Elon Musk is finally learning the limits of “free speech” on Twitter.
“I tried my best,” Musk tweeted as he suspended the account of Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, after the rapper went on yet another antisemitic screed.
Ye’s account had been repeatedly penalized for antisemitic tweets dating back before Musk’s tenure as Twitter’s owner, including when he vowed to go “death con 3” [sic] on the Jewish people. “Talked to ye today & expressed my concerns about his recent tweet, which I think he took to heart,” Musk tweeted on Oct. 10.
But Musk suspended Ye’s account on Dec. 2 for violating Twitter’s rules on inciting violence, after the rapper tweeted an image of a Star of David with a Nazi swastika inside. The incitement of violence policy is the same one that Twitter’s previous management invoked in suspending Donald Trump, whose account Musk recently restored.
After taking over the platform, Musk began to learn the limits of his vision for a “public square,” as he has struggled to appease users, advertisers, app stores, and his own moral impulses.
But Ye has proved Musk’s biggest test yet, with his behavior offering another clear sign that rigorous content moderation is necessary on Twitter—even if Musk has been slow to admit it.
Musk’s free speech efforts were destined to fail
Musk, the world’s richest man, spent $44 billion to buy Twitter and instill a vision of relaxed content standards. “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy,” Musk tweeted on March 26, a month before inking a deal to buy Twitter.
Since taking over in late October, Musk has faced mounting concerns from advertisers worried about appear next to hate speech or misinformation. A report from the liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America and the ad analytics platform Pathmatics suggests that 50 out of 100 of Twitter’s biggest advertisers have stopped spending on the platform.
Twitter also has butted heads with Apple, which controls one of the two largest mobile app marketplaces outside of China, presumably over content rules. Musk claimed that Apple threatened to delist Twitter for unknown reasons before meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook and learning that Cook never considered removing Twitter. (Apple has not publicly commented on Twitter’s compliance with its rules.)
Apple has its own editorial standards that Twitter needs to adhere to, and it mandates that apps with user-generated content have comprehensive moderation and enforcement standards. If Musk wants Twitter to succeed, he’ll need to navigate Apple’s app store rules—and Google’s too.
Musk is figuring out his red lines for acceptable speech
This is not the first time Musk has indicated he has some red lines he will not allow users to cross. Despite a plan to grant “amnesty” to suspended accounts, Musk said he will never allow conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to return to Twitter, which banned him four years ago for abusive behavior toward a reporter.
Jones was recently ordered by a judge to pay more than $1 billion in damages over false and defamatory claims that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was a hoax. Asked on Twitter whether he would reinstate Jones’ account, Musk replied: “My firstborn child died in my arms. I felt his last heartbeat. I have no mercy for anyone who would use the deaths of children for gain, politics or fame.”
Musk has said he wants Twitter to allow all content that’s within the bounds of local laws. But that could never be a winning strategy. Is Twitter going to aid censorious governments with restrictive rules on acceptable speech? Musk’s plan doesn’t make much sense in the US either: the first amendment to the US Constitution protects hate speech, which for business purposes and moral reasons should never be permissible on any civilized social media platform.
In the wake of Ye’s “death con 3” tweet, Quartz wrote on Oct. 11 that “Musk is going to learn quickly that he can’t just call up all of the racists, antisemites, and authoritarian leaders tweeting garbage on his website. He needs clear rules and enforcement—or Twitter will become a cesspool of hate, spam, and garbage.”
Two months into his tenure as Twitter owner, Musk seems to be learning this.