Commentary

Good luck, Elon. You’ll need it.

May 12, 2022 4:59 am

Tesla CEO Elon Musk contemplates during the official opening of the new Tesla electric car manufacturing plant on March 22, 2022 near Gruenheide, Germany. The new plant, officially called the Gigafactory Berlin-Brandenburg, is producing the Model Y as well as electric car batteries. (Photo by Christian Marquardt – Pool/Getty Images)

Welcome to the club, Elon.

To the man who just bought Twitter and the cool tech dude who is just nutty enough about free speech to cough up a cool $44 billion for my favorite social media platform, I sincerely wish Elon Musk the best of luck, as I am sure my fellow editors across the country do, too.

I don’t have the $44 billion he had seemingly sitting around. Heck, I’d struggle to find $44 in my wallet, change jar or ransacked from my spouse’s purse. But, I have spent hundreds – if not thousands – of hours engaged in the literal practice of free speech.

In an era that now seems quaint, I can remember riding herd over anonymous online commenters in one of the first iterations of public comment boards and newspapers. The small Minnesota daily newspaper that I edited had become one of the corporation’s laboratory test rabbits, and we were going to launch a commenting board in which anybody could post their reactions and thoughts with or without their real name.

Every hour or so, I, or another duly designated editor, would scoop up another heap of comments, trying to decide which ones were acceptable, which ones violated a rudimentary code of conduct and which ones were even intelligible, especially since punctuation for a large number of commenters seemed like a creative artform.

Like Mr. Musk, we were idealistic and heady about this digital platform that would allow us to achieve and fully realize the power of free speech. How the Founding Fathers would have loved to see the freest of speech and the robust marketplace of ideas in real time.

Within three weeks, the project was shuttered.

What had happened in the intervening 21 days was a small town that was the embodiment of “Minnesota nice” had become a cesspool of rumors, name-calling and off-topic rants. The mayor and city council members had marched into the office. Several of the biggest advertisers had threatened to pull out, risking serious financial losses, and community members didn’t want to talk with reporters, not because they feared the stories we’d write, but because they didn’t want to be attacked by semi-anonymous community members.

Of course, that wasn’t the paper’s only foray into free speech. After about a year’s time, we tried launching a commenting board, this time with some rudimentary identity verification. And about a year later, we shuttered that one, too, because history had repeated itself.

Finally, most newspapers off-loaded their commenting function to our friends at Facebook, where the community conversation happens on a local, national and global level. The jury is still very much mixed on whether Facebook, Twitter or any social media is a good thing.

That’s not necessarily the thrust of this column – to judge whether the evolution or devolution of social media is a healthy thing for America or humans in general.

Instead, I’d caution Elon to be extremely careful about what he wishes for.

We all seem to agree on free speech until the moment when someone’s fingers hit the keyboard, and then it diverges widely and wildly.

He’ll likely learn that just because someone says or thinks something doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be put out on display for the entire world.

Being an editor, especially on social media, is a lot like being a police officer. No one likes getting a ticket, or in this case, the timeout. And yet as soon as there’s an infraction, they expect the police – or in this case, editors – to rush to their defense.

Musk said on Tuesday he will let former President Donald J. Trump and possibly several other notable banned conservatives back onto the platform, regardless of their previous attempts to spread lies, misinformation or disinformation. The corrosive distrust and “alternative facts” have nearly ripped this country apart, ironic if not tragic that our undoing may be because of free speech itself.

The best piece of advice I could give is that being a passionate defender of free speech means that you’ll cherish it enough to put some sideboards on it. By buying Twitter, Musk will purchase a platform and an audience. Those are his, and because he can establish his own rules, I would recommend principled restraint. You can support people speaking freely and loving free speech without handing them an anything-goes platform. We seem to love the notion of freedom and recoil at the idea of limits or responsibility.

When people accuse me of trampling upon their First Amendment rights by not publishing some screed they want to share, I remind them that the constitution guarantees them the right to free speech or to start a newspaper, but it doesn’t compel me to give them space on our site. In other words, I hope Mr. Musk learns the same lessons that so many editors like me have learned the hard way, which includes tearful calls from hurt community members and sometimes having to defend what borders on indefensible in the name of free speech. In other words, despite its name, there’s a definite cost and toll for unfettered speech.

He’ll also find that taking a heady concept like free speech and translating it into a practical, meaningful set of rules is a nearly impossible task. When I was last at the Billings Gazette, I recall our “swearing filter” ran more than 400 combinations of words. I still rue the day that someone learned how to spell ass with an “at” symbol and the dollar sign.

I don’t envy Musk or his delegates who will have to decide how mean to let high schoolers treat each other before intervening. I hope Musk and his new staff will develop protocols to alert authorities when there seems to be more than bluster when it comes to threats.

Most of all, I hope Musk has already learned something that I bet not a lot of folks with that kind of money are accustomed to: Just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should.

Free speech is worth exactly what you pay for it. In that respect, Mr. Musk, you may have just paid $44 billion too much.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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