MIKE WACKER: Elon Musk's commitment to free speech need not extend to financial bullying

In a world where the Internet runs on ads, those who can control and coerce advertisers can in turn control what can and cannot be said on the Internet.

In this day and age, when activists encounter speech they dislike, they don’t just pressure social media companies to take it down. They also pressure advertisers to boycott companies if they don’t crack down on disfavored speech, disingenuously framing these censorship campaigns as a “brand safety” issue.

In fact, Elon Musk recently threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for defamation, claiming that advertising revenue on X/Twitter “is still down 60%, primarily due to pressure on advertisers by @ADL (that's what advertisers tell us).” While a lawsuit may not be the wisest course of action, when activist groups pressure advertisers like that, Elon Musk should seriously consider banning them from X.

At first glance, this idea certainly seems radical—especially to those who hold a narrow view where free speech and the First Amendment are one and the same. Under that narrow view, it is not even possible for private activist groups to threaten free speech; only the government can threaten free speech.

While it is true that the First Amendment only applies to the US government, free speech is a broader cultural norm; threats to free speech are not limited to threats from the government.

This idea is not a new-fangled populist idea, either. When John Stuart Mill wrote his defense of free speech, On Liberty, in 1859, he noted that social tyranny is “more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”

(As a conservative who used to work at Google, this certainly would not be the first time that I would describe Mill’s words not as philosophy, but as prophecy.)

One key difference between the government and the private sector, however, is that financially, the government can collect taxes without your consent and accumulate 32 trillion dollars of debt. A for-profit company can’t do that—and even nonprofits need to raise enough revenue to cover their costs.

Even though Elon has proclaimed that he believes in free speech, he is nonetheless entitled to some deference when it comes to dealing with those who pressure his advertisers. And he is not alone, either; far-left activists have used similar tactics against Facebook as well.

Moreover, Elon does not have to choose between being a principled loser who truly believes in free speech, or being an authoritarian tyrant who punishes dissidents. If he wants to institute a new policy that punishes or even bans groups who pressure advertisers, he can do so in ways that comport with free speech principles.

First, he can make a commonsense distinction between speech and conduct. Under his policy, activists groups can still freely express their own views—even if they’re being as sleazy and dishonest as the ADL. Such groups will only get punished when they cross a red line by pressuring advertisers.

Second, he can make the policy viewpoint-neutral, by applying it equally to both sides. If conservative groups pressure advertisers to boycott X because of speech that they dislike, they will be banned as well.

If the left thinks that the right doesn’t have the capacity to build parallel institutions that can pressure advertisers, the organic boycotts of Bud Light and Target should serve as a cautionary tale. And even if such parallel institutions started with good intentions today, who can say what may happen tomorrow? As hard as it is to believe, the ADL once was a group that targeted antisemitism. Today, they target Jews who have the wrong political beliefs, such as Libs of TikTok creator Chaya Raichik.

In the big picture of things, we should ask ourselves what sort of society we want to live in. Do we want to live in a society where both sides regularly practice social tyranny, where both sides pressure a company’s advertisers when that company allows the “wrong” kinds of speech? Or do we want to live in a society where both sides still try to work the refs, but both sides also abide by a shared social norm that pressuring the ref’s advertisers is off-limits?

Much like J.S. Mill once remarked that “[v]ery few facts are able to tell their own story,” it is also true very few social norms are able to simply arise out of thin air. If we want to end social tyranny, then we must impose social costs on it.
 

Image: Title: Wacker Musk ADL
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