ITIF Search
Policymakers Should Not Fall for Musk’s “Town Square” Fallacy

Policymakers Should Not Fall for Musk’s “Town Square” Fallacy

November 4, 2022

Elon Musk famously claimed in a TED Talk earlier this year that “Twitter has become the de facto town square,” a sentiment he reiterated when he acquired the company. If his statement was true, it might make sense for policymakers to closely regulate it. But in reality, Twitter is nothing of the sort. A better analogy would be a raucous town bar—a crowded mix of bumptious, fatuous, and odious adults (along with a few minors who have snuck in) trading jibes and jests, spreading gossip, and sharing gripes in an environment in which only the loudest voices get heard. For some, it is serious business; for others, it is pure entertainment. But in any case, it is not a town square, and policymakers should not try to regulate it as one.

Unlike a town square, Twitter is not the heart of any real-world community. While it has undoubtedly become part of today’s digital zeitgeist, in terms of monthly active users, it ranks 16th globally—behind other, more popular social media platforms like Snapchat, Telegram, and Pinterest. Moreover, if Musk’s claims about rampant bots on Twitter are to be believed, Twitter’s ranking might be significantly lower. Even looking at only American users, Twitter is not as big as it might seem based on all the news coverage: Only one-in-five U.S. adults use Twitter, compared to four-in-five who use YouTube. And of those users, 25 percent account for 97 percent of posts. Twitter posters are a vocal minority.

Also, unlike a town square, Twitter is not a public space. It is a commercial enterprise. This distinction is important. People do not have the same expectations of free speech in private spaces as in public ones. For example, a local coffee shop can easily ban someone for an offensive message on their shirt, but a local public park cannot. Some people worry that since Twitter is private, Musk can do whatever he wants, especially regarding content moderation.

But as a private company, he faces many restraints. First, as a commercial enterprise, it must be profitable to succeed. The primary value of Twitter is not its algorithm, but its users—these are the captive eyeballs advertisers want access to. If users dislike the changes, they will leave (as many have already). If Musk were to allow bullying and hate speech—including racism, antisemitism, and misogyny—to expand on Twitter, advertisers will pull back funding to protect their brands’ reputations. Indeed, he has already lamented a “massive drop in revenue” in response to these concerns.

Second, Musk may own the company, but he’s still dependent on app stores. App stores—especially the two major ones operated by Apple and Google—maintain their own terms of service about what types of apps they allow. Notably, neither store allows apps that facilitate threats, harassment, or bullying or allow hate speech. Both app stores have enforced these policies to require that “alternative” social networking sites like Gab, Parler, and Truth Social meet minimum content moderation requirements.

Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has set the world abuzz with how the world’s richest man will run one of the world’s most famous social networks. While users and employees might rightly worry about how some of Musk’s changes will affect them, policymakers should be less concerned because, despite the company’s internal upheaval, the self-styled “Chief Twit’s” impact on online speech will likely be much more limited than many think.

Back to Top