Those who study the history of political philosophy are always cautioned against making sweeping comparisons that leap across whole centuries.
As such, we may wish to consider the possibility that in the works of Spinoza, Kant and JS Mill, we may indeed find nothing at all to guide us on the question of how the right to “free speech” does or does not apply to the freedom to call a 62-year-old rescue diver a “paedo” specifically in response to their having been sceptical about the efficacy of a mini submarine you claim to have built to rescue a Thai under-12 football team from an underwater cave.
No, it is always of the utmost importance to understand the specific context. And in this case, in 2018 to be exact, when British cave rescuer Vernon Unsworth told Elon Musk that his generous assistance was not in fact helping, the world’s richest man (and now Twitter overlord) responded by calling him “pedo guy”.
It’s important to state, at this point, that Musk was cleared of defamation, on the grounds that “pedo guy” is just something that people say. It’s a phrase he heard a lot, apparently, growing up in South Africa. That the row pertained to some 12-year-old Thai children was purely coincidental.
And clearly, it’s also important to understand the specific context, which is that one of the chaps involved is a multi-multibillionaire, and having accused someone trying to save some children of being a paedophile and got away with it, he’s now bought – for about £35bn – the website on which he did it, and he’s been making clear for a very long time that this kind of “free speech” is going to be making a long-overdue comeback.
It feels bruisingly familiar, doesn’t it? The specific context. It could hardly have captured the zeitgeist more perfectly: the intergalactic rich doing exactly what they want just for the LOLs. Musk’s mini submarine never did make it into that Thai cave. It was never used, so he’s had to save up his grand entry for a few more years.
Now he’s turned up at Twitter HQ in California, carrying a kitchen sink. Let that sink in. Get it? Good; not least because it has already been pointed out, many times, that what he was carrying was, in fact, a basin.
Unsurprisingly, concerns are already widespread that Musk will waste no time in overturning Donald Trump’s Twitter ban, and that he will allow various other banned extremists to return to the platform. He has claimed that his wish is simply to ensure that humanity has a digital “town square”. It hardly needs to be pointed out that the point of the town square is that it’s owned by the town, not some 20th-century cyber-Medici who controls who comes in and out.
(Naturally, this applies equally to Twitter’s former owners. The only answer is meaningful government regulation of social media, just as broadcasters are regulated. Sorting out all these tricky problems was, once upon a time, meant to be why Facebook hired Nick Clegg. Progress has been slow.)
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Equally unsurprising is the fact that users are up in arms. The only way to explain the sudden ubiquity of the threats to pack up and leave is that people have signed up specially to make them.
And anyway, how could you really, truly, ever walk away? Mere hours after Musk’s takeover was announced, Rishi Sunak released a two-minute video of himself, flitting between conference calls and meetings, set over a recurring drumbeat that an hour later his spokesperson was having to formally deny had been taken from “Rock and Roll Part 2” by Gary Glitter.
Without social media, this new and frankly magnificent world of fully auto-parodic news would simply not exist. There would be no need for any junior member of the social media team to put together a pointless straight-to-Twitter video montage. And there would not be hundreds of thousands – nay, millions – of people immediately on hand to point out that it really, really, really does sound exactly like one of the best-known songs of a notorious... well, I forget the exact term. I didn’t grow up in South Africa.
Look, of course Musk is going to let the wrong’uns back. That’s his right. He’s spent £35bn for the privilege. And of course, of course, the world simply shouldn’t work in this way. But no one, at this point, has a clue what to do about it. The rules of the town square should be set by the town. And they will, in the end, once we’ve worked out how to do it, by which point it will be far too late. It’s already too late.