Tesla CEO Elon Musk has acquired a 9.2% share of Twitter stock and joined the social media company’s board of directors. The internet buzzed with the possibility of a free speech advocate like Musk having an internal position with the tech giant.
But what does all of this really mean?
To Annie Butler, a research associate at the The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Technology Policy, Musk’s taking a more active role at Twitter is a step in the right direction toward encouraging free speech on the platform.
Butler joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the implications of Musk’s move, and how some popular tech companies focused on free speech are doing.
We also cover these stories:
- The Senate votes 53-47 to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, with three Republicans joining the majority.
- A group of Senate Democrats announce they will join Republican colleagues to introduce a bill to block the Biden administration’s plan to end use of the public heath policy at the southern border known as Title 42.
- Congress passes two bills designed to punish Russia further for its invasion of Ukraine.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Doug Blair: My guest today is Annie Butler, a research associate at the Center for Technology Policy here at The Heritage Foundation. Annie, welcome to the show.
Annie Butler: Hi, Doug. Thanks for having me.
Blair: Of course. Yeah. Well, big news in the Twittersphere recently, we heard that Elon Musk had bought a 9.2% share of Twitter stock. So practically, now that we have this information, what does this mean for the platform?
Butler: Yeah. So, we don’t actually know specifically what’s going on inside his head, but we can only hope that this means really good things for free speech, bringing the platform closer to working along the sides of the First Amendment, and just actually acting on being the de facto public town square.
In his tweet, which was, I think, March 25th—this is the one that we are really interested to see if actually comes true and he holds Twitter to—he said, “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to the principle?” And it was a poll to the public. And his Twitter followers, 70.4% said no.
Blair: No, that they don’t believe that Twitter respects free speech.
Butler: Correct. So to him, he followed that up the next day and tweeted out, “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?” And he left it open-ended to his followers.
So obviously, now we know that he had, at the time, purchased that amount of shares of the company. So we’re hoping to see those ideas of holding Twitter to the account of actually being a public town square and operating along the lines of the First Amendment, we hope that he actually can get that done.
Blair: Sure. So we keep hearing this word, “public town square.” Are we saying that these Big Tech companies like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube are a new form of public town squares like you might have seen in the medieval period where you go out and you have the town crier standing in the middle of the town and that’s like public space?
Butler: Yes. Yeah. So, I mean, they operate as public or private companies. … But there’s such a mainstream use of the exchange of thoughts and ideas, you would think. They pride themselves on being a free exchange of “thoughts and ideas.”
But when you’re seeing all these instances of suppression and censorship, especially of one side of the aisle, that isn’t actually a freedom of exchange of ideas in a public town square. So we’re hoping that he can bring it, reel them in and bring it back to that.
Blair: Twitter recently had a change in leadership where Jack Dorsey, who was the former CEO, gave the reins over to Parag Agrawal, who is the current CEO. Musk is known for having this very precise vision of free speech. How does his vision of free speech jibe with Twitter’s vision under Jack Dorsey? And then how does it jibe now with this new CEO?
Butler: That’s a good question. So, you might have noticed on Twitter, both the new CEO and the old CEO, both addressed Elon publicly, saying, “We’re happy to have you on the team and we can’t wait to work with you.”
And I think our opinion here is that that’s a great show to the public that you’re going to work well together with this new guy that owns a huge portion of your company in comparison.
So that’s all great and fun, but we don’t see that they’re going to love having him there at board meetings in actuality.
As for working with the new CEO, I think that, obviously, we hope that they can have great conversation and really hear each other out and take these physical ideas of, Elon throws out the idea of an “edit” button, but how do you make sure that someone doesn’t edit some tweet from two years ago and change the narrative of history with that?
So I think that having a free exchange of these ideas, how could something like an edit button work in actuality? And I think hearing each other out, hopefully they can do that. And it’s not just the CEO of Twitter trying to edge Elon out.
Blair: Right. So we are seeing that there is a bit of pushback from, is this from the CEO or is this from the rank and file? Where is this pushback coming from?
Butler: I think I’ve personally seen a lot of pushback from people online. Even The Washington Post, I think they released an article that said that … Elon having this stake in Twitter is going to be an issue for free speech. I think on Twitter Elon Musk just had a laughing emoji to it because it doesn’t make sense that he’s going to be an issue for free speech.
So I think it’s making a lot of people sweat, not only just The Washington Post, but a lot of people are scared. And I think, obviously, from his previous standpoints on the platform, I think they’re rightfully scared. I think he is going to really put his thoughts into action.
Blair: Now, there was rumor that he was either going to try and buy Twitter outright or that he was maybe going to use his experience here with Twitter to form another platform. I mean, obviously, we can’t read his mind, but do we have any idea where this type of behavior might lead?
