Social media service Twitter saw its stock surge on Monday because tech thinkfluencer Elon Musk took a 9.2 percent stake in the company.
Musk acquired his share in the firm on March 14, and before the sale was disclosed to the public on Monday, April 4, in an SEC filing, he used Twitter – a free social media service – to freely impugn Twitter for exercising its constitutionally protected right to moderate speech on its platform. Twitter stock is up 27 percent right now.
“Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy,” Musk wrote to caption a Twitter poll. “Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?”
Musk has made a habit of talking to his audience of 80 million Twitter followers about free speech without really defining what he means by it. He recently defended Starlink’s policy of ignoring government requests to block Russian government media service RT by stating, “Sorry to be a free speech absolutist.”
Yet his declared free speech absolutism has been less enthusiastic with regard to the Twitter user who posts the location of his private plane. And it has got him in trouble with the SEC, which sued him and subsequently settled over his August 7, 2018 tweet that he could take Tesla private for $420 a share.
Musk’s tweeting also caused problems with America’s National Labor Relations board, which in March, 2021, directed him to remove an anti-union tweet that was deemed to be unlawfully coercive.
What’s more, the NLRB found [PDF] that the media contact provision of Tesla’s 2016 confidentiality agreement with employees – which said it was never okay to speak freely to the media – violated NLRB rules that ensure employees are free to speak with anyone about wages, labor disputes, and working conditions.
Also, Tesla, the car company Musk oversees, hasn’t exactly set a strong example of supporting free speech. The company has reportedly filed defamation claims against two Chinese bloggers who criticized the firm. And it required its Full Self-Driving (FSD) Beta testers to sign non-disclosure agreements, something Musk subsequently disavowed.
Then there was the whole “pedo guy” tweet you’re probably all aware of.
With regard to Musk’s Twitter speech poll, 70 per cent of the 2m bots and people freely voted that they do not believe Twitter adheres to the principle of free speech. And Musk replied to his poll post in a way that suggested he might be in a position to do something about Twitter’s policies. “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully,” he wrote.
And he has continued to tease his ~80m followers with vague, non-committal tweets that hint, maybe, just maybe, he might use his newfound status as Twitter’s largest individual shareholder to rewrite the social media site’s moderation policy to make it more free, whatever that means.
“Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy,” he wrote on March 26. “What should be done?”
And the following day, he offered a Marxist pun, “Seize the memes of production!” Maybe he meant Twitter? Maybe not. Who knows. It might just be trolling but it’s sure to engage the masses and further buoy Twitter’s ad-supported stock, which Musk now owns quite a bit of.
The more than 333,000 Twitter accounts that “liked” his question, “Is a new platform needed?” may be in for a shock because Musk’s SEC filing was done under Schedule 13G, a short form intended for passive investors. Activist investors who intend to make corporate changes are supposed to file under the more detailed Schedule 13D.
If Musk intends to push for changes at Twitter, his coy 13G filing could mean further friction with the SEC, already a source of annoyance for the billionaire. Due to the terms of his 2018 SEC lawsuit settlement, Musk must have his tweets approved before posting.
Last month, an attorney representing Musk asked a judge to toss the settlement, claiming the SEC was using the agreement “to trample on Mr. Musk’s First Amendment rights and to impose prior restraints on his speech.”
This morning after news of his spending spree surfaced, Musk exercised his free speech thus: “Oh hi lol.” ®