No one should’ve honestly believed Elon Musk would use his ownership of Twitter to champion free speech. Besides the fact that the man is a professional bullshitter, it was always dubious that a guy who slaps employees with gag orders and bars them from wearing pro-union messages had a genuine commitment to the proverbial marketplace of ideas.
No one is more eager to hawk the idea of Musk as a free-speech warrior, of course, than Musk himself, who framed his growing entanglement in the social media platform around defending the principle, and recently retweeted a satirical headline charging that he’d “threaten free speech on Twitter by literally allowing people to speak freely.” Reportedly telling staff he wanted the platform to be “the digital town square” by “represent[ing] people with a wide array of views even if we disagree with those views,” Musk has reinstated a spate of reactionary Twitter accounts that had been suspended, including those of Jordan Peterson, Project Veritas, and former president Donald Trump.
But it’s looking more and more like the Tesla CEO’s supposed commitment to free expression only goes as far as his own political biases. At the same time that Musk has been playing footsy with noxious right-wing figures and giving a voice back to their faves, he’s also banned a string of left-wing accounts ― seemingly at the prodding of those same noxious voices.
One such account is that of CrimethInc Ex-Workers’ Collective, an anarchist network that publishes everything from books to podcasts about a variety of topics familiar to readers of left-wing publishing. In a lengthy statement published last Friday, the group outlined how after fourteen years of tweeting with no warnings or suspensions, they were suddenly banned from Twitter. The group further claims that, on the morning of the ban, they got an email from the platform telling them Twitter had investigated a complaint lodged against them by someone from Germany, but that it “found that it is not subject to removal under the Twitter Rules . . . or German law.”
Left-wing accounts being suddenly and inexplicably banned is sadly nothing new on Twitter. But what makes this instance more disturbing is that it immediately followed an exchange Musk had with far-right influencer Paul Ray Ramsey ― seen here posing with neo-Nazi Richard Spencer at a conference they both spoke at ― whose post about Twitter “nuking pedo accounts” led Musk to personally urge the video blogger to report “anything that Twitter needs to address.”
He also had an exchange with right-wing troll Andy Ngo, known for his lie-filled vendetta against antifa. Told by Ngo that “a large number of Antifa accounts operate on Twitter” to incite various acts of violence, Ngo and the Twitter CEO then had a back-and-forth about the importance of reporting and suspending such accounts. It ended with Ngo singling out CrimethInc for trying to “radicalize people into criminal militancy,” pointing to a number of anodyne social media posts by the group, the most edgy of which was a zine about breaking windows and “the effectiveness of political vandalism.” Within a few hours, the account was suspended.
This wasn’t an isolated event. Journalist Steven Monacelli documented the suspensions of several more leftist accounts in recent days, including the Elm Fork John Brown Gun Club (EFJBGC), an armed left-wing group that goes to LGBTQ events that far-right militants, including some armed groups, plan to attend; Vishal Singh, a left-wing journalist and documentarian based in California who reports on the far right and law enforcement; and Chad Loder, a Los Angeles–based cybersecurity expert who used his Twitter feed to expose and document the activities of right-wing extremists. All of this came just a few days after Musk claimed it was “obvious” that “there is not one permanent ban on even the most far left account spouting utter lies.”
As the Intercept’s Micah Lee reported shortly before this blitz of suspensions — and at the same time that Musk was restoring the accounts of some truly vile characters, like professional misogynist Andrew Tate — the self-proclaimed free speech absolutist had still not restored the account of Distributed Denial of Secrets. That activist nonprofit is probably best known for the “BlueLeaks” disclosures that revealed a wide variety of questionable or outright scandalous actions by US law enforcement, and had been suspended last year under Twitter’s absurd ban on “content obtained without authorization” ― effectively a ban on whistleblowing and reporting on it.
Like CrimethInc, all of these accounts had in some way run afoul of Musk and the far right shortly before they were suspended. On an alternate account, EFJBGC called attention to a right-wing Telegram channel that had compiled a list of thousands of “antifa accounts and antifa follower accounts” that they planned a “report spamming” operation against to get them banned (“Let the purge begin”). EFJBGC was officially banned for violating Twitter’s strictures against “hateful conduct” with two tweets: one saying “Every queer a riflethem” and another that read “@CBP Mugging at gun point.”
What makes this particularly outrageous is that among those accounts Musk has seen fit to reinstate was Protect Texas Kids, a homophobic group that urges people to protest drag shows and whose founder called for “rounding up people who participate in Pride events.”
