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Column: The promise of free speech on Elon Musk’s Twitter is officially dead

"I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law," Elon Musk said in April.
“I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law,” Elon Musk said in April. Ten months later he made it a banning offense on Twitter to wish harm on others.
(Hannibal Hanschke / Associated Press)
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It’s been a long time coming, but it’s officially safe to declare that Elon Musk’s dream of “free speech” on Twitter, whatever it may have been, is dead. It died as it lived: confusingly, underwhelmingly, and at the vainglorious whims of the man who dreamt it.

Last week, without attracting much notice, Musk crossed a new threshold in his adventures in running a social media site with a policy that actively seeks to restrict what people can say on the platform to a new degree.

For the record:

5:14 p.m. May 4, 2023The language added to Twitter’s violent speech policy in February prohibiting tweets expressing hopes, wishes or desires for harm was not “brand new,” as described in this article. It represented an expansion of an earlier prohibition on tweets expressing a hope or desire for “death, serious bodily harm or fatal disease.” Although the new policy applies more broadly, extending to wishes of nonserious harm or illness, it was incorrect to say “neither Twitter nor its competitors ever moved to disallow” wishes of harm in the past.

Twitter has long prohibited threats and incitement of violence, as do other platforms. But on Feb. 28, Twitter updated its violent speech policy to ban the mere act of hoping, wishing, or expressing desire that other people might experience harm. “This includes (but is not limited to) hoping for others to die, suffer illnesses, tragic incidents, or experience other physically harmful consequences,” the policy states.

Technically, tweeting “I hope Scott Adams gets a paper cut from one of the few newspapers that still run Dilbert every time he says something racist” is now against the rules. You can’t tweet “I wish Robert Downey Jr. would get gonorrhea,” or “I express a desire for Steve Bannon to cut off the circulation to his arms when he buttons his multiple button-up shirts too tightly.”

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None of those would be nice things to say, and they would be bad posts from a qualitative standpoint, but they are not exactly controversial violations of the basic tenets of free speech. Threats and incitement both imply the infliction of real-world harm; the expression of a wish causes no more harm than any other insult. The examples above would not have been banned under an earlier policy on “Abusive behavior” that covered only expressions of desire for “death, serious bodily harm of fatal disease.”

That being the case, what’s the argument for banning them now? It’s hard to say — in its blog post, the company doesn’t bother offering one.

“It’s not clear, it doesn’t have specific definitions, or even examples of what constitutes a threat,” says Eirliani Abdul Rahman, a former member of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council. “So how are you evaluating individual tweets?”

It’s a good question, and one that cuts to the core of the new policy’s raison d’etre. After all, it’s hard to imagine anyone being thrown off the platform for posting any of the above — the rule will ultimately be enforced by human arbitrators who take into account the severity of the wishes of violence and who it is that is the subject of those wishes. And if the recent past is any guide, we should have a pretty decent idea of who it is that Elon Musk is seeking to protect: Elon Musk.

That Musk didn’t get more blowback for imposing this rule speaks to both how tired most people are of seeing him and his antics take center stage, and how fully most people had already intuited that Musk’s free speech crusading was hollow cosplay. And yet! It was just months ago that Musk was painting himself as a free speech “absolutist.”

How seriously should we take Elon Musk’s rhetoric about bringing free speech and transparency to Twitter? Rather than parse his words, let’s look at his past actions.

April 20, 2022

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Expanding speech rights on Twitter to their outer limits was the reason he said he wanted to buy it at all. In April, he promised a maximalist approach. “By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law,” he tweeted. “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.” Free speech absolutists and conservatives who felt as though they’d been censored by the platform (not to mention the neo-Nazis who’d been kicked off altogether) cheered him on.

“The bird is freed,” Musk tweeted when he sealed the deal.

But his version of “free” became suspect almost immediately. He made good on his promise to restore the accounts of many users banned for engaging in hate speech, incitement or harassment, allowing white nationalists and users such as Kanye West, Andrew Tate and Donald Trump back on the platform. Yet he soon showed that the platform would have little tolerance for one particular kind of speech: the kind that criticized or mocked him, personally.

When users took to changing their account names to Elon Musk, Twitter tweaked the standing parody policy to make the act grounds for a ban. Then Musk brought the hammer down on ElonJet, an account that tracked his private plane with public flight data — and any journalists who covered the story. He also tried to ban the act of sharing links to other social media sites, in an apparent attempt to stem the exodus of users to other platforms, until outcry forced him to reverse course.

Elon Musk’s crackdown on Twitter accounts tracking private jet movements highlights a flaw in the idea that wealth can buy freedom from scrutiny.

Dec. 21, 2022

Meanwhile, he gutted the team responsible for moderating harmful content, leading racist and homophobic speech to skyrocket on the platform, and three high-profile members of the Trust and Safety Council — Abdul Rahman among them — to resign. And though Musk’s Twitter has taken some enforcement actions — for instance, suspending West’s account again after he posted an image of a swastika — it hasn’t bothered to offer any coherent rationale.

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“It’s a very piecemeal approach to everything, with his content moderation policy or lack thereof,” Abdul Rahman says. “And how many people has he let go of? How are you doing content moderation effectively?”

A generous way to put it is that Musk has had a crash course in what it means to moderate content on a major, ad-supported social media platform. After all, no one wants to try to sell soda between pro-Hitler memes, or be asked to join a dating service alongside racial epithets in all caps.

A less generous way to put it is that the violent speech policy is merely the culmination of a series of policy decisions that reflect an interest not in the health of the community on the platform, but in shielding Musk’s ego and promoting his own interests. All these policies have shared one commonality: They allow Musk to police speech against him or his companies. And a vaguely worded ban on the wishing of harm gives Musk yet another tool to sideline his critics.

“He can do this thing, he has the right to do so, but he needs to be clear on the definitions,” Abdul Rahman says. “Otherwise he will silence critics, and that’s a real harm. That’s not fostering free speech.”

It’s a little hard to believe on principle that Musk has a broad interest in discouraging angry sentiments across the board when he has been so avid to stoke them in practice. In a dark bit of irony, Abdul Rahman’s tenure at Twitter ended with Musk personally helping to flood her inbox with wishes of harm against her.

When Abdul Rahman and two colleagues resigned, they posted the announcement on Twitter. The right-wing conspiracy theorist and provocateur Mike Cernovich replied with a tweet that said, “You all belong in jail.” From where I’m sitting, that could be construed as the wishing of harm or tragic circumstances on someone, and therefore a violation of updated Twitter policy.

Yet Musk himself swooped in to support Cernovich’s tweet, replying, “It is a crime that they refused to take action on child exploitation for years!” and boosting the visibility of the post exponentially.

“He threw us under the bus,” Abdul Rahman says. “We were exposed to vitriol, hate and people wishing we were dead.” After Musk boosted Cernovich’s tweet, she got an email from someone who said he wanted to see her body hanging from a lamppost.

Now it may be that Musk has suddenly developed an interest in never wanting to see harm wished upon any soul ever again, rather than, say, trying to ensure he never stumbles onto a tweet from someone who says they hope he gets hit by a Tesla. Either way, Musk has finally taken a bold stand on free speech on Twitter: He’ll restrict it when it serves him. And it’s all downhill from here.

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