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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Elon Musk, self-described 'free speech absolutist,' limits free speech since taking over Twitter

Billionaire tech tycoon Elon Musk caused intense consternation among the political class and the legacy media last year when he revealed his intention to buy Twitter. 

Musk was once widely embraced by liberals particularly for his innovation in electric vehicles. He was adored by the left so much so that he was invited to host “Saturday Night Live” in 2021.

However, attitudes changed toward the business icon when he began teasing the notion of buying Twitter and floating idea of what he would do if he were in charge, like reinstating former President Trump’s account, something Democrats and the press decried. 

Musk, who proudly described himself as a “free speech absolutist,” repeatedly vocalized that his north star for Twitter is treating the platform as a public square and upholding freedom of expression, something conservatives celebrated as puncturing a hole in an industry dominated by the progressive left. 

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One of his boldest actions as the Twitter boss was restoring the accounts of many users who were stuck in “Twitter Jail.” In addition to Trump, Musk allowed back a slew of political and cultural personalities including popular Canadian psychologist and author Jordan Peterson, far-right activist Laura Loomer, pro-Trump meme creator Carpe Donktum, the liberal Krassenstein Brothers as well as the conservative satirical outlet The Babylon Bee, whose suspension allegedly inspired Musk to take over Twitter in the first place. 

Musk also attempted to show transparency by granting a select group of journalists access to what was dubbed the “Twitter Files,” which were company archives that shed light on controversial decisions that were made behind the scenes like suspending Trump’s account to suppressing the Hunter Biden laptop story during the 2020 election. The Twitter Files also exposed the company’s cozy relationship with the federal government and its effort to moderate content as well as the shadowbanning of prominent conservatives, something Twitter’s former CEO Jack Dorsey denied to Congress under oath.

Twitter owner Elon Musk, a self-described "free speech absolutist," has been criticized for continuing the old regime's practice of limiting content.

Twitter owner Elon Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” has been criticized for continuing the old regime’s practice of limiting content. (Getty Images)

But his record as a “free speech absolutist” came into question in December when a group of Twitter users, many of them journalists, were suspended for allegedly violating a newly-implemented “doxxing” policy that was created in response to an account called “@ElonJet” that exclusively tracked Musk’s private jet usage based on public data that’s on a time delay, which he blamed for an alleged stalking incident that occurred. Journalists who reported on the account’s suspension were suspended themselves. Musk initially defended the ban but reinstated their accounts following tense backlash. 

“Elon had previously said, ‘Look how pro-free speech I am! I allow this troll to use the platform to monitor me.’ And then he completely did a 180 and banned the guy and said, ‘It’s not free speech, it’s doxxing,'” BASEDPolitics editor-in-chief Brad Polumbo told Fox News Digital. “And so to see him do a complete 180 on something like that in such a short period of time was a real red flag for me.”

Polumbo was among many libertarian and conservative commentators who cheered on Musk’s takeover of Twitter when he first revealed his ambition to control the company in April 2022 when he became its largest shareholder. 

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“I thought the idea of him buying Twitter was really exciting,” Polumbo said. “Somebody would take over one of these platforms and actually allow free speech and show them how it’s done. And that’s why I feel a little betrayed by Elon because he got our hopes up that he would be different. And then he’s doing a lot of the same stuff that the other big tech companies do, censoring and colluding with governments and enacting personal bias in the decision-making of content moderation, all the same stuff we wanted him to change.”

“The previous regime had been heavily censorious with a very clear liberal bent. And I’m somebody who believes that social media companies should be robust platforms for all viewpoints and free flow of information. I very much believe in the free marketplace of ideas. But Elon, while he talked the talk, he has not walked the walk,” he added. 

Polumbo seemed to exhaust his hope in Musk with a tweet from Monday that read “I will openly admit that I got Elon Musk wrong. I fell for his spin and empty promises. He has turned out to be a tremendous disappointment.”

It was in reaction to Musk’s drastic suppression of content from the popular newsletter subscription service Substack, not allowing users to like, retweet, or reply to links of articles from the platform he considered a “competitor,” even pushing an “unsafe” warning label for those who click the links. He had accused Substack of using Twitter’s code to develop a similar program called Substack Notes (Substack denied such charges). 

“The fact that he would even do something like that- I mean, you’re talking about a massive journalism platform, and you’re blocking it from your free speech platform that is all over a business dispute you have with the company—you don’t like a new product they’re launching because you think it’s a competitor that is totally anathema to the spirit of free speech,” Polumbo said. 

Following a firestorm of criticism, Musk reversed those actions though it will not promote Substack content in its “For You” feed unless it’s with paid advertising.

Content from the popular newsletter subscription service Substack was heavily suppressed on Twitter, a move Musk rolled back following public uproar.

Content from the popular newsletter subscription service Substack was heavily suppressed on Twitter, a move Musk rolled back following public uproar. (Substack)

Polumbo knocked Musk for permanently banning Kanye West, who Musk alleged violated Twitter’s policy on inciting violence for posting an image of Nazi swastika inside a Jewish star (that post came weeks after the rapper was locked out of his account for his “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE” tweet). Polumbo called the swastika tweet “horrible” but argued “hate speech is free speech” and that Musk’s claim that the tweet incited violence was a “made up pretense” to ban the controversial artist.