Butler: Yeah. It’s a good question. I mean, we’re huge advocates of “build your own.” I’m sure you’ve heard of that quote before, “building your own platforms,” which I think we might get into later.
But I think that there’s also another approach of not only just building your own and going elsewhere, but because Twitter and Facebook and all these Big Tech companies are where most people go just naturally, out of what they know, their peers do, their family members do, you want to stay connected with those people.
So there is another tactic, which Elon is doing, which is to take over-the-top rankings of these companies.
And so, with the two different tactics, obviously, there’s pros and cons of building your own versus taking over the C-suite level of these companies. So we’ll just have to see what he does. I can say that this is a huge portion of Twitter, so he does have a significant voice on the board.
Blair: OK. So I guess that leads to my next question then. We are in favor as conservatives of us using the free market, creating these new platforms. With Musk’s influence, does it make sense for him to create a new platform or does it make more sense for him to infiltrate from within?
Butler: Yeah, I think it goes back to what you were saying before. If he can, I think it’s an experiment, if he can make changes at Twitter and it still stays as a mainstream platform and people are still using it and it actually turns into free speech along the lines of the First Amendment, I think that that would be, obviously, a great first win.
If for some reason he gets squeezed out or they don’t allow these changes to happen that he’s edging toward, I think that, obviously, building his own platform would be a great alternative.
Blair: So we’re going to, obviously, continue to watch this situation with Twitter develop. It’s going to be very interesting. But let’s discuss some of the alternatives that currently exist. We’ve got things like Gettr and Rumble that advertise themselves as free speech-focused alternatives to these Big Tech platforms. How are we seeing that they’re doing right now?
Butler: Yeah. Actually, both Rumble and Gettr have been doing really well over the past, I want to say over the past year, honestly, they’ve both had record members joining and content absorbed by the nature of the view count rising.
So yeah, I mean, they’re great. And we’re seeing it through the trends here that we’re tracking. We’ll look at someone who has both a YouTube and a Rumble account, for instance. Rumble is the comparison to YouTube, the exchange of videos.
And you’ll see that someone who’s been on YouTube, for example, a Congress member, someone who’s been on YouTube for 10 years, let’s say, and they have a certain amount of followers, you look at their account on Rumble and it’s a vetted account, they have the check mark. I think it’s a green check mark on Rumble. And they’ve only had the account for, let’s say, eight months and their subscriber count is exponentially growing.
And in most cases, they have even higher follower count or subscriber count on Rumble when they’ve only been on Rumble for eight months versus 10 years.
So we’ve seen a lot of the data points really showing that this method that Rumble and Gettr use, which is not preferencing, which obviously, we know YouTube and Twitter use preferencing and suggested algorithms. When you have this non-algorithmed method of placing videos on Rumble, you’re getting a lot more views and a lot more access to people because it’s randomized.
Blair: Now, one of the things that seems to be an issue with a lot of these platforms is they don’t attract a large enough contingent of people who are on Twitter or on YouTube to their platform.
For example, you can go and see a Marjorie Taylor Greene on Rumble, but you won’t be seeing a moderate Democrat or even left-or-center Democrat, it’s mostly just conservatives on there.
Is that going to be a problem as these platforms try to gain more market space, that it seems like it’s really only a certain contingent of the population that’s going there?
Butler: Yeah. That’s a great question. I think that it’s hard because the people that leave mainstream platforms to go to these alternatives are the people that are being censored. So it’s hard.
Leftists and people that are even just moderate and a little bit to the left, they aren’t getting censored at the same rate as these people on the right and in the conservative spaces are.
So there’s really no incentive for these people to leave big platforms like Twitter and YouTube if they’re not getting censored. So we’ll see how that goes down the road.
Right now, obviously, both alternative companies, and alternative companies in general, are doing a great job. They’ll have people leave publicly. Influencers like Joe Rogan or Kevin McCarthy recently created, he’s exclusively on Rumble. So when big people make the switch, it does bring their followers over with them.
But like you said, there’s only so many big people that can exclusively move. So yeah, I think that’s an issue we might run into a couple years down the road.
Blair: Now, it does seem like we constantly hear about a lot of these alternatives to the Big Tech platforms that get a lot of press, get a lot of attention, and then don’t go anywhere. So my thought process is Gab and Parler, which were touted as these alternatives that got a lot of attention, and then I haven’t heard about them, I think since 2021, 2020. Why does that seem to keep happening?
Butler: Yeah. I mean, for the Parler example, and I don’t know if you want me to get into it here, but in the Parler example, they obviously were de-platformed from the cloud service.
