Twitter faces ‘nightmare’ of being coerced into free speech

Twitter’s board of directors met this week to sign what looks like a suicide pact. He voted unanimously to swallow a “poison pill” to store the value of the social media giant’s shares rather than allow billionaire Elon Musk to buy the company.

The move is a way to fend off hostile takeovers, but what’s different about this case is the additional source of hostility: Twitter and many liberals are apoplectic about Musk’s call for protection freedom of expression on the site.

Corporate boards have a fiduciary duty to do what is best for shareholders, which is usually measured in share value. Twitter has long done the opposite. It has all but written off many conservatives — and much of its potential market — with years of arbitrary censorship of dissenting views on everything from gender identity and global warming to voter fraud and the pandemic. More recently, Twitter suspended a group, Libs of Tik Tok, for “hateful conduct”. The driving ? Republish what the liberals said about themselves.

The company apparently also waived free speech. Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal was asked how Twitter would balance its efforts to fight misinformation with “protecting free speech as a core value” and upholding the First Amendment. He dismissively responded that the company “shall not be bound by the First Amendment” and will regulate content as “reflecting things that we believe lead to healthier public conversation.” Agrawal said the company would “focus less on free speech thinking” because “speech is easy on the internet. Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard.

Unsurprisingly, selling censorship isn’t a big hit with most consumers, especially a communications or social media company. Twitter’s management actions have sent share values ​​on a roller coaster. While Twitter once peaked around $73 per share, it’s currently around $45. (Musk was offering $54.20 per share, representing a 54% premium to the stock price the day before he invested in the company.)

Notably, Musk won’t trigger the poison pill if he stays below 15% ownership of the company. He could increase his current stake to 14.9%, then negotiate with other shareholders to take more control.

Another problem is that Twitter has long sought a private buyer under former CEO Jack Dorsey. If Musk raises his offer closer to $60, the board could be held responsible for putting his interests ahead of those of the company’s shareholders.

Magic share count aside, Musk is right that the company’s potential has been limited by its woke management. For social media companies, free speech is not only ethically but economically beneficial – because the censorship model only works if you have an effective monopoly in which customers have no other choice. This is how Henry Ford could tell customers, back when he controlled car manufacturing, that they could have any color of the Model T “as long as it was black”.

Of course, the color of the Model T was not product critical. On the other hand, Twitter is a communications company selling censorship – and opposing free speech as a social media company is a bit like Ford opposing cars.

However, audiences might go beyond Twitter’s Model T philosophy, with many people seeking access to a free, open discussion forum.

Censorship — or “content editing,” as it’s used in polite business — isn’t value maximization for Twitter, but it does enhance the status of executives like Agrawal. Never mind that consumers of his product want less censorship; the company has become captive to the agendas of its leaders.

Twitter is not alone in pursuing such self-destructive values. Many in the mainstream media and many on the left have become some of the strongest advocates of corporate censorship. Max Boot of the Washington Post, for example, declared, “For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.” MSNBC’s Katy Tur warned that reintroducing free speech values ​​to Twitter could produce “massive, life-altering and world-shattering consequences just by letting people go wild”.

Columnist and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich went completely Orwellian when explaining why freedom is tyranny. Reich rejected calls for free speech and warned that censorship was “necessary to protect American democracy”. He then uttered a line that would make Big Brother blush: “It’s Musk’s dream. And Trump’s. And Putin’s. And the dream of every modern day dictator, strongman, demagogue and robber baron on Earth. For the rest of us, it would be another brave nightmare.

The problem arises when you sell fear for too long and for too high a price. Recently, Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) agreed with MSNBC analyst John Heilemann that Democrats need to “scare the shit out of [voters] and get them out.

However, this line does not sell better for the media than for social media. Trust in the media is at an all-time high, with just 7% expressing great confidence in what is being reported. The United States ranks last for trust in the media among 46 nations.

Just as the public doesn’t want social media companies to control their opinions, they don’t want the media to shape their news. In a recent poll, “76.3% of respondents from all political affiliations said that ‘the main purpose of media coverage of current events is to advance their own views or political agendas.’

Thus, a surge in free speech could have disastrous consequences for many members of the political-corporate-media triumvirate. For them, the greatest danger is that Musk gets it right and Twitter becomes a more popular and profitable company selling a product of free speech.

Poison pill maneuvers are often used to force a potential buyer into negotiating with the board. However, Twitter administrators (which include Agrawal and Dorsey) have previously limited their product to advance their own political preferences. This time, federal law can compel them to fulfill their fiduciary duties, even at the cost of supporting free speech. The problem for the board will come when the free speech “nightmare” hits $60 a share.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

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