He also swiped the billionaire after Twitter complied with Indian government earlier this year to removed content from a BBC documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, something Musk claimed was “not aware” of what had transpired. 

‘It’s Hunter Biden all over again’

Sean Davis, the CEO and co-founder of The Federalist, had longstanding issues with Twitter, particularly since his account was shadowbanned in the pre-Musk era and was only restored after fellow conservative Robby Starbuck vouched for him in an appeal to the billionaire owner, though he told Fox News Digital he believes his account is still being impacted based on the lack of visibility his tweets currently receive compared to before. 

But his frustration with Twitter reached a boiling point following last month’s mass shooting in Nashville, where a trans shooter murdered six people at a private Christian school, including three children. Davis tweeted an article published days prior about a scheduled “Trans Day of Vengeance” event being held that weekend, suggesting a potential motive for the massacre. 

Days later, he was locked out of his account for allegedly “violating [Twitter’s] rules against violent speech.” Other journalists including Polumbo and prominent conservatives like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., were similarly punished for sounding the alarm on the viral poster for the upcoming event (it was later canceled).

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Both Davis and Polumbo told Fox News Digital their appeals to Twitter were immediately denied. Polumbo ultimately deleted the tweet to get back on the platform while Davis’s account was later unlocked after Starbuck called out Twitter for its blanket ban on conservative users. 

Davis and Polumbo also said this was the first time either of them were locked out of their accounts, something they never experienced in the pre-Musk Twitter. 

It was then when Davis declared in a headline published in The Federalist “Twitter Cannot Be Saved. It’s Time For Free Speech Proponents To Let It Die.” 

“I never glorify violence. I don’t incite violence. I reported an obvious fact that unfortunately, it was really, really inconvenient for the entire trans movement,” Davis told Fox News Digital.

Several Twitter users, including The Federalist CEO Sean Davis, were locked out of their accounts for reacting to the "Trans Day of Vengeance" following last month's mass shooting in Nashville. 

Several Twitter users, including The Federalist CEO Sean Davis, were locked out of their accounts for reacting to the “Trans Day of Vengeance” following last month’s mass shooting in Nashville.  (TRAN Twitter/Screenshot)

Davis compared the indiscriminate punishing of accounts decrying the “Trans Day of Vengeance” to Twitter banning the New York Post’s reporting on the Hunter Biden laptop during the 2020 presidential election, telling Fox News Digital, “It’s Hunter Biden all over again.” 

“I actually like Elon a lot. I think he’s probably one of the most impressive businessmen in history… But, I mean, at some point you have to judge a tree by its fruit. It’s 2023. And the exact same thing that happened to conservatives has happened during the New York Post-Hunter Biden laptop debacle,” Davis said. 

Davis recalled a tweet from Musk in November when he announced Twitter’s new policy was “freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach,” telling users “negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized” and that “You won’t find the tweet unless you specifically seek it out.”

“Any time you get into that, it’s totalitarianism. You can dress it up however you like… it’s tyranny,” Davis said. 

The Federalist CEO also called out Ella Irwin, Twitter’s vice president in trust and safety who was outspoken in defending its actions in cracking down on users who shared the “Trans Day of Vengeance” poster regardless of the context from various users.

“I know [Musk has] fired a ton of people, but he clearly hasn’t fired nearly enough,” Davis said. “People like her and people who I’m sure are still crawling all over that place just waiting for [Musk] to leave so they can get back to business as usual- they all have to go.”

“But even if that happens, as long as he is endorsing this ‘speech, not reach’ concept and Twitter has no value because if the company can just arbitrarily shut off people’s reach and access whenever they have in someone’s political sensibilities, that is not a platform that I think anyone on the right will have any interest in participating in,” Davis added. 

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Ford Fischer, an independent journalist and documentarian who runs the YouTube channel News2Share, had similar problems with pre-Musk Twitter when his account was shadowbanned after he shared footage he captured from the Jan. 6 Capitol riot on the platform. 

Fischer told Fox News Digital he was “cautiously optimistic” at first about Musk’s takeover of Twitter and while he “has improved certain elements of the platform,” he saw other actions as being “totally contradictory” to the free speech stance Musk once touted. Fischer pointed to Musk’s decision in December to ban promotional posts from other social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Mastodon.

That, Fischer says, was a sign that if content was seen as impacting the profitability of Twitter, Musk was willing to drop free speech absolutism. 

“I think I’ve seen Elon instead change censorship so that certain categories like hate speech are more liberalized for sure, but some enforcement actions like banning journalists who link to sources with public info and calling that ‘doxxing’ actually feel a lot more arbitrary and inequitable,” Fischer continued. “The solution to censorship of one side isn’t to censor the other side; it’s just to be a truly public square.” 

