In The Name of Free Speech or Aggravated Bullies?

By David T. Valentin


When Elon Musk spoke of wanting to purchase Twitter just a few weeks ago, I didn’t think anything of it. I thought, well, surely, it’s nothing more than a rich man throwing about his money because of some midlife crisis. And then just yesterday it was announced Musk purchased the company in a $44 billion deal that is expected to close this year, and I thought, wow, I wish I had money just to throw around like that.


While some people see it as Musk flaunting his money about, others have defended the billionaire believing his motives are built on his desire to creating more freedom of speech on the social media platform.


Elon Musk said in a TED interview released shortly after announcing his bid, “Well, I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech. Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”


In his attempt to quell some criticism that he’d allow relentless, hateful discourse to spew rampantly, Musk said, “Well, I think we would want to err on the, if in doubt, let the speech, let it exist. But if it’s a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist. But obviously in a case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, you’re not necessarily going to promote that tweet.”


As of recently, and especially after Twitter decided to ban Trump as of last year, many users of the social media app are wary of the influences of big tech on what’s allowed and not allowed to be discussed and who may do the discussing. For many on the political right, the move is being touted as a step in the right direction to promote freedom of speech, a type of freedom of speech that won’t pander to left-winged “politics.”


What many right-wing critics shouting, “what about freedom of speech?” don’t get is that these measures of temporary and permanent bans are a staple of any healthy “town hall” to protect the most vulnerable of those communities. So, is it an attack on freedom of speech or just standard procedure?


For many belonging to marginalized communities, and intersecting through multiple marginalized communities, is that the online space takes on a town hall and envisioned reality that is safe from discrimination and hate speech when those safe spaces are not present in a user’s actual reality.


While I cannot speak for Black, brown, indigenous, etc. communities, I can talk of my own experiences apart of the LGBTQ+ community.


For an example, we’ll use Tumblr. Yes, I know Tumblr has had its own downfall in recent years, particularly after the banning of porn of all kinds, but prior to Tumblr’s downfall it did have, mostly, an inclusive community that embraced diversity. Most important of all, Tumblr was a gathering ground for many LGBTQ+ people, as much of their first learning experiences, or feelings of safety, came from being on Tumblr and finding friends through the app.


Of course, Tumblr eventually ran off the rails with incredibly volatile and hostile fandoms, gatekeeping labels, and hyper imposing labels on others to the point people were forcefully pushed into neat little categorized boxes. Still, it was a safe space for many including myself.


Now, look at the intrusion of hostile people into these safe spaces and take away the safety nets and you get yourself a recipe for hate speech disaster. Ungoverned racism, homophobia, transphobia, more phobia, more phobia, and more phobia.


While I’m not saying straight, cis people don’t have their own right to have valid criticisms of the LGBTQ+ community (although many of those criticisms do just come down to homophobia), the undoing of safety nets removes the most basic of mental protections against marginalized users of these social media apps—a removing of basic safety measures that provided users a much-needed escape from a harsh reality out of their control.


Not only do some of these online sites serve as a much-needed escape and safe space for marginalized communities, but it provides the most basic of human rights—the validation of your existence as a marginalized person and a community of people experiencing the same thing that may eventually translate to activism in the real world.


Not to mention the internet can very well be used to challenge the status quo, something they might not be able to do in the real world but instead from their own comfort space and in hopes that someone who could directly challenge the status quo might be encouraged to do so.


Although Musk, and many other people, see Twitter restricting their freedom of speech, many marginalized creators/users have felt quite the opposite, believing there isn’t enough being done to protect the most vulnerable of these online communities.


Take TikTok for instance where users can directly comment on a creator’s video, and, if that creator decides to do so, can reply to such a comment. To create a call-out situation, in which the creator calls-out a particular behavior so as to demonstrate such behavior is not welcomed on their platform, they can do that as well.


The only problem is, what many creators, and users, on TikTok are familiar with is the temporary restriction of being able to call-out someone’s hate speech, meaning, the call-out video, or even the account, is temporarily restricted in what they can and cannot post.


Freedom of speech is a gray area, that much I agree with Musk. But if users are being temporarily banned for calling out hate speech when they see it while those perpetuating hate speech are not, and more is being done to protect the perpetrators of hate speech than the victims of hate speech, how much is freedom of speech really being protected? Sounds to me more like it’s the freedom of speech to hate, rather than the freedom of speech to freely express and discuss conflicting ideologies.


That’s not to say tech companies have not wielded insurmountable power as judges of what can and cannot be discussed. One only needs to look so far as the Hunter Biden situation with the New York Times to see the bias of liberal media, a bias I am not denying. But if you’re only invoking your freedom of speech when complaining about valid criticism of your ideas or to give yourself freedom to freely spew your hate speech without consequences, then I’m afraid it’s not an “infringement” on your freedom of speech, but instead it’s just you being an ass.