Freedom of expression: Billionaires should rule the Internet

Published April 19, 2022


By Matt Hampton.
An article by the Foundation for Economic Education

Tesla CEO Elon Musk became Twitter’s largest shareholder on Monday after buying 9.2% of its shares. Musk’s announcement that he would carry big changes has sparked speculation that it intends to expand freedom of expression on the platform, as it has done critical Twitter policies in this regard.

However, he agreed to join the Twitter board the next day, and according to Reuters, board members have no voice in Twitter’s content moderation policies. The founder of PayPal will also not be able to own more than 14.9% of Twitter shares while on the board, which means he will not be able to buy the social media company until the end of his term in 2024.

So it is unknown at this time what he will do after leaving the post.

Either way, some reacted to Musk’s investment in a partisan way, worrying that the billionaire’s influence on Twitter could be dangerous. An analysis of Washington Post stated (through vague claims) that his participation on Twitter ” could be bad news for free speech “. Bill Clinton-era political commentator and Labor Secretary Robert Reich tweeted: What could go wrong if an oligarch determines what freedom of speech is? One wonders if Reich and the Publication would have expressed the same concern about “oligarchs” restricting freedom of expression online if a tech titan who shared their political beliefs had bought the bet.

In fact, it is the billionaires who should determine what constitutes freedom of expression, at least on the platforms they fund and own. Social media companies are built with private capital, and if anyone wants to change the way these platforms run, they have to take control of them through the free market.

It is not easy to do, and change does not always happen perfectly or quickly, but it is better that this power is shared among rich entrepreneurs because they are in competition with each other, and this prevents power from being concentrated in the state, the monopoly more important and less responsible. (To quote Musk, “The government is simply the biggest company, with a monopoly on violence and where there is no remedy”).

The reason the private sector is better than the government in this case is that it has more incentives to do what consumers want.

As the famous economist Ludwig von Mises said in Economic policy: thoughts for today and tomorrowa businessman ” it does not rule over a conquered territory, independent of the market, independent of its customers. […] This ‘king’ must remain in the good graces of his subjects, the consumers; it loses its ‘kingdom’ as soon as it is no longer able to provide better service to its customers and offer it at a lower cost than others with which it has to compete. »

Politicians, on the other hand, respond to the citizenry through elections that may be a few years away, in which candidates make notorious promises that they cannot or will not fulfill, and in which voters may or may not have a incentive to understand the many policies of Bureaucrats are even less responsible, and many remain in office for decades and never have to face voters.

People who advocate government regulation of social media (whether they think they are censoring too much or not enough) may respond: You shouldn’t be the richest man in the world to influence social media policies. »

But it comes down to a conviction that there are high-ranking positions at the helm of social media companies. However, it is unclear what would make this power more accessible, as long as such platforms exist. To assume that people have control essentially insofar as the government controls social media companies is to ignore the facts of the public election economy: politicians and bureaucrats act for their own interests, which are not necessarily aligned. with those of its citizens. Making companies accountable to the government actually makes them less accountable to ordinary people, because it forces them to follow government mandates rather than the will of consumers.

It is quite contradictory to argue against the concentration of power if your solution is to give more power to the government. The state that regulates online speech is more dangerous than Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg who control it, since the state is behind much of the online censorship we see today.

Translation by Justine Colinet for Counterpoints

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