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What will Elon Musk do with, or perhaps to, Twitter? He’s bought a 9.2 per cent stake in the company, making him the largest single shareholder. He’s now a director, and in a mischievous tweet he suggested a shake-up: “Twitter’s next board meeting is gonna be lit”.
There are rumours that he will relax some of the bans imposed on certain organisations, reversing them in the name of free speech. He might even allow Donald Trump back on the platform. Bigly.
On balance, this is good.
Even if there were a future for Twitter as a progressive or woke echo-chamber – the thought of which, admittedly, some people find most agreeable – it’s not exactly going to survive as a marketplace of ideas. If we allow our national, and indeed global, contacts to be entirely between people of like mind, within their own Overton windows, so to speak, then the world will become more divided, more tribal, more entrenched, and far less challenged.
For what it’s worth, the Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis would become impossible on social media. The far right have Parler, the centre-left Twitter, and the Trumpites “Truth Social” (or at least they would, if it hadn’t had so many teething troubles). But who’s telling any of these people why they’re wrong?
Social media is about lots of things, but it should certainly be about conversation, debate, argument and new ideas. Not inciting race hatred or death threats, nor sedition, such as Trump was accused of. Not propagating Covid denial or Russian fake news, either. That would delete a lot of real and bot accounts. But basically a bit more of an inclusive approach than we’ve had from Twitter, brilliant as it is.
Here’s an example. There’s a deeply unfunny “right-wing satire” website by the name of The Babylon Bee that Musk has reportedly been talking to. The Babylon Bee was chucked off Twitter for misgendering a White House official. It was not amusing, it was offensive, and – like a lot of their other stuff – it was actually the opposite of satire. But is there any great point in taking away their Twitter account? Contrary to what some might claim, they’ve not been banned or cancelled, because they are still online and they can pump their curious material out on any channel that will have them. By the same token, no one is obliged to afford anyone the right to be published. It is well within Twitter’s rights to decline The Babylon Bee’s contributions, but it doesn’t seem like the hill to die on.
The same goes for Trump. “We” – progressive folk – need to hear from Trump, not despite what he is, but because of what he is.
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He has barbaric prejudices, demeaned his office, undermined national security, insulted allies, and encouraged the Capitol riots (to put it mildly). It would be a disaster if he ever got near public office again. The Twitter ban after the notorious events of 6 January 2020 was justified, and it felt right. Now, as the trials proceed, and the next election looms closer, it feels less appropriate. He can be lightly policed on Twitter, like everyone else. But more importantly, we can know what he thinks, what’s he’s planning – and above all, he can be repulsed, mocked and criticised. Free speech goes both ways.
The joy of free speech is to listen to others – because they won’t go away, and you need to understand your opponents’ arguments in order to refute them. That’s why I try to steel myself to read some of the more outre opinions in The Spectator, watch the twisted reality presented as fact on GB News, and endure the parliamentary contributions of the likes of Esther McVey and Steve Baker. I like to be challenged.
We do need a bit more challenging stuff on Twitter. We need Trump back. But please, Elon, not too much of the mad, bad, and outright racist stuff.