Twitter free-speech claim backfires

"Free speech absolutist” Elon Musk criticized Twitter's content moderation policies but has fallen into similar practices.

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In April, the richest person in the world made an outrageous offer to buy a popular and complex social media site. What appeared at first to be a disgruntled billionaire throwing a tantrum because he couldn’t tweet what he wanted has somehow snowballed into Elon Musk actually owning Twitter.

The self-described “free speech absolutist” believes all types of commentary should be allowed to exist. Twitter should house all viewpoints, he said, not just those deemed “politically correct”:

“A beautiful thing about Twitter is how it empowers citizen journalism—people are able to disseminate news without an established bias,” he tweeted.

Musk has a history of disputing Twitter’s content moderation policies and has expressed his intent to drastically reduce (if not eliminate) Twitter’s control over who is allowed on the platform and what they can post.

“Again, to be crystal clear, Twitter’s strong commitment to content moderation remains absolutely unchanged.” Musk tweeted. “In fact, we have actually seen hateful speech at times this week decline *below* our prior norms, contrary to what you may read in the press.”

Though Musk’s open approach to speech on Twitter sounds noble and is cheered by some, the misinformation and toxic content that already existed on the platform was barely being managed. 

According to research from Montclair State University, in the 12 hours after the acquisition, hate-driven tweets quadrupled compared with the week leading up to Musk’s takeover.

Although Musk has not made any statements regarding his stance on misinformation, he tweeted –  then deleted – a link to an article with unfounded claims that Paul Pelosi’s personal affairs were the motivation for his attack on October 28.

In response to the extreme “free-speech” efforts from Musk, civil rights groups have begun to pressure Twitter advertisers, causing what Musk says is a “massive drop in revenue.” A coalition of over 60 civil rights groups called #StopToxicTwitter said it plans to escalate its demands that advertisers stop buying ad space on the platform in the wake of Musk’s sweeping layoffs and unclear moderation strategy.

In the first few days of owning the social media site, Musk laid off about half the company’s staff, tweeting there was “no choice when the company is losing over $4M/day.” 

In an apparent attempt to pull the company out of the deficit, Musk swiftly incorporated an $8 monthly subscription element:

But he didn’t account for just how clever the users of the app could be. 

Comedy is now legal*

In a tweet from his first week, Musk said: “Comedy is now legal on Twitter.”

By Week 2 of the Musk era of unfettered comedy, that position had already backfired as comedian Kathy Griffin changed her profile photo and user name to match Elon Musk and began to make parody tweets. The verified check next to the user name led Twitterers to believe that these tweets originated from Musk.

After a few hours of confusion, Twitter suspended Kathy Griffin. 

Comedian Sarah Silverman quickly joined the now-legal comedy free-for-all:

earning a ban herself in the process.

Musk then tweeted: “Going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying ‘parody’ will be permanently suspended.”

Looking beyond the undeniable pleasure of watching ego and obscene privilege trying to stand up in an inch of Wesson Oil with wax-paper shoes, the unfolding spectacle at Twitter underlines the real difficulty of open-ended public discourse.

As easy and clear as free-speech absolutism seems from the bleachers, only some comedy was ever going to be legal on Twitter, and some limits on free expression were always in the cards. The question is always where and how, not whether, the lines are drawn.

tatiania perry

Tatiania Perry

OnlySky news editor Tatiania Perry has been a writer for Newsweek, Illinois Public Media, and NBC Universal, as well as in the non-profit sector. She holds a Masters in Journalism from the University of...