Singh, meanwhile, had on the day of his suspension posted about Ngo’s association with several child sex offenders. Loder, the cybersecurity expert, had warned of an alleged massive data breach at Twitter and accused the company of covering it up in the same twenty-four-hour period that his account was suspended. Loder had already been suspended once before that, after sending a series of tweets challenging Musk’s claim that left-wing accounts hadn’t faced suspension, only to be reinstated ― then quickly suspended again.
It’s unclear how much of this is a reflection of Musk’s true long-standing political leanings, or if he’s taken a similar journey of Twitter-fueled political derangement to other high-profile figures, ensconcing himself in a right-wing intellectual bubble that now drives his thinking. In any case, after once making the questionable claim that Twitter “has a strong left wing bias,” Musk now seems to have decided the solution is giving it a strong far-right bias instead.
It’s also not clear how much of this anti-left censorship is due to Musk personally. But besides his personal interaction with reactionaries who have pushed to suppress groups they politically disagree with, we know Twitter’s content moderation team was explicitly ordered to reinstate the conservative satirical outlet Babylon Bee ― whose ban had first prompted Musk to muse about buying the platform ― hours after he took ownership. We also know that Musk told employees last week that his planned content moderation council would be purely advisory, and that he would “either agree with it or I won’t,” suggesting a more hands-on approach from the CEO on the subject of censorship.
Musk is a moron ― that much is clear from the past few weeks. But that’s not really the problem.
The real problem is that, in the society and economic system we’ve created, a moron can take over a critical public resource like Twitter on a whim, as long as he or she has an enormous hoard of wealth that this system has allowed them to accrue, at which point they’ll promptly inject their own blinkered biases into the way the platform operates.
This is why voices on the Left have not just warned about the dangers of resorting to excessive, heavy-handed censorship on such platforms, since changes in ownership, individual biases, and human error all mean speech one personally doesn’t object to can become a target for suppression. They’ve also called for public ownership, or at the very least greater state regulation, of platforms like Twitter that have clearly become integral to life today, to provide some modicum of democratic control over them and save us from the whims of erratic billionaires.
Other possible solutions don’t seem so promising. Some have fled Twitter in protest and joined “decentralized” alternatives like Mastodon, where groups and individuals can make their own servers with their own particular rules. Yet among other things, this potentially just repeats the situation with Musk on a smaller scale, as antiwar group Code Pink recently found when it was banned from a Mastodon server by a moderator who had “received reports the organisation was affiliated with some less than savoury groups” and was deemed “potentially controversial.”
Musk is now facing an advertiser revolt, and one advertiser, the tech behemoth Apple, has, according to the billionaire, “threatened to withhold” the platform from its App Store, a potentially powerful blow to Twitter’s market share if true. This could in theory force a change to Musk’s policies by essentially strong-arming him into backing down. But do we really want the rules that govern social media platforms dictated instead by similarly unaccountable corporations using their economic heft or, in Apple’s case, their monopoly power to force a change to policies they don’t like?
Meanwhile, it’s worth taking note of the fact that, while Musk deserves criticism for his myopic fixation on restoring only right-wing accounts, a number of these bans appear not to be driven by him but by right-wing users gaming the existing system of content moderation at Twitter. While there has to be some kind of system to deal with accounts that abuse and harass other users, this should remind us that, without proper safeguards or a decently sized team of human engineers, the policies ostensibly meant to keep users safe can be easily gamed by right-wing activists to suppress the Left. If recent history didn’t already suggest it was a bad idea, this alone should make clear how foolish Musk’s reported plan to completely automate Twitter’s content policing is.
Remarkably, in spite of all this, the liberal discourse around Musk’s helming of Twitter continues to be framed in exactly the (untrue) way that he prefers it: of Musk as an overzealous free-speech champion, endangering the world through his commitment to a principle that he’s shown he doesn’t actually give a damn about. This hail of misguided and reality-divorced liberal criticism ironically gives Musk the exact cover he needs, convincing the uninformed he really does walk the walk on free speech, and allowing him to keep tweeting self-aggrandizing nonsense like, “This is a battle for the future of civilization. If free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead.”
Yet that tyranny is already here, largely thanks to the figure of Musk himself, and to the kind of society that lets those with wealth treat vital public goods as their own personal playpens. There’s a real conversation to be had about how exactly to strike the tricky balance between protecting free expression on social media platforms and providing a safe and enjoyable user experience. But to have that conversation, we have to wrench control of this digital public square from censorious billionaire frauds like Musk first.