Overview:

Elon Musk is a "free speech absolutist," which is why he has taken to suspending journalists on Twitter who have been critical of him.

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Free speech is a thoroughly thorny issue, not just because it is divisive in online and offline debates, but because it is philosophically troublesome and potentially an unsolvable quandary.

We all have our own lines about what is and isn’t acceptable. Everyone has a line somewhere. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks it would be acceptable to allow a 12-year-old to stand up in class and scream racial slurs at their teacher in the middle of a lesson. Likewise, shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre or “bomb” on a plane is equally unacceptable to most of us.

And yet Elon Musk, who took over Twitter recently, has previously announced to the world that he is a “free speech absolutist.”

A “free speech absolutist” implies someone who feels so strongly about one’s right to free speech that they will stand up for anyone’s right to say anything. It implies the absence of lines.

As such, one of Musk’s first moves in taking the reins of Twitter was to allow back to the platform Donald Trump (who has so far stayed at Truth Social) as well as any number of other previously banned people.

Because free speech, right?

“Free speech for me, but not for thee” should perhaps be in Musk’s Twitter bio. This is because Elon Musk is speaking out of both sides of his mouth (and perhaps his posterior, too).

Over the past few days, there has been an escalation in cancellations—arguably an example of “cancel culture,” an accusation leveled by the right against the left while committing wholeheartedly to its prevalence.

It started when Twitter suspended @ElonJet—an account that displayed publicly available tracking data on Musk’s private jet. He took umbrage to people freely spreading publicly available information…because it was about him.

One rule for him and another for everyone else meant that @ElonJet was suspended. Not only this, but Musk changed the rules of Twitter so that you are no longer allowed to share live data on the whereabouts of entities such as Musk and his private jet.

This actually has some far-reaching consequences. There are many in the open-source intelligence community (OSINT) who routinely use such geolocation techniques to locate the whereabouts of, for example, Russian forces, planes, vehicles, people, and so on. The OSINT community is not just vital for the war efforts of Ukraine in general, but they are almost entirely based on Twitter.

For OSINT to be effective and efficient, it is far better that the sources coalesce in a single place—in this case, Twitter. Musk’s knee-jerk, over-sensitive reactions have real-world consequences. Twitter isn’t just a frivolous social media space, or a cesspit of identity politics shouting matches. It is also a very serious place where politicians, organizations, institutions, academics, experts, the intelligence community, and all sorts of other entities exist and interact in meaningful and important ways.

But the authoritarian approach to curtailing free speech didn’t end there.

Now, in some kind of strop, Musk has taken to utilizing his own virtual guillotine. Musk has proceeded to ban a slew of journalists who have been critical of him, from Mashable’s Matt Binder to CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, The New York Times’ Ryan Mac to The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell, from Voice of America’s Steve Herman to Keith Olbermann.

The reason that Musk gave for the suspensions was that they were “doxxing” the whereabouts of his son. But it appeared he rewrote the Twitter rules just so that he could do this:

However, Musk’s suspension of the group of tech journalists on Thursday was for breaking a new user guideline about revealing people’s locations, which had been created the day before.

He claimed they had breached the rule, which bars users from publishing “live location information” that would “reveal a person’s location, regardless if this information is publicly available”. The journalists had recently published articles about Musk’s suspension of a Twitter account that had shared publicly available data about the movements of his private jet. The news articles that several reporters had published before their accounts were suspended did not include information about his real-time location, or the location of any of his family members.

To be as charitable to Musk (because these journalists weren’t doxxing, but were just reporting on the @ElonJet Twitter handle), it could be that Musk was over-reacting after saying his son had been mistakenly followed by a “crazy stalker,” and linking this to the @ElonJet project.

“Criticizing me all day long is totally fine, but doxxing my real-time location and endangering my family is not,” he later tweeted.

This action went against his previous commitment:

He had tweeted last month that his commitment to free speech extended “even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk”. He later tweeted there would be a seven-day suspension for doxxing.

In a further expansion to this attack on free speech, Musk has also banned Mastadon’s account that advertised a revived version of @ElonJet now housed at the Twitter competitor.

However, the plot has continued to thicken. Mastodon appears to be the primary recipient of those fleeing what could be a sinking ship. Now, Musk has initiated that any link in Twitter that links to Mastadon is flagged up as Malware:

Twitter has blocked the main Mastodon servers and stopped Twitter users from including their Mastodon handles in Twitter bios.

And to add insult to personal injury, Elon Musk has exhibited his wafer-thin skin to the world by dropping out of a Twitter Spaces (a live drop-in session hosted on Twitter) discussion with a host of journalists. One of the journalists happened to be WaPo’s Drew Harrell (banned accounts can still access Twitter Spaces if we understand correctly). Musk deleted or removed the Twitter Space recording to this as he ran away from the discussion, but the internet is a resourceful place and you can listen to it below. The conversation went like this:

Twitter, for those still on there, is afire with clamor about these bans, the Twitter Spaces exchange, and where people should go to as an alternative.

As explained here on Twitter, this curtailing of press freedom may be in breach of press regulations in many of the places Twitter is just about functioning:

It now seems like this has got to the point of concerning even the UN.

What is fairly certain is that Elon Musk, the great innovative entrepreneur, has been very bad for business at Twitter, and has been for some weeks. It’s bad enough that Musk has made terrible decision after stupid announcement, but when he adds rank hypocrisy to his list of Twitter achievements while acting like a fascistic authoritarian, one has to worry.

Lest we forget.

As a public service announcement, here is a free Wall Street Journal guide on how to join Mastodon.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...