Musk's 'free speech' Twitter vision put to test by Ye

Elon Musk’s vision for a Twitter that allows any and all content was put to the test Thursday by rapper Ye’s tweet featuring a swastika. 

Musk has forged ahead with his plans to create a so-called free speech platform in the month since he took over Twitter as part of a $44 billion acquisition — removing the COVID-19 misinformation policy, cutting key staff and replatforming banned accounts. But his decision to suspend Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, highlights the tightrope Musk is walking between appeasing his supporters who welcome his “free speech” vision and running a viable social media site. 

“I think [Musk] saw a moment to try and work the room to say, ‘look what I did. I stopped the swastika,’” said Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters for America. 

The decision was made in an ad hoc manner and with special treatment for Ye, Carusone said. Before he was suspended, Ye tweeted a screenshot with a text from Musk saying, “Sorry, but you have gone too far. This is not love.” 

“This isn’t a system-wide thing and it doesn’t change the fact that there’s no policy framework in place or enforcement mechanism on cracking down on this type of hate,” Carusone said. 

Now, Musk is facing backlash from both his critics and his supporters. Twitter users who back his plans for minimal content moderation blasted him for suspending Ye and giving into the “woke mob.” At the same time, critics pressing Musk to reinstate Twitter’s content moderation policies said the seemingly ad hoc decision regarding the single celebrity doesn’t counteract the fact that other right-wing extremists are able to use the platform to organize and spread hate. 

“This isn’t really about Elon Musk or Kanye West. This is about a system that’s not being properly managed,” said Jessica González, co-CEO of the advocacy group Free Press. 

“Was it right for him to suspend Kanye West? Yes, but it shouldn’t take a swastika for us to get there,” she added. 

Less than three weeks after Musk reinstated Ye’s account, which was banned under Twitter’s previous leadership after Ye posted other antisemitic messages, the rapper tested the bounds of what he could now say under Musk’s rule. The limit appeared to come in the form of tweeting a swastika, following an antisemitic rant Ye went on during an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

“We need a comprehensive system that’s enforced across the board, across languages, across regions — and these ad hoc decisions, while I do think this is the right decision, it gives me no peace of mind because I don’t see rules being applied across the board,” González said.  

Musk told a user who pleaded with him to “FIX KANYE PLEASE,” that he “tried [his] best,” but Ye “again violated our rule against incitement to violence” and his account will be suspended.

Ye’s suspension, though, doesn’t appear to be representative of how Twitter is handling other hate speech, based on data compiled by advocacy groups that shows its rising prevalence on the platform since Musk became CEO.

Musk said that impressions on hate speech on Twitter decreased since he took over the company at the end of October. He tweeted a graph Friday illustrating the supposed decrease, similar to one he tweeted in mid-November showing the dip. But the graph, and Musk’s tweet, lacks information about the data or analysis Twitter used to reach that conclusion. 

The Hill reached out to Twitter for comment. 

The Center For Countering Digital Hate said research compiled using data from Brandwatch found that in fact hate speech increased on Twitter under Musk’s leadership. In the week leading up to Musk’s first tweet of the graph showing the supposed decrease in impressions with hate speech, the center found triple the rate of tweets using the “N” word compared to the month before Musk’s takeover, and an increase of up to 31 percent for other derogatory terms aimed at Jewish people and members of the LGBTQ community. 

The Anti-Defamation League also found an increase in antisemitic content on Twitter and a decrease in the moderation of antisemitic posts since Musk’s takeover.

Carusone said Musk’s suspension on Ye is an example of exactly the kind of behavior Musk and his supporters were critical of: a seemingly arbitrary decision made on one account. 

Carusone said Musk is trying to use this one example of action taken as he tries to court advertisers back onto Twitter, especially since the decision came after Ye’s Infowars interview, during which the rapper praised Hitler and Nazis, among a number of other antisemitic comments.

“[Musk] knows the spotlight is on him, he’s trying to think about revenue, and so what does he do? He takes the moment … he gets to get out there and take this action,” Carusone said. 

Musk appeared to brush off the criticism Friday, arguing that the backlash from opposite sides indicates the suspension is a sign of Twitter “being fair.”

“You know Twitter is being fair when extremists on far right and far left are simultaneously upset!,” he tweeted. 

But he’s still facing an exodus of advertisers, which have historically made up the vast majority of Twitter’s revenue. Since Musk took over the company, half of Twitter’s top advertisers appear to have halted their activity on the platform, according to a Media Matters report published last week. 

Media Matters and Free Press are among a coalition of advocacy groups leading a campaign urging advertisers to halt ads on Twitter based on changes Musk made. 

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Twitter is offering advertisers incentives to increase their spending, including offers to match spending with a 100 percent value for those who book at least $500,000 in incremental spending.

“I think the pressure he is feeling is demonstrated by the dramatic action that Twitter is taking simultaneous to this with advertisers,” Carusone said.