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Clarence Page: Twitter tames Trump, but what about the mighty Musk?

He criticized the company's decision to bar Trump last year as "a mistake," "morally wrong and flat-out stupid," which will polish his image as the free speech champion and cult hero to every lad who enjoys being rude on the internet.

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk attends the start of the production at Tesla's "Gigafactory" on March 22, 2022, in Berlin.
Patrick Pleul/POOL/AFP/Getty Images/TNS
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Behave yourself, my Mama used to say, or you lose your toys.

Are you listening, Mr. Trump?

The nation's former president probably heard that message from his mother many moons ago, even if his more recent behavior tells us it didn't quite sink in.

Whether or not his mother gave him that message, last Friday a federal judge in San Francisco certainly did.

The toy in this case is Trump's Twitter account which was suspended two days after a mob spurred by his "stop the steal" lies stormed the Capitol Jan. 6 last year in hopes of overturning the presidential election results.

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Although investigations by the Justice Department and a congressional committee looking into the insurrection continue, Twitter didn't have to wait that long.

The San Francisco-based tech giant said Trump violated its rules against glorifying violence with a pair of tweets, including one praising his supporters as "patriots."

Losing his biggest megaphone for gripes and insults cost him an audience he had built to more than 88 million followers, including me. Life seems less stressful to me now.

Of course, Trump didn't take it lying down. He sued Twitter for taking his toy away, charging that his free speech rights were infringed.

That's hard to prove since, as I have told numerous people who cite the First Amendment without actually reading it, the Constitution only prevents government from infringing on your rights to free speech and press, among others. It does not apply to private companies such as Twitter.

But, Trump came up with a novel argument. He claimed that Twitter was effectively functioning like the government.

That's rich but wrong. Even though some tech giants seem to function like the government with the influence they have on politics, nobody elected them but their stockholders.

Nevertheless, the Trump side argued, Twitter had been pandering to liberal Democrats in trying to silence contrary viewpoints by barring him from its platform.

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U.S. District Judge James Donato didn't buy it. He said in part that Trump's complaint "merely offers a grab bag of allegations to the effect that some Democratic members of Congress wanted Mr. Trump and 'the views he espoused' to be banned from Twitter because such 'content and views' were contrary to those legislators' preferred points of view."

In other words, Trump was creating another excuse to claim victimization, which is valuable currency in today's politics.

But a major break appears to be coming Trump's way. Fellow billionaire and self-described free speech zealot Elon Musk said Tuesday that he would reverse Trump's "permanent" ban. It was one of Musk's first specific comments on how he would change the company since striking a deal last month to buy it for $44 billion.

He also criticized the company's decision to bar Trump last year as "a mistake," "morally wrong and flat-out stupid," which will polish his image as the free speech champion and cult hero to every lad who enjoys being rude on the internet.

In other words, the tech moguls are walking a tightrope between the "free speech" that so many Twitter users love and the consumer, employee and, sometimes, stockholder complaints that force them to be a little more restrictive in what they allow to be posted.

Of course, anyone who doesn't like those constraints has the freedom to start their own social network, if they also have the resources, i.e., money.

But, as Trump found after starting his own apparently struggling Truth Social, you can start a social media platform but that doesn't guarantee that many people will want to use it.

The dirty little secret of Twitter's popularity appears to be that people are attracted to it not so much to hear others on the right or left who agree with them, but to find people from the other side and lob insults at them.

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I think Musk and other social network moguls understand that, as Trump apparently has found, it's no fun to be a troll if you don't have people on the other side to hear you troll them.

Maybe Trump should change Truth Social to Troll Social. I think he'd make another fortune, if he doesn't lose his toys again.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.
©2021 Clarence Page. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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