Elon Musk, J K Rowling, and Jeremy Clarkson all recently experienced the consequences of speaking freely.
Entrepreneur Elon Musk, author J K Rowling, and broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson all use social media to share their opinions. Their audience on Twitter alone is huge. Clarkson has almost 8 million followers, Rowling has around 13 million and Musk is way ahead with almost 125 million. Their words reach far and wide, they make headlines and cause controversies. All three have suffered consequences of speaking freely.
the bird is freed— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 28, 2022
Free speech is one of our most important rights and one of the most misunderstood. Your “hot take” could result in a bit of clapback on social media or, in the case of Rowling, death threats. A recent poll showed that internet users expects social media companies to take responsibility for managing the content shared on their site. Providing an open platform where users can speak freely and blocking hate speech at the same time is not easy, as Musk recently found out.
Elon Musk, the world’s second richest person, describes himself as a “free speech absolutist”. When he bought Twitter he immediately sacked half the staff, including the content moderation team. Twitter’s 230 million users were now free to say whatever they wanted. Musk’s goal was to “allow everything except illegal speech”.
Within just 12 hours of Musk setting the bird free there was a 500% increase in the use of a racial slur. “One single-word tweet, showing a single racial slur in all capital letters, was retweeted more than 700 times and liked more than 5,000 times,” The Washington Post reported.
There followed a series of questionable decisions, most of which were crowd-sourced by Musk using Twitter’s polling facility. Asking a community what they want is not necessarily a bad thing and going with the majority is usually a reasonable thing to do. In short, Musk removed the guidelines and safety-nets and chose to moderate content on a case by case basis. An impossible task when you have 396 million users. Musk quickly admitted defeat, or got bored, and following a Twitter poll answered by more than 17.5 million users he agreed to step down.
I will resign as CEO as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job! After that, I will just run the software & servers teams.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 21, 2022
It could be argued that of the three J K Rowling has suffered the greatest as a consequence of her free and easy opinions. In 2020 she responded to the Scottish government’s proposals to change gender recognition laws with a Tweet which whipped up a Twitter storm.
Reflecting afterwards she said: “I spoke up about the importance of sex and have been paying the price ever since. I was transphobic … a TERF, I deserved cancelling, punching and death.”
If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
In an attempt to explain her views Rowling wrote a blog post J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues . In it she declares “I stand alongside the brave women and men, gay, straight and trans, who’re standing up for freedom of speech and thought”.
A 2015 article in The Guardian lists some of Jeremy Clarkson’s most controversial moments. Almost 10 years on and he is still ruffling feathers. Most recently his obsession with the Duchess of Sussex resulted in a disturbing opinion piece published by The Sun. He wrote “At night, I’m unable to sleep as I lie there, grinding my teeth and dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant ‘Shame!’ and throw lumps of excrement at her.”
At first his editor defended him. They pay Clarkson for his opinions, and as we’ve seen, he has history. They knew what they were getting into. But both Clarkson and The Sun very quickly realised, maybe as a result of the 20,000 complaints to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), that they’d gone too far and the story was removed from the paper’s website.
The Sun released a statement saying: “Columnists’ opinions are their own, but as a publisher, we realise that with free expression comes responsibility.”
The consequences of free speech vary widely. Musk has undoubtedly lost several millions on a poorly judged social media experiment. That’s pocket money to someone whose net worth is around $157 billion. J K Rowling has suffered a barrage of abuse and threats. She stands by her beliefs and continues to engage in “debates” about gender recognition. Clarkson’s career has been peppered with numerous misjudged comments and clumsy words but it’s still going strong and he has no intention of changing.