Elon Musk, a vindictive billionaire who has taken extreme steps to silence his critics, is suggesting not only that Twitter violates principals of free speech, but that the company’s decision to moderate abusive content is a direct threat to democracy.
The multi-day saga began in the early hours of March 25th. “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy,” he wrote. “Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” The Tesla founder included a poll where his followers could vote ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ In a follow-up, he added, “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the framing, about 70% of people clicked ‘no.’ So on March 26th, Musk retweeted his unscientific poll with an open-ended question: “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?” He added in a subsequent tweet, “Is a new platform needed?”
This is not the first time Musk has virtue signaled about free speech. Earlier this month he defended carrying Russian propaganda on his internet system Starlink, saying, “Sorry to be a free speech absolutist.”
But anyone who’s followed Musk over the years knows that this is a whopper of a lie. He’s a firm believer in his own right to, say, compare the Canadian Prime Minister to Hitler or share transphobic memes to get back at his ex-partner. But when it comes to other people criticizing Musk, he takes steps that would land many poorer people in jail.
In 2018, he set out to destroy the life of a whistleblower at Tesla. A man who worked on an assembly line had told Business Insider that a manufacturing mixup had cost the company about $150 million. The news caused a mild ripple in Tesla’s stock price, and Musk declared war. He didn’t just sue the man for $167 million; Tesla’s PR department spread rumors that the man was a homicidal maniac on the payroll of Musk’s competitors, and Tesla’s security department put in a tip to police that he was planning a mass shooting, leading the sheriff’s department to come to the man’s home. The company also spread an unfounded rumor that the journalist who had reported the story had doled out bribes.
This is hardly an isolated incident. Musk personally cancelled a client’s Tesla order after complaining that the man had been “super-rude” in a blog post, and fired an Autopilot employee who posted mostly positive reviews on his private YouTube channel but showed the Tesla occasionally malfunctioning. This is part of a long history of terminating people’s employment in a state of rage.
He also sent a threatening letter to The New York Times objecting to unfavorable coverage, writing, “If anything like this happens again, please consider [your] relationship with Tesla to end immediately upon publication of such a piece.” It’s a curious kind of “free speech absolutist” that defends carrying Russian propaganda but tries to silence American newspapers.
Ultimately, Musk isn’t immune to the consequences of his actions. Many, many Black Tesla employees have described a culture of racism, so that Musk now has to contend with a lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. And his history of COVID denialism has come back to bite him, too. On March 28th, Musk tweeted that after previously catching COVID in 2020, he had caught it once again, writing, ” I supposedly have it again (sigh), but almost no symptoms.” Check out his tweets about Twitter, free speech, and COVID-19 below.
The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.Advertisement
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 25, 2022
Is a new platform needed?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 26, 2022
Covid-19 is the virus of Theseus.
How many gene changes before it’s not Covid-19 anymore?
I supposedly have it again (sigh), but almost no symptoms.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 28, 2022