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Elon Musk’s Interest in Twitter Raises Questions About Free Speech, China

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Elon Musk has now become the largest single shareholder of Twitter after buying 9.2 percent of the company via a massive stock acquisition just shy of 73.5 million shares now worth approximately $3 billion. He now owns over four times as many shares as Twitter founder, Jack Dorsey.

Following the purchase, Twitter announced that Musk would be appointed to its eleven-person board. His term expires in 2024.

Musk’s new position with Twitter raises questions about his future plans with the company, issues related to free speech and his financial dealings with China.

Musk’s interest in Twitter stems from concerns about the platform’s censorship and limiting of free speech, particularly regarding political content. He said as much on the platform itself tweeting a poll on March 26 posing a question to his eighty million followers that read, “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?”

The poll received over two million votes with the final results showing 70.4 percent of responders answering “no.” Musk followed through.

He has since been asking people about what he should do with his ownership, for example asking, “do you want an edit button?”

As discussions began to erupt about the degree of influence the tech mogul will actually have, Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s current CEO, tweeted to welcome Musk to Twitter’s board of directors.

There has been a mixed reception of the billionaire’s purchase.

Some users of the app believe that he will begin exerting influence to clear up these censorship issues. However, locals in Twitter’s home town of San Francisco seem to see this as a stunt by an entitled mega-rich mogul.

While the possibility that Musk will help reform the platform may be exciting, there are other concerns to consider.

Twitter has previously been criticized for its banning of accounts, particularly conservative voices, for expressing opinions about certain issues. The most famous of these occurred in January of 2021 when former President, Donald Trump had his privileges on the forum revoked, something many have called for Musk to reverse.

But the company has also shocked observers by allowing more offensive users and content to remain. The company famously struggled to keep the number of accounts promoting ISIS and other terrorist organizations contained.

Chinese governmental organizations including embassies in both the U.S. and Sri Lanka have also used Twitter (ironically, since the platform is banned in China) as a medium to spread communist propaganda, combat criticisms against the Chinese government, and to undermine U.S. concerns about human rights abuses that occur there related to mass surveillance of its citizens as well as persecution of the Falun Gong, Tibetans, and Uyghurs. Twitter has also placed bans on Chinese whistleblowers attempting to inform people about the origins of COVID-19.

It is inevitable that Musk will have to deal with issues related to China in his new position with Twitter. However, Musk is no stranger to China.

Musk’s electric car company, Tesla Motors, has had software coding stolen from it by the Chinese. Musk has also exhibited awareness that SpaceX has been “probed” by China. (Schweizer, Red-Handed, Pg. 110)

Also, Musk’s business involvements in China include a massive Tesla factory called the “Gigafactory 3” in Lingang and another to be built in Shanghai. And at least one other powerful and government linked Chinese company, Tencent Holding, retains a 5 percent stake in Tesla. (Schweizer, Red-Handed, Pg. 110).

Given these entanglements, Musk’s interest in an “edit button” may be the least controversial issue he deals with as a Twitter board member.