These days, freedom of expression depends on who’s speaking

One of Pretoria Boys High’s more famous alumni – in a group that includes rugby World Cup winning captain John Smit, Justice Edwin Cameron, Booker Prize novelist Damon Galgut and our own motoring editor Willem van de Putte – bought Twitter this week.

Elon Musk spent US$44-billion on buying the micro blogging social media platform – and the world lost its shit. South Africans were right up there with the rest of the globe, handwringing, rending their hair, venting – generally behaving like typical Twitter users.

Musk, who is the world’s richest person, wants to “make Twitter better than ever” and protect it as the “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”. It sounds marvellous. It really does, and he’s got all the right words: “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy.” 

But it’s all bullshit. 

Freedom of expression these days depends on who’s speaking. It is shorthand for ‘I’m free to say what I want and be totally outraged when you have the audacity to speak your mind’. It’s equalled only by the vacuity of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s esoteric congratulations. He trusts Musk to extend Twitter’s “light of consciousness”. 

Perhaps waiting for the cheque with the lion’s share of $44-billion to clear will inspire that kind of wishful thinking, but for the majority of its users, Twitter is a modern-day Roman circus; ringside seats to everyone else’s bloed, snot en trane. It’s a cesspit of half formed opinions dreamt up on toilet seats masquerading as fact. 

It’s capable of good, but just as prone to facilitate incredible cruelty. It managed both in one week in this country: one of the cool local Twitter kids was outed as a serial sexual predator and abuser of women. As the story broke, the mob turned on him. On Sunday he killed himself. Everyone just watched in silent glee. Some chucked in their own opinions for good measure

Twitter played a significant role fomenting our July insurrection last year. It was also weaponised by RET-bots and other fascist sock puppets to target individuals (particularly journalists) in vicious cyber bullying campaigns in this country. Its record elsewhere in the world is just as bad. How Musk will address this remains to be seen.

As the British writer George Monbiot observed this week:” Elon Musk’s ‘free speech absolutism’ is lethal. Persuasion is the primary determinant of human action. Hate speech leads to acts of hate. Lies destroy democracy. Curbing hatred and lies preserves other, essential freedoms. Musk’s vision for Twitter is not a promise but a threat”.

The question is, can Musk make it any worse than it already is? Sometimes Twitter is like the dog shit on the pavement; in real life most people would choose to step over or around it. On social media, somehow, we all rush lemming like to dive in and wallow in it. And then moan about it afterwards. 

But maybe the angst has nothing with a billionaire’s midlife crisis and everything to do with the fact that he was born here and has $44-billion to blow. 

What did everyone expect him to do, buy Eskom instead?

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 30 April 2022.