Fischer also took issue with Musk’s Twitter polls which have left it up to users to decide whether certain accounts are allowed back like the one he conducted for Trump, telling Fox News Digital “The problem is the implication that censorship would be justified if most people favored it.”

‘Thin-skinned’

Much like his conservative and libertarian fan base, Musk has an adversarial relationship with the legacy media. And has pulled the levers of power as the owner of Twitter to essentially “troll” certain news organizations.

Earlier this month, Musk removed The New York Times’ verified check mark, calling the paper “propaganda.” Days later, he slapped NPR with a “US state-affiliated media” label since it receives government funding. The label had traditionally been applied to state-run media outlets in foreign autocracies, like Russia’s RT and China’s Xinhua. Following criticism from the left, Musk changed NPR’s label to “Government-funded Media.” NPR announced Tuesday it was quitting Twitter as a result. 

Twitter’s official press email address now responds to inquiries with an autoreply of the poop emoji, which was sent to Fox News Digital when asked to comment on this story. 

But it’s not just establish press he has clashed with since his takeover of Twitter. 

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In targeting Substack, Musk fueled a riff with independent journalist Matt Taibbi, one of the Twitter Files reporters he tapped to uncover the skeletons in Twitter’s closet. Before Musk’s reversal, Taibbi had told his followers he was dumping Twitter since his livelihood came from subscriptions to his Substack newsletter. In doing so, Taibbi acknowledged his future reporting on the Twitter Files could be in doubt for taking such a stance.

Musk further escalated tensions when he leaked his private conversation with Taibbi on Twitter. The screenshots showed Taibbi questioning Musk if he was being personally targeted on the platform and Musk pressing Taibbi whether he was “employed” by Substack (Taibbi was formerly a Substack Pro contributor and receives money from individual Substack subscribers but was never a Substack employee). Musk later deleted the tweet but not before others preserved their heated exchange. 

He had a similar falling out with Bari Weiss, another independent journalist he tapped to report on the Twitter Files. Her sin was speaking out against Musk’s decision to ban journalists covering the “ElonJet” saga in December. Musk took a swipe at Weiss in response, tweeting “Rather than rigorously pursuing truth, you are virtue-signaling to show that you are ‘good’ in the eyes of media elite to keep one foot in both worlds.” He then unfollowed her Twitter account and according to Weiss restricted her access to the Twitter Files.

In other words, the “free speech absolutist” turned on Taibbi and Weiss for advocating for free speech principles.

Twitter Files journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss had a falling out with Elon Musk for defending free speech principles.

Twitter Files journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss had a falling out with Elon Musk for defending free speech principles. (Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage, Bari Weiss)

Fourth Watch media critic Steve Krakauer told Fox News Digital, “Like many people who spend too much time on Twitter, Elon isn’t immune to being thin-skinned and putting far too much weight in the bubble that is Twitter.”

“He’s easily provoked, and he makes rash decisions that are more personal than business,” Krakauer said. “And much of the way he’s dealt with those who criticize him show that his promise of free speech principles has left him conflicted – whether to stand by his principles that he touts or to deviate from them in order to serve other agendas, often petty fights that he’s in at the time.”

Krakauer, author of the book “Uncovered: How the Media Got Cozy with Power, Abandoned Its Principles, and Lost the People,” said he had “high hopes” for Musk’s takeover of Twitter and that he’s “still overall bullish” on Twitter’s future with Musk at the helm despite some “clear speed bumps.”

“I still think Twitter is better off with him leading the way than the regime that was there before, and it could be vastly worse,” Krakauer said. “Twitter isn’t led by easily impressionable, suppression-loving anti-speech activists like it was before. And that’s a good thing in the long run, even if the path isn’t always smooth.”

Polumbo disagreed, telling Fox News Digital that Twitter has gotten “worse” under Musk’s watch, citing frequent “technical glitches” he believes are the result of the mass layoffs that transpired at its San Francisco headquarters in addition to the “chaotic” actions he has taken. 

“I think on net, Twitter is worse now under Elon Musk than it was before,” Polumbo said. “[I’m] not saying it can’t get better in the future, but right now I would say it is worse.”

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Fischer told Fox News Digital “it’s really hard to say” whether things on Twitter have gotten better or worse under Musk.

“I think it is better that Elon seems fundamentally interested in improving transparency around the algorithm, for example… I also am very excited by Elon’s promise to add monetization ad-sharing features for content creators. That hasn’t happened yet, but would be a huge benefit to creators like me,” Fischer explained. “I do think the element that’s worse is that Elon has introduced a few new and sometimes unpredictable censorship measures such as punishing some outgoing links, and penalizing publicly available flight data.”

When asked whether Twitter has gotten better or worse under Musk, Davis cited his own engagement numbers, which have not seen an improvement since he took over despite no longer technically being shadowbanned and the fact that he had never been locked out of his account until last month. 

“And when the entire value of your platform is your ability to reach large numbers of people and that’s your whole value, you simply cannot exist as a free speech forum by limiting people’s reach. It’s nonsensical,” Davis told Fox News Digital. 

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