UW News

April 28, 2022

Professor Margaret O’Mara on contextualizing Elon Musk’s Twitter purchase and the future of online speech

Twitter logo of a blue bird

Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has renewed debate about freedom of online speech.Pixabay

Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has renewed debate about freedom of online speech, online content moderation and the power of billionaires to shape public conversation, said University of Washington history professor Margaret O’Mara.

“No person in human history has reached such a high net worth,” O’Mara said. “No other leader of a publicly traded company comes close to Musk’s unfiltered, bombastic communications style and his willingness to flout the Securities and Exchange Commission.”

News of the sale — and Musk’s tweets advocating for freedom of speech on the platform — have ignited confusion about how free speech applies in the Internet age.

“The U.S. Constitution protects speech from government censorship, not from actions of private companies,” O’Mara said. “Twitter, like other social media companies, has always had the right to set its own standards for what users say and to enforce them accordingly. Musk can decide that Twitter’s standards should be freer than they are now, but that is not the same as freedom of the press.

“Freedom of the press also is a protection from government censorship, but it raises another question that’s been hotly debated of late: What is social media’s responsibility for shaping public discourse, and controlling hate speech and disinformation that occurs on their platform?”

woman standing in street

Margaret O’Mara

In the decades before the Civil War, O’Mara said the U.S. media environment consisted of hundreds of local and regional newspapers that were heavily opinionated. As the population grew and journalism became big business, the industry developed standards intended to ensure fair and comprehensive coverage.

Those standards have been challenged by the deregulation of broadcast media and the rise of the internet, O’Mara said, and sites like Twitter have turned users into their own publishers. The result can be a fractious and sharply opinionated internet environment that echoes the early 19th century, but now moves with far more speed and scale.

But why does Musk’s purchase of Twitter matter, particularly because it’s a relatively small platform compared to social media rivals like Facebook and YouTube?

“Twitter punches far above its weight because it is the favored platform for journalists, academics, and politicians — including the now-banned tweeter-in-chief, former President Donald Trump,” O’Mara said. “Twitter is the place where news is broken, where issues are fought over and where the famous and ordinary meet. It has been a mobilizing force for movements for racial justice and has elevated underrepresented voices.

“But its short history also is a cautionary tale for how letting information run free can have both beneficial and very damaging consequences. The company has put a great deal of work to combat the trolling and harassment once endemic on the platform. If Musk decides to sideline that work, the experience of users who identify as female, minority and LGBTQIA+ could be dramatically different.

“Beyond the 420 jokes and incendiary memes, Elon Musk is much like other American moguls before him: relentless, unapologetic and remarkably successful at getting what he wants.”

For more information, contact O’Mara at momara@uw.edu or www.margaretomara.com.