On Elon Musk and Free Speech


Elon Musk’s recent take over of Twitter has been turbulent, to say the least. His mass firing of Twitter staff, his granting and revoking of the gray “official” checkmark and the ever-looming threat of an $8/month subscription fee for verification have all made Twitter a chaotic (and, to be honest, worse) app. However, the most disturbing change that Musk has made, at least in my opinion, has been the implementation of policies that allow for what he calls “free speech.” 

In Musk’s mind, content moderation (i.e. the screening and blocking of things like hate speech) is a form of censorship and, therefore, unjust. Therefore, Musk has taken it upon himself to ensure the people their right to freedom of speech by limiting content moderation on Twitter. His logic is flawed in two ways. First of all, while it is true that freedom of expression is protected from government censorship, those protections do not exist in the private sphere. Businesses have the right to restrict speech as they see fit. 

Secondly, freedom of expression is not an unlimited “free pass” to say whatever one wishes. International human rights law dictates that speech that advocates “national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”  Meaning that even if Twitter were obliged to uphold freedom of expression to the extent that the government does, hate speech would not be included as one of the forms of protected speech. 

The fact that Musk’s “free speech” ideology makes no sense whatsoever has not stopped him from implementing it. The effects of lifted restrictions were immediate as slurs and various other forms of hate speech were tweeted en masse. I can only imagine that this is what Musk had been hoping for. 

Musk’s free speech absolutism is a dangerous thing. Just recently, we have seen the ways in which hateful rhetoric online can bleed into the real world. Directly after Kanye West (who now goes by “Ye”) made antisemitic remarks on Twitter (including one particularly vitriolic tweet claiming that Ye would “go death con 3 on Jewish people”), demonstrators in California stood by a sign that read, “Kanye is right about the Jews” while doing Nazi salutes. This shows that allowing for the spread of hateful rhetoric online can manifest itself in tangible and scary ways.