The good and the bad of Elon Musk's first 40 days owning Twitter
He's grappling with his own vision for free speech - and pressure from advertisers and Europe. He would be better off sticking to First (Amendment) principles. Then