this takeover “dangerous for our democracy”, a reacts Elizabeth Warrena Democratic senator who has already been rebuffed on Twitter by Elon Musk, who compared her to a “stern mother who yells at her children for no reason” for daring to call for higher taxes for billionaires.

Concretely, Elizabeth Warren and others fear that Elon Musk will put an end to all efforts undertaken by Twitter to moderate or censor hate speech or “fake news”.

The return of Donald Trump?

Conservative personalities and elected officials whose tweets may have been deleted by moderation teams or who were even banned from the platform, were also delighted with this sensational arrival. “Elon Musk is probably our last hope,” said Tucker Carlson, the star commentator of ultra-conservative Fox News, who has often complained that Twitter is in the hands of “liberals” who want to censor Republicans.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, a conspiratorial Republican elected official whose personal account was permanently closed in early January 2022 after she supported conspiracy theories about Covid-19, predicted that Elon Musk would allow her to return to cracking down on Twitter.

“Elon Musk will probably also bring Donald Trump back to Twitter,” said Arwa Mahdawi, a journalist with the Guardian. The former American president had, in fact, been banned in January 2021 for messages contesting the results of the presidential election which he had lost to Joe Biden.

At the time, the Tesla boss regretted Twitter’s decision, arguing that there was nothing to celebrate that “high-tech groups improvise themselves as arbiters of what we have the right to say or not”.

Donald Trump acknowledged on Monday that he was “a good guy” who was coming to head Twitter. But for all that, he said he preferred to stay on Truth Social, the competitor to Twitter that he created and which is struggling to take off.

Variable Geometry Libertarian

In fact, the American right considers Elon Musk one of their own. But this is making a political shortcut, as the New York Times reminds us. The boss of Tesla is often described as a libertarian, in reference to this political theory which advocates an almost absolute laissez-faire in terms of the economy and as minimal a role as possible for the State.

As a result, Elon Musk appears in phase with a majority of American Republicans who vilify the welfare state for a long time. But he also knows how to “take advantage of millions in state aid when it comes to choosing a state in which to set up his Tesla factory”, recalls Robert Reich, former Minister of Labor under Bill Clinton (1993 to 2001). Elon Musk had left California to take advantage of subsidies promised by Texas.

The multi-billionaire has also financially supported the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Suffice to say that he is a libertarian with variable geometry. “Unclassifiable”, prefers to say the New York Times.

The same goes for freedom of expression. Elon Musk may proclaim his love for this great principle, “he can do everything so that others do not exercise it”, writes in the Washington Post Ellen K. Pao, an American investor who was the CEO of Reddit, a community site known for its outspokenness.

Elon Musk has, in fact, done everything to censor a young Internet user who published on his Twitter account the movements of the private jet of the CEO of Tesla. Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s former minister, was blocked by this self-proclaimed apostle of free speech because he had “criticized his treatment of workers in Tesla factories”, he tells the Guardian .

Above all, Elon Musk is accused of having turned the life of Martin Tripp, a former Tesla employee, into hell because the latter had spoken to a journalist in 2019. Martin Tripp’s phone had been tapped, he had been followed by private detectives, was sued by Tesla and “a campaign to tarnish his reputation had been organized”, says the site The Verge. Martin Tripp had finally decided to settle in Hungary “to protect his family”, recalls Nicole Perlroth, a reporter for the New York Times.

In fact, critics of the Tesla boss believe that freedom of expression “Musk sauce” is nothing more than the freedom to “promote yourself and your products”, notes the New York Times. “He had been very upset when, in 2019, his lawyers had decided to reread all his tweets before it was sent in order to avoid problems with the SEC (Security and exchange commission, the American stock market policeman, Ed. )”, recalls the daily. “Who now is going to prevent Elon Musk from tweeting what he wants since he owns the platform?” Asks Robert Reich.

This is what the critics of this takeover actually fear: under the guise of giving voice to those who have been censored by Twitter, Elon Musk risks privatizing the social network to make it a personal com tool.

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