Opinion | Elon Musk Is a Problem Masquerading as a Solution


Legally speaking, all American women or people of color or both who were ever talked over in a meeting or denied a book contract or not hired to give their opinion on television enjoy the protections of the First Amendment. The constitutional protection of speech does not, on its own, engender a society in which the chance to be heard is truly abundant and free and equitably distributed.

“Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep,” Mr. Berlin once said. This is a point often lost on Americans. Government — or large centralized authority — is one threat to liberty but not the only one. When it comes to speech, what has often kept a great many people from speaking isn’t censorship but the lack of a platform. Social media, including Twitter, came along and promised to change that. But when it became a cesspit of hate and harassment for women and people of color in particular, it began to offer a miserable bargain: You can be free to say what you wish, but your life can be made unrelentingly painful if you so dare.

The “censorship” that Mr. Musk performatively deplores consists of efforts to rectify these very real problems of harassment and abuse. Twitter has taken modest but wildly inadequate steps to improve safety on the platform. It has acknowledged it has a problem. It has recognized positive freedom of speech — the creation of a safe and non-life-ruining environment for the airing of thoughts. And it is this that Mr. Musk and his ilk seem to loathe.

This is why his deal to purchase Twitter is so dangerous. In recent years, there has been progress toward positive freedom of speech — real work to give everyone, truly everyone, more meaningful occasion to speak. Mr. Musk apparently wants to shut that down. Instead, in a moment of proto-fascism on the political right, his priority seems to be to undam the flood of bile and bigotry and bullying and disinformation.

The country already faces the very real prospect, starting at noon on Jan. 20, 2025, of a descent toward racist authoritarianism and a protracted slide away from liberal democracy. If your idea of what the country needs in this moment is less clamping down on hate and lies and more rightists gone wild, whew.

The plutocrats have already rigged the economy. That’s just the first step. Then you take some of the spoils and reinvest it in buying even more political influence, so that political inequality can help keep economic inequality yawning. You buy up media or social media platforms and thus can help rig the discourse in your favor, taking control of the tools used by regular people to fight back. You venture, as Mr. Musk did, to a TED conference and, without much pushback, brand yourself as a kind of public intellectual, a thought leader, a visionary, and thereby in many people’s minds you became a sage, not a robber baron.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have nice things. But we’re going to have to learn to see through the fraudulent stories that elevate figures like Mr. Musk into heroes. We’re going to have to legislate real guardrails — perhaps like those created by the European Union’s Digital Services Act — on social media platforms that are too big to entrust democracy to. We’re going to have to build nonprofit alternatives to the platforms and see if they can become meaningful venues.