Hopes were high for many proponents of free expression when Elon Musk purchased Twitter back in October 2022. A self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” Musk was seen as a welcome alternative to Twitter’s censorial prior management, and many felt he would usher in a true “digital town square” where free expression would reign.
FIRE’s own Greg Lukianoff offered a hopeful open letter to Musk, detailing three ways the billionaire CEO could enact “much-needed changes to the platform that will make it a positive force for free expression, interpersonal connection, and broader community understanding.” These suggestions were to look to First Amendment law to guide free-speech friendly policies, eliminate viewpoint-discriminatory practices, and use categories to clearly define sanctionable speech.
Unfortunately, Musk has managed to flout all three since he took over Twitter.
Musk’s selective application of Twitter’s rules and algorithms all but ensures that his preferences will win out on the platform whether or not they benefit a culture of free expression.
In December 2022, Musk suspended the accounts of multiple journalists without explanation. It was later discovered that these writers had all either reported on Musk’s suspension of Twitter accounts sharing the locations of his and others’ private planes, written critically of Musk in the past, or both. This resulted in spats between Musk and journalists like Bari Weiss, who Musk had considered an ally up until that point and who was among three he had hand-picked to report on “The Twitter Files.” Musk’s behavior betrayed his growing penchant for capriciously enforcing Twitter’s rules to suit his political or personal preferences.
In the months since, Musk has banned or throttled links to competitors like Mastodon, Instagram, and most recently, Substack — which also caused a rift between Musk and journalist Matt Taibbi, another “Twitter Files” ally. Tweets about Ukraine were downranked on the platform, and tweets including certain words such as “transgender,” “trans,” “gay,” and “bisexual” also appear to have been hidden from view, even in direct messages. Posts promoting or discussing the “Trans Day of Vengeance” were also deleted en masse due to oblique and inconsistently applied rules regarding “incitements to violence.” Meanwhile, Musk’s own tweets were boosted and prominently appeared on users’ timelines regardless of whether they followed him.
Musk’s selective application of Twitter’s rules and algorithms all but ensures that his preferences will win out on the platform whether or not they benefit a culture of free expression. As a result, what may have appeared to some as a promising new beginning back in October 2022 now can’t seem like much more than a different flavor of the same old culture war slop — though perhaps with significantly worse global free speech policies.
In an unprecedented move, Twitter withheld access to two tweets by Indian journalist Saurav Das in response to “legal demand” from the Indian government — not just in India, as Twitter’s prior policy would dictate, but globally. This means that no one, whether they lived in a country with free speech protections or not, could see what Das had to say. Musk’s relationship to, and understanding of, the complexities of local censorship laws was already questionable. But for someone who fancies himself a free speech absolutist, it’s a disconcerting about-face to allow a country to impose its own speech restrictions to others around the world.
For all the talk of Twitter being a digital town square, it is ultimately more like Elon Musk’s house party.
These actions, coupled with Twitter’s recent lack of transparency regarding other government takedown requests, unfortunately leave a great deal to be desired when it comes to fostering a free speech culture online.
For all the talk of Twitter being a digital town square, it is ultimately more like Elon Musk’s house party. He is free to run it however he likes, and we are invited only if — and only for as long as — he likes.
It’s possible that a change of heart (along with a significant change in policy) can still turn things around, but the justifiable feeling of disillusionment and discontent among both fans and critics makes that seem less likely now than ever.
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