The New York Times has a theory where Elon Musk’s belief in free speech comes from: his sheltered childhood as a white boy in Apartheid South Africa.
A Thursday article by Johannesburg-based reporter Lynsey Chutel and bureau chief John Eligon ran under the headline “Elon Musk Left a South Africa That Was Rife With Misinformation and White Privilege” and the sub headline “The apartheid era created all-white enclaves littered with anti-Black government propaganda and sheltered from the atrocities of apartheid.”
That Musk grew up in such an environment led the authors to declare “Elon Musk’s impending takeover of Twitter has many people probing his public statements and his past for clues about how he will shape one of the world’s most influential public platforms.”
Chutel and Eligon reported that “Interviews with relatives and former classmates reveal an upbringing in elite, segregated white communities that were littered with anti-Black government propaganda, and detached from the atrocities that white political leaders inflicted on the Black majority.”
The Times recounted that “His suburban communities were largely shrouded in misinformation. Newspapers sometimes arrived on doorsteps with whole sections blacked out, and nightly news bulletins ended with the national anthem and an image of the national flag flapping as the names of white young men who were killed fighting for the government scrolled on the screen.”
Still, the Times acknowledged the contradiction between being free speech and censorship:
Mr. Musk has heralded his purchase of Twitter as a victory for free speech, having criticized the platform for removing posts and banning users. It is unclear what role his childhood — coming up in a time and place in which there was hardly a free exchange of ideas and where government misinformation was used to demonize Black South Africans — may have played in that decision.
While the Times probably desired for the article to be condemnation of what happens when misinformation is allowed to spread, much of the article continued to do the opposite. It would state that Musk had black friends and interview Musk’s father who said he belonged to the anti-apartheid Progressive Party and the authors themselves cite a biography of Musk declaring he left South Africa in order to avoid mandatory military service and “Mr. Musk’s current views on free speech seem to reflect the philosophies students were exposed to at Pretoria Boys [High School], said [classmate] Mr. [Terence] Beney, the classmate — like that of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, a champion of unchecked expression.”
Despite seemingly undermining their own headline, the Times promoted the article by tweeting and focusing on the ill effects of allowing misinformation to spread unchecked, “[Musk] sees his takeover of Twitter as a free speech win but in his youth did not suffer the effects of misinformation.”
Much of the rest of the article would recount how white South Africans were insulated from the atrocities going on in the country, but Chutel and Eligon never explained what that has to do with Twitter. If anything, free speech forces people to get out of their bubbles and face the misinformation they may have been fed.