© Shealah Craighead Public Domain WH

Elon Musk’s Donald Trump problem

Will Elon Musk, assuming he completes his twitter takeover, restore the twitter account of Donald Trump?

I don’t see what choice he has in the matter, personally. You can’t say on the one hand that you are spending 46billion dollars (about twice what Ireland spends on healthcare in a calendar year, to put the number in perspective) to acquire twitter and make it a “free speech” platform, and then say “Sorry Donny, no free speech for you”.

On the one hand, not bringing Trump back to twitter would be an almost total betrayal of what Musk says he wants to change about the platform.

On the other hand, though, you know full well that Trump isn’t likely to accept a hypotherical restoration with grace and decorum and by turning over a new leaf. It’ll be one “rigged election!!” tweet after another, intermixed with various other controversies and provocations, handing the great and the good across the west a very good example of the problem with Musk’s approach. A reinstated Trump will be exhibit A in the argument for why Elon Musk is a villain who should be targeted for direct Government regulation. And, believe me, there are those in political power across the west who will be eager to target him.

On balance, though, he should do it, assuming the deal goes through. Trump’s tweets, after all, almost certainly did him more harm than good in both of his electoral outings. And a free speech platform can’t summarily maintain a ban on the man who remains the closest thing the United States has to a leader of the opposition. In many ways, it’s the single biggest litmus test of whether Musk actually means it.

But make no mistake: The establishment of a “free speech” platform will not be without its very real trials and tribulations. Perhaps that is a good thing – we are long overdue a proper discussion about what the phrase really means.

Does it, for example, include the right to deny the existence of the holocaust? Or to call for racial segregation? Or to call for this or that politician to be burned out of their homes? All three of those would earn you a ban on twitter, or on facebook, today. On a platform that had unfettered free speech, they would not.

But – and this is where the problem arises – a platform full of people making extremist statements would not be very popular. Trump’s own much-vaunted “alternative” to twitter – “Truth Social” – has struggled to gain any traction at all. The same, beforehand, went for Gab and Parler and all the others. Even those banned from twitter have found limited value in fleeing to a platform where everybody agrees with them.

The value of twitter by contrast has always lain in the fact that it is a relatively cross-partisan platform. Perhaps the last major one remaining on the internet. Musk’s vision, no doubt, is for a place where people on the left, and the right, and in the middle can exchange ideas and arguments in a civilised, constructive, manner. If that is his dream, though, he’s in for a rude awakening. There are far more politically active people out there who want to call their opponents nazis or communists or globalists than there are people who want to gently tease out ideas.

What Musk needs to do then, in this nobody’s humble view, is simple: Free Speech is absolute, but good conduct needs to be absolute, too. That should be the standard: You can express any idea you’d like, but you have a duty to express it reasonably and calmly without calling people names or abusing them. And, by the way, apply that rule to left and right and centre equally.

Because that, after all, is the big problem with modern discourse. If you can’t make your point without calling Leo Varadkar a “traitorous scumbag”, or whatever, then perhaps you shouldn’t make it until you can. If you can’t make your point without denouncing somebody as a fascist, then the same rule should apply. Ban name-calling, and you might actually make people have to make an argument.

Free speech is not – and never was – the problem. The problem is trolling, bad behaviour, abusive conduct, and general nastiness. If Musk has sense, that will be the problem he goes after: Say what you want, but say it respectfully.

And yes, that should include Mr. Trump, too, who must bear a lot of responsibility for some of the conduct I’m talking about here. Anyway, by the sounds of things, he might make Musk’s life a little easier:

“I am not going on Twitter, I am going to stay on TRUTH,” Trump told Fox News. “I hope Elon buys Twitter because he’ll make improvements to it and he is a good man, but I am going to be staying on TRUTH.”

Yeah. If you believe that, you’ll believe almost anything.




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