Billionaires don’t care about protecting free speech. If anything, the whole point of billionaires is to nullify your voice. Whether by pocketing lawmakers with their unlimited political donations or gobbling up legacy and new media companies, the 1% want to control the means of popular discourse.
By now, you’ve seen the headlines of Elon Musk wanting to take over Twitter. He’s offered to buy the social media company and take it private for $43 billion just days after he acquired a 9% stake in Twitter for about $2.9 billion, or about 1% of his net worth of $270 billion. And he’s not the only billionaire wading into the media game.
Peter Thiel, a billionaire vampire who co-founded PayPal and sits on Facebook’s board, has invested millions in a so-called “free speech” alternative to YouTube. But he also famously bankrupted Gawker, a website that covered celebrities and politics, as payback for publishing a tasteless profile about him. In response to Gawker’s article, Thiel did what any free speech proponent would do: he spent $10 million to secretly finance other peoples’ lawsuits against the website – including one centered around a Hulk Hogan sex tape – that eventually led to its demise.
Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post, among the last remaining national newspapers, with the pocket change ($250 mil) that fell out of his spacesuit while cruising to the edge of earth’s atmosphere. Back when he ran Amazon, Bezos caved to government pressure to yank WikiLeaks off the company’s servers and allowed censored search results to pop up on its website in foreign markets.
Constitutional lawyers would be correct to say many of these actions do not involve a first amendment issue because private companies are free to make their own decisions (like the time a Tesla customer had his order personally cancelled by Musk after criticizing the company in a blog post). But when billionaires own the platforms Americans use every day to voice their opinions and find and share news, they are positioned to control and limit the information that the public has the right to access.
It’s been going on for years, but the problem with access and censorship on private platforms exploded after several websites removed content providers following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Without notice, YouTube deleted the entire archive of “On Contact,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges’ popular online show that had been housed on the Russian government-funded news channel RT America. Lee Camp, who hosted a comedy show called Redacted Tonight for eight years on RT and is an outspoken critic of the US’ persecution of Julian Assange, was another journalist that YouTube disappeared. Camp’s podcast, Moment of Clarity, was also deleted from Spotify.
The most notorious example is of course Trump’s Twitter ban. Think about it, the ability to remove a sitting president who used his account to announce White House policy, viciously attack journalists and widely disseminate misinformation, demonstrates the incredible power and influence these social media companies have on our national conversation.
Trump retaliated to his ban by trying to undermine the protections found in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that limit the liability for tech companies from third-party content posted on their sites. He also launched a social media company to rival Twitter but it struggles to retain users and its rules initially prohibited criticism of the former president or the platform, showing even those on the wrong end of Silicon Valley’s wrath are unlikely to stand up for free speech when given the opportunity.
Twitter, which has been criticized for removing spreaders of covid misinformation and right-wing content, has been accused of being an ideological outfit. But if given the opportunity, would Musk actually position Twitter as a public town square and transform it into a democratic beacon of free expression? Given everything we know about Musk and his billionaire buddies’ thin skins, I wouldn’t bet on it.