Since Elon Musk, the tech CEO, billionaire, and self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” took over Twitter in October 2022 for $44 billion, the site seems to have become the center of a never-ending swell of toxicity, controversy, and jank. The site’s own headlines have become major news—like the recent appointment of Linda Yaccarino as CEO or when photos of animal torture appear in simple searches—but a little over six months after the purchase, Musk’s own erratic behavior and wishy-washy code of ethics get a lot of the justly deserved spotlight.
Specifically this week, free speech is at the heart of Twitter discourse. Elon has been feathering himself up as a champion of free speech, in order to spew his own controversial political takes, all the while caving to demands from the Turkish government to censor political dissidents. Strap into your spaceship and hold on tight, we are in for a bumpier ride than a SpaceX launch.
Master of magnetism or mediocrity?
On Monday, Twitter’s main character Musk tweeted “Soros reminds me of Magneto” seemingly out of nowhere.
Magneto, a Marvel Comics character, is often depicted as a Jewish supervillain who survived the Holocaust and now wants to twist global events to make way for mutants to inherit the earth. George Soros, a billionaire known for supporting liberal political causes and being a boogeyman for conservatives, is also a Holocaust survivor, who has been accused, in often antisemitic phrasing by conspiracy theorists, of being part of a global cabal that influences a new world order.
When journalist Brian Krassenstein responded to Musk that Soros “gets attacked nonstop for his good intentions which some Americans think are bad merely because they disagree with this political affiliation,” Musk doubled down and said that “Soros hates humanity.” Coincidentally, it turns out Musk’s comments come right after the Soros’ family office sold their entire stake of Tesla stock on Monday.
Now Soros can’t move metal with his mind and has never lived in a meteor orbiting Earth (at least to my knowledge), but the comparison does read as insensitive at its simplest, and completely antisemitic at its worst. It pushes the “New World Order” conspiracy theory that Jews run a secret organization that wants to eliminate those outside the tribe.
While criticisms of billionaire Soros’ level of wealth and specific financial choices are acceptable, this kind of rhetoric is blatantly inflammatory to the army of right-wing trolls and antisemites waiting in the wings on Twitter—and it isn’t the only rhetorical nod Musk has been giving to the alt-right this week.
Musk tweeted quite a lot on Tuesday, which included militaristic Pepe memes, pushing conspiracy theories about the Allen, Texas shooter, calling San Francisco a “derelict zombie apocalypse,” replying “accurate” to a racist meme claiming that the media promotes white on Black crime. In response to these comments, creators are drawing comparisons between Musk and another supervillain—the evil, Nazi-inspired character Red Skull.
When asked about the day’s tweets in an interview with CNBC, Musk called himself a “prosemite” and said, “I’ll say what I want to say, and if the consequence of that is losing money, so be it.”
On May 12, Twitter announced that they “have taken action to restrict access to some content in Turkey today” in response to a court order from the country’s government. This came on the heels of an incredibly important Turkish presidential election that will have a runoff vote on May 21. Hypocritically, just hours before that announcement, Musk tweeted that he is “adamant about defending free speech, even if it means losing money.”
Days later on May 15, he maintained Twitter is the most pro-free-speech company out there. Meanwhile, on the same day, Twitter’s Global Government Affairs account claimed that four accounts and 409 tweets were deleted at the request of the Turkish government.
In response to some pushback to this censorship from Bloomberg columnist Matthew Yglesias, Musk went for the jugular, writing, “Did your brain fall out of your head, Yglesias? The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?”
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been in power for two decades and has used social media to further his reign. In October, Turkey’s ruling party passed a law where five-year sentences can be handed out to anyone their government feels is posting “information that is inaccurate” in ways that “disrupt Turkey’s domestic and external security.”
According to Musk himself, there’s a limit on how far free speech goes, tweeting in April 2022 that he is “against censorship that goes far beyond the law.” When those in power can create their laws, censorship is inevitable, especially on Twitter.
Turkish creators have been outspoken about the ban. Enes Kanter Freedom, a former NBA player from Turkey told CNN, “I don’t want to hear about Elon Musk talking about free speech ever again. He’s literally bowing down to a dictatorship.”
Other countries have attempted to push their weight around to silence dissent on social media. Russia began restricting access to Facebook in February, with Meta sharing support for Russians that continue to use their apps. Twitter in the past blocked certain tweets for other governments, including Israel, Pakistan, and India. Even Turkey tried to silence Twitter in 2014—Erdoğan told Twitter to remove some tweets critical to the government, but the site refused, causing it to be banned in the country until their courts overturned the ruling.
Social media is a massive component and key political tool for movements around the world. During the Arab Spring protests of 2011, sites like Facebook and Twitter carried the message of the protestors which spread from Tunisia all across the Arab world. When Musk folded, he told every other dictator and fascist that they could now stifle dissent in their own countries by subpoenaing the company.
But even in the wake of undeniable censorship, there is still a strong contingent of Musk supporters that can say what they want and even get recognition from their emperor. Controversial Malaysian blogger Ian Miles Cheong, transphobic account LibsofTikTok, and a near-constant stream of right-leaning personalities all receive consistent praise, endorsement, and replies from Musk. This pushes their accounts to an even larger audience—Musk’s 140 million Twitter followers.
When Tucker Carlson, the king of right-leaning commentary, was ousted by Fox News in April 2023 after a damning lawsuit over misinformation from the Dominion Voting System cost the company $787.5 million, he needed to find a new home. And on May 9, he announced that he would be moving away from a traditional news outlet to restart his show on the blue bird app.
In a tweet, Musk clarified that Twitter and Carlson had not “signed a deal of any kind whatsoever. Carlson is subject to the same rules & rewards of all content creators.” But with Musk constantly retweeting conspiracy theories and thinly-veiled racism, it’s unclear if Carlson will say anything to get banned for. Carlson’s ideologies and fear-mongering should fit right in.
For creators outside that political spectrum, Twitter has become a bit of a liability. Advertisers are fleeing from the site in droves, with over half of Twitter’s top 1,000 advertisers before the acquisition stopping advertising on the platform, according to Vox.
When blue checkmarks transformed from a verification system into a paid monthly service, it inadvertently created a market rife with imposters and paid replies that get pushed to the top of conversations. If your fans can’t find you and you have to sift through waves of pay pigs to find any useful engagement, it doesn’t seem worth it.
Not everything Musk has done is bad for creators. A new subscription program is slowly being rolled out, allowing creators to put content behind a paywall and earn revenue from it. But it currently isn’t available in the United States, and furthermore, its terms of service for the program demand creators implement two-factor authentification, which is only available for Twitter Blue users. It also includes questionable language stating there is “no guarantee of subscription revenue” from the program.
“You agree that we will not be liable to you, and you will not assert that we are liable to you, based on the sale of Subscriptions to access your account, including for any share of the revenue we earn from the sale of Subscriptions,” its terms vaguely state.
Overall, Musk created an environment where he reigns supreme and his ideology runs the platform. It’s allowed hate speech and conspiracy theories to run rampant, while those peddling mistruths get rewarded. For creators and viewers alike, it may be time to jump ship.