Musk’s Gambit and the Future of Morality

From RealClearPolitics
April 21, 2022

The excitement and fury surrounding Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter suggests that there’s a lot more at stake than a hostile takeover of a popular consumer-facing company. What we’re experiencing is the newest front in the battle over America’s moral compass.

At the most basic level, Musk’s bid makes clear economic sense because censorship is bad for social networks, and Twitter’s management has spent the past two years censoring issues and perspectives it deems “misinformation.” Across the entirety of the modern media landscape, advertising drives revenues, and the broader your reach, the more you can charge for advertising. Censorship narrows a company’s reach by alienating users interested in hearing the eliminated perspectives.

Were Musk to buy Twitter and ease off the censorship, revenues and value would increase. That’s not a secret. Twitter’s board knows that it has elected to forgo those potential revenues. Such a decision makes sense only if board members value something more than maximizing return to shareholders. Indeed they do, and they’re not subtle about it. They – particularly their institutional investors – have been leading the charge toward “stakeholder capitalism.”

The World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab – a significant influence on many of these institutional investors – coined that term in contrast to “shareholder capitalism.” Whereas shareholder capitalism argues that the one and only role of corporate leadership is the maximization of shareholder value, stakeholder capitalism argues that corporations should balance profits against the interests of workers, communities, and the world at large.

Today, stakeholder capitalism is alive and well most prominently as ESG – Environmental, Social, and Governance criteria. Blackrock’s Larry Fink (a major institutional investor in Twitter) is one of its greatest advocates.

From their perspective, censoring disapproved tweets is not a matter of forgoing profits; it’s an investment in power and control deployed in the service of the “common good.” To them, having already secured more than enough money to buy any good or service they might ever desire, making the world “a better place” is an entirely worthwhile investment (particularly of other people’s money).

What it means to make the world a better place, however, rests entirely upon moral judgments. In today’s America – and throughout western democracies – the overwhelming majority of our elites have embraced ethical wokeism. To them, the woke agenda defines terms like right, wrong, good, and evil.

Couple that with the push toward stakeholder capitalism, and Twitter’s decision to forgo some shareholder profits to the cause of ethical wokeism makes eminent sense. Even a quick glance at Twitter’s most commonly targeted “misinformation” topics reveals a clear desire to fix the environment, ensure the election of the right candidate, defeat a virus, and promote social justice – all precisely as defined by today’s woke elite left.

Elon Musk appears to be part of the super-elite minority less than fully enamored with the woke ethical code. While he may agree with parts of it, he also clings to some more traditionally liberal ethical values – like free speech and open debate. In the case of social network businesses, those more traditional values almost certainly correspond to increased profits.

Were Musk to eliminate Twitter’s censorship, he would thus benefit small shareholders and those of us who adhere to traditional liberalism – to the detriment of the cause of ethical wokeism. The ripple effects of such a move, however, could prove to be even more profound.

Were any major social network to reopen itself to free speech, it would create demand for a new, competitive filtering industry that would provide the “protection” that today’s major social media companies insist is indispensable. Individual users could then subscribe to one or more filters – or none at all. Competition would lead to filtering that is superior in quality and better targeted to individual taste than the current monopolistic, paternalistic approaches the social networks impose upon their users.

Competitive filtering would thus be great for consumers. Its impact, however, would run far deeper. It would undermine the entire basis for CDA 230 – the exemption that lets social media companies apply editorial discretion to determine what their users see while remaining exempt from editorial liability. The basic argument behind that exemption – plausible when written in 1996 – is that the only alternative is a free-for-all publishing of graphic pornography for children (hence its inclusion in the Communications Decency Act). Without such an exemption, the folks running social networks might have to take responsibility for their actions and decisions – including the decision to label perspectives they dislike as “misinformation.”

A genuinely free-speech Twitter would thus motivate competitive filtering and erode the liability exemption that has helped elevate a handful of tech companies into the controllers of American speech. A Musk-led, free-speech Twitter would restore the true freedom of speech that has served America so well since its founding.

The stakes in Musk’s gambit are clear and high. Beneath their veneer, seemingly a clash between two sets of wealthy investors, simmers a battle over moral codes, freedom, and the very soul of America.


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