Despite Musk’s comments, Twitter was not designed or intended to be a digital town square. While many platforms tout community-building, Twitter has not to date made such a claim. Instead, Twitter has prioritized information-sharing over community, making it a space for millions of town criers, but not a town square for people to come together and debate.
Twitter has been a notable epicenter of online vitriol in the past, so much so that when the company was up for sale previously, potential buyers, including Disney, were scared off by the harassment and hate on the platform. A 2017 study found that women were harassed every 30 seconds on Twitter, with Black women being the most frequently abused.
Additionally, the ease with which people can create and tweet images of doctored news articles and generate fake tweets helps spread misinformation – essentially, tools that help amplify the voices of malicious town criers. These are examples of how Twitter is about information-sharing first, community-building second. Someone can shout harassment, hate or misinformation, and then others pile on.
Also, arguments for free speech raise the question: Free speech for whom? Law and lived experience do not always align – ask any person of color, woman, LGBTQ person or disabled person who has experienced harassment online, particularly on Twitter. Long-standing conceptions of the public sphere, or town square, feature a romanticized conception of white men debating issues, while others are relegated to the margins.
Furthermore, Musk, who has over 90 million Twitter followers, has himself engaged in harmful behavior on Twitter. In 2018, in now-deleted tweets, Musk referred to a diver who was helping rescue children from a flooded cave in Thailand as “a pedo guy.” At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Musk tweeted erroneous claims that children “are essentially immune” to the coronavirus and promoted chloroquine, which is not recommended as a COVID-19 treatment.