Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is bracing for potential trouble when fellow billionaire Elon Musk completes his acquisition of Twitter, saying the free-speech advocate could make misinformation more prevalent by failing to properly police speech on the social media platform.
“He actually could make it worse,” Gates said of Musk on Wednesday in a Wall Street Journal interview. He added that Musk has a “mind-blowing” track record of building successful businesses at Tesla and SpaceX by being bolder than competitors and “really showing them up.”
“I kind of doubt that will happen this time, but we should have an open mind and never underestimate Elon,” Gates said. “What’s his goal? Where he talks about the openness, how does he feel about something that says vaccines kill people or that Bill Gates is tracking people? Is that one of the things he thinks should be spread? So it’s still… It’s not totally clear what he’s going to do.”
— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) May 4, 2022
Gates argued that governments and social media companies failed to fully squash false commentary related to the Covid-19 pandemic. “When you don’t have the trusted leaders speaking out about vaccines, it’s pretty hard for the platforms to work against that,” he said. “So I think we have a leadership problem, and we have a platform problem.”
Musk reached a deal with Twitter last week to buy the company for $44 billion. He has vowed to restore freedom of speech to the platform, setting off fears from the White House to Silicon Valley that Twitter will no longer censor commentary that establishment voices brand as “misinformation.” President Joe Biden’s administration announced plans to create a Disinformation Governance Board just two days after Twitter’s directors agreed to accept Musk’s offer.
However, determining whether speech is false often is in the eye of the beholder. For instance, some commentary that was censored early in the pandemic – such as a theory that the virus originated in a Chinese lab – became mainstream in later months. The woman chosen to head up the Disinformation Governance Board, Nina Jankowicz, has herself been a spreader of false conspiracy theories, such as dismissing the Hunter Biden laptop scandal as a “Russian influence op.”
Musk has claimed that “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy.” He mocked those who criticized his Twitter deal, saying, “The extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all.”
The Wall Street Journal interview came one day after Gates told NBC News that perhaps there should be laws “that strike a better balance of free speech versus conspiracy theories confusing people.” On Wednesday, he said he previously thought “human judgment” would be strong enough to contain the spread of absurdly false speech.
“So far, at least under the stress of the pandemic, that hasn’t stopped the crazy stuff from getting out and kind of resonating with people,” Gates said.
The vaccine and climate-change activist claimed that he’s reserving judgment on whether Musk will make Twitter better or worse. “The fact that he didn’t buy Twitter to make money means that if there’s something great that can be done, if all you need is money and hiring great engineers, he’s probably as good a person as any.”
Are his goals for what it ends up being, does it match this idea of less extreme falsehoods spreading so quickly — weird conspiracy theories? Does he share that goal or not?
Days before reaching his deal with Twitter, Musk accused Gates of short-selling Tesla stock – essentially betting on shares of the electric vehicle maker to fall. He rejected a meeting to discuss climate-change philanthropy with Gates after hearing that the software magnate was shorting the stock, reportedly saying, “Sorry, I cannot take your philanthropy on climate change seriously when you have a massive short position against Tesla, the company doing the most to solve climate change.”
Asked on Wednesday whether he shorted Tesla shares, Gates said, “It’s possible that the stock went down and whoever shorted the stock made money, I don’t know. I don’t think whether one is short or long Tesla is a statement about your seriousness about climate change.”