Elon Musk Fails in Free Speech Absolutism



An account impersonating Donald Trump that paid for the blue verified check mark.

What obligations does a social media company owe to the public? Elon Musk seems to have no idea. In recent months, Musk’s purchase of and subsequent policy changes to Twitter have provoked much controversy. One of Musk’s goals is ostensibly to increase free speech on the platform at nearly all costs, yet he struggles to keep Twitter afloat in the court of public opinion. Musk’s efforts for “free speech absolutism” have resulted in hypocrisy and hate, illustrating the dangers of following through on one man’s unchecked fantasy.

First, Elon Musk’s claims of allowing free speech on Twitter ultimately prove untrue. Musk complains that Old Twitter censored news stories unfavorable to Democrats, such as an NY Post story regarding Hunter Biden’s laptop. Now, he has declared the company will institute a policy of “freedom of speech, not freedom of reach,” such that anyone can say anything, but hate speech and negative tweets will be “deboosted & demonetized.” However, this policy still falls victim to the previous policy — so long as someone with opinions is in charge of “deboosting” hate tweets, there will be bias, and the bias of previous Twitter censors will still apply. Ironically, Musk has fired several Twitter employees who criticized his changes — not a good move for someone who is trying to reduce bias. 

Regardless, users are certainly still seeing these tweets, and Musk’s new moderation system is clumsy at best. Musk has lifted bans on users for violating Twitter’s misinformation and hate speech policies in the name of free speech. Among the users returning to the platform are various white nationalists and neo-Nazis who bring their hateful messages with them. These returns combined with a smaller moderation team from recent layoffs and resignations have caused an influx of unmoderated hate speech. The New York Times reports posts containing slurs against African Americans have increased from 1,282 per day to 3,876 per day since the takeover, and the overall increase in all hate speech is the highest in Twitter’s history. 

Musk supporters argue these numbers are small in comparison to the total number of posts made on Twitter, yet any increase in hate speech — especially this increase of around 200% — can and will inspire hate crimes and other violence in the real world, directly impacting its targets. Other supporters of the new Twitter rules point out Musk banned Kanye West, but this just proves the point that even free speech idealists draw a line somewhere. Additionally, this is just a single case where Musk appears to have taken action himself. A general policy regarding this issue does not exist. 

Misleading information has also increased on Twitter. Musk’s new Twitter Blue service allows just anyone to buy a verified blue check mark next to their name, conveying a sense of authority. Previously, accounts needed to go through a process of verification to receive these check marks. Just the existence of the blue check mark adds a degree of ethos to the account’s tweets, meaning authenticity can just be bought out.

Twitter’s advertisers provide a bellwether of public reception to these changes. Simply put, advertisers generally do not want their companies on a platform flooded with hate speech and misinformation. It creates negative associations with the brand. Misinformation also impacts businesses: a fake account impersonating pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly tweeted that insulin is free, leading to a 4.37% drop in the company’s stock. These factors explain why half of Twitter’s top 100 advertisers left the platform in the month following Musk’s takeover. High-profile figures, including Elton John, Jim Carrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Shonda Rhimes have also left for similar reasons.

Free speech absolutism sounds like a pretty idea, but Musk’s Twitter demonstrates the infeasibility of absolute free speech. The truth is, no one wants to browse a platform of hate speech and misinformation, and Musk’s savior complex has changed Twitter for the worse.