In the months surrounding Elon Musk’s $44 billion purchase of Twitter, a consensus seemed to hold among supporters and critics alike that he embraced a kind of free speech absolutism. To some, this was a virtue; to others, a concern. But most disagreement had to do with whether or not you were optimistic about what a less moderated and more permissive Twitter would bring.
Thus, in the weeks following Musk’s initial purchase of the platform, conservatives and self-identified free speech warriors celebrated the restoration of banned and suspended accounts and the rolling back of existing moderation policies. Critics, meanwhile, warned that Twitter’s new ethos of free speech absolutism was making the site a haven for hate speech and reactionary extremism.
The moderation of an expansive and complicated social media platform like Twitter is bound to be a contentious issue on which reasonable people can disagree. Nonetheless, in the just over five months since Musk’s takeover, it’s become clear that both his supporters and critics were incorrect about what it would actually mean. Whatever else he may be, Elon Musk is certainly no “free speech absolutist,” nor someone particularly committed to freedom of speech at all. His brief tenure as Twitter CEO has in fact broken new ground in free speech suppression and seen him turn the platform into the very thing he pledged to destroy: namely, a place where the free expression of opinion is routinely constrained by heavy-handed and arbitrary fiat.
Left-wing accounts were among the first targeted last fall, with many of the bans following obtuse public exchanges between Musk and odious characters on the Right. Soon after, Musk banned an account posting publicly available information about the whereabouts of his personal private jet. In due course, prominent journalists from Vox, CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times all had their accounts taken away, either because they had reported on or criticized various Musk bans (those accounts were later restored following one of Musk’s now semi-regular Twitter polls asking users whether he should bring them back). Elsewhere, links related to Twitter competitor Mastodon have been targeted while various keywords — among them “bisexual,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “queer,” and “transgender” — have been subjected to soft censorship by Twitter’s algorithm. Despite Musk’s claims to the contrary, Twitter is now waging a similar campaign against publishing platform Substack as well.
Among the most sinister developments of the past few months has been Musk’s apparent willingness to do the bidding of India’s far-right government. In January, the Intercept revealed that Twitter censored a BBC documentary critical of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in direct coordination with Indian state officials. More recently, amid a police crackdown in the northern state of Punjab, the company suspended more than a hundred accounts belonging to politicians, activists, and journalists, also blocking the official account of BBC News Punjabi. In an apparent first, some of Twitter’s bans in India seem to apply worldwide.
Whatever you might call all of this, it’s certainly not free speech absolutism — let alone anything even approaching a coherent moderation policy. Like so much else about Musk’s rule at Twitter, what is or isn’t allowed on the site at any given time ultimately seems to come down to some combination of the billionaire’s mood, his chaotic temperament, and his personal interests — commercial and otherwise.
The upshot is an environment where virtually anything can be suppressed or stifled at whim if one unfathomably wealthy man believes it should be. If Twitter is a “digital town square,” as Musk called it late last year, then it’s one now governed by a tyrannical and impulsive mayor.
If the past few months are any indication, Musk’s ownership of Twitter will probably be remembered most for the general aura of anarchy that has accompanied it — one characterized by mass layoffs, frequent breakdowns in the site’s basic operations, and the steady exodus of advertisers. In the final estimation, however, the billionaire’s most significant legacy may end up being the repressive approach he has brought to moderating a platform he pledged to make freer, more open, and more inclusive of diverse views. It should be a wake-up call to anyone who believes that moderation of a vital public platform like Twitter can be left to the whims of the market — let alone those of a fifty-one-year-old cringeposter with an inflated reputation and a fragile ego.