20 December 2022 11:09:12 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

Elon Musk stepping down from Twitter likely to strengthen free speech 

Elon Musk has not reacted to the poll results yet | Photo Credit: Reuters

Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of Twitter, ran a poll that just concluded today. Like all musk polls, the question was very simple. “Should I step down as head of Twitter? I will abide by the results of this poll.” Twitter subscribers had about 24 hours to respond. Over 17.5 million responded and the vote was overwhelmingly against him running Twitter, 57 per cent to 43 per cent.

The idea that a CEO of a company would ask his subscribers whether or not he should be at the helm is in and of itself very intriguing. Nothing can be more democratic than this, although corporations are anything but democratic. And if we know something about him, he’s a true believer in free speech, the rule of law, and keeping the promises that he has made.

Musk has turned to Twitter polls for other seismic decisions about the company. When the management of legacy Twitter unceremoniously suspended and banned former US President Trump for life, he promised that he would ask his subscribers whether Trump should be let back. By a very slim margin, 52 to 48 per cent, subscribers voted to bring Trump back, although Trump himself did not commit to re-joining Twitter.

As soon as the results came in, Trump’s Twitter account had been reactivated, including all of his account history, when he was avidly tweeting as the President of the United States.

Past mistakes

His decision to bring back the former presidents history of Twitter activity, alarmed his critics. But for the many of us who believe in history as the only way to document facts, both good and bad, Elon musk’s decision, emboldened the core principles of democracy. Otherwise, Twitter, based in the United States, would be embracing a form of autocracy known in repressive states around the world. That is, silence people whose speech is not particularly appealing to the ruling class.

Elon musk has taken it upon himself to reveal the atrocious decisions of the Twitter police that ruled the company for years. Led by senior executives, such as Yael Roth, and Vinaya Gadde, the company went to extreme lengths to curb, and even ostracize speech with which they did not agree.

For a platform of global import that Twitter has become, such kind of speech censorship for crucial matters of public debate, such as Covid-19 protocols, or the suppression of stories related to Hunter Biden‘s laptop, amounted to a public company taking sides with biased positions.

The communication and decency act of the United States has a special provision called section 230. This was enacted into law by former President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. It explicitly gave telecommunications providers, including Internet providers, exemption from liability and culpability for opinions expressed on their platforms.

This means that if someone were to write a post on Facebook denigrating someone else, including to the point of inviting a lawsuit for defamation, the law expressly protected Facebook, contending that Facebook, as a platform did not originate the post, but only carried it.

The great gatekeepers

For all of Twitter’s existence, this protection has been foundational to its operating model. Unfortunately, the so-called trust and security team at Twitter took it upon itself to begin to “moderate speech” on this extraordinarily powerful and popular platform. This team became the gatekeepers of the internet when most people believed that the Internet has been designed to let differences in the public square be sorted out amongst people, an idea that has thrived for nearly 100 years, long before the Internet was invented.

It was Justice Louis D Brandeis who established the counterspeech doctrine in a landmark case in 1927, reasoning that “if there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

When legacy Twitter completely deviated from the above elegant free-speech principle, many of us cringed. Just because the US government under Dr Fauci was not willing to enter into a debate about the origins of the coronavirus, Twitter was under no obligation to follow the US governments lead. It should have let people vigorously debate this topic, even if some misinformation or disinformation was a byproduct of such discussion.

Opinion polls have shown repeatedly that if the Hunter Biden stories were not suppressed by Twitter, the presidential election of 2020 could have swung more than 1 to 2 percentage points, handing victory to President Trump, and changing the course of history.

Embracing change

Elon musk paid $44 billion to acquire Twitter to correct these wrongs, but for every policy change that he made, the very people who seem to love democratic principles have gone on an attack and found fault with his erratic way of implementing policies.

The irony of it all surfaced last week when musk decided to suspend the Twitter accounts of a few journalists. The liberal world erupted saying that Elon musk was abridging free speech. They forgot that they were very hypocritical in not raising any complaints when voices like President Trump’s had been not only suspended, but been banned for life.

If Elon musk decides to follow through on his promise and step down from Twitter, the liberal world will be pleased. However, he still owns the company, and based on the comments that he made to a select few journalists recently, when the so-called Twitter files were released, it is clear that he believes that Twitter has to fundamentally change to embrace the principles of free-speech as allowed by the laws that exist in each region.

With musk no longer the center of attraction every day, Twitter can return to being the platform of choice for millions around the world. And he will increase his popularity by staying true to the promises that he made. Free speech purists have desired this outcome for weeks. And it is about to come to pass.