So it’s important for Rumble, Gettr, other alternatives, when they’re building their company, to build with the full tech stack in mind. So it’s not just creating the landing page where all the videos are, it’s about building your own cloud service, building your own content delivery networks.
We’ve seen with the digital payment platforms, PayPal and others censoring for just owning a bank account. And so that, and then domains and then internet service providers. So the whole stack needs to be completely built on your own so that you don’t get censored from any of those levels.
So we really do encourage people who are building their own to build with the full stack in mind, because there are so many choke points for the left to get us. So if you’re not careful and you don’t build around those choke points, they will shut you down because that’s their end goal, is to delete all of the alternatives.
Blair: That’s a great point because when we talk about these Big Tech alternatives, it does seem to be the front-facing angle. It’s always the Twitter alternative. It’s not the Amazon cloud services alternative. Are there conservative options for that? And are we seeing them having some success?
Butler: Yes, yes. For example, with Rumble, they have this coming soon cloud service level of the stack, which is called Rumble Cloud Solutions. So it’s a neutral place for your business to be free in the cloud. So that’s going to be used for their service.
Same thing with the [content delivery network] level, they used Parallel Economy, which was created by Dan Bongino, which is the alternative to PayPal or an online payment platform.
So the creators on Rumble can get their money from their subscribers through the Parallel Economy, which was created by conservatives because of this problem of the choke points. There’s so many ways for the left to cut us off. So that’s just one example.
So yeah, we very much encourage people who are building their own to keep that in mind.
Blair: Can we see a successful Parallel Economy exist within the next couple of years where it is a conservative financial system backed by conservative web services on a conservative platform where you would watch your videos? Is that a feasible thing in the next couple of years?
Butler: Yeah, definitely. And some of these alternative platforms are already doing it after watching Parler be taken down. They’ve been like, “OK, we are going to learn our lesson from that. And we’re not going to let that happen to us. So we’re going to build with the full stack in mind and make sure that the left cannot cancel us from any of the levels.”
So I really do think that it’s possible. Obviously, we’ve seen that it’s possible. I think it can become definitely a little bit more mainstream as long as all these alternatives are joining them and keeping them in mind and not just succumbing to having their services hosted on a mainstream cloud service.
Blair: Now, it does seem like there is debate over in the interim period before those types of things become more mainstream whether or not prominent conservatives or even your everyday conservatives should remain on these platforms like Facebook and Twitter or if they should just start saying, “You know what? I’m done. Even if I’m not reaching the same amount of people, I’m going to go to one of these other platforms.” What do you recommend?
Butler: Yeah. So, one thing before I directly answer that is, on Gettr, they just released the ability to cross-tweet with the Gettr—it’s not “Gettr tweet,” but a Gettr text box.
So now you can share a Gettr text on Twitter. So you can still, even if you don’t have a Twitter account, you have only a Gettr account, you can still reach an audience from Twitter.
So that is an interesting intersect, where you’re not explicitly supporting Twitter, but you are still reaching the Twitter audience, which is a huge audience.
As for whether to have both or leave Big Tech, the thing that we don’t want to do as conservatives is to leave the Twitters, the Facebooks, the YouTubes to just the left.
If we all just take all of our content and our thoughts and ideas and run, then there is no—to bring it back to the beginning—de facto public town square, because it’s just the complete stratification and separation of the left and the right based on platforms.
So I do think we can’t have everyone leaving the Big Tech companies, but also being able to attack from the executive standpoint the way Elon is is a way to be able to keep more conservative and right-leaning voices on these Big Tech platforms without getting censored, as they have been so often.
Blair: As a final question, as Elon Musk continues to maybe push for more free speech on Twitter, it seems as if there’s going to be concerns about the needs to keep a safe platform, obviously, to remove explicitly illegal content, and to prevent people from just being censored for political opinions. Where does that balance lie?
Butler: Yeah. I mean, obviously, it’s an important one. We see violence, exploitation, and all of that on platforms. And I think it really comes down to the definition of harmful content, which has been blurred in testimonies on the Hill and in terms of service on all of these platforms, honestly.
So I think it really comes down to explicitly defining what is this harmful content and, obviously, keeping viewpoints that are on the right and not having to do with violence or porn or exploitation of children.
Obviously, that would be included in that definition, but just opinions that are [of] people on the right that don’t have to do with any of those horrible things should not be included in the definition of “harmful content.” So I think it comes down to just a rewriting of that definition and of the rules in general.
Blair: OK. That was Annie Butler, a research associate at the Center for Technology Policy here at The Heritage Foundation. Annie, thank you so much for your time.
Butler: Thank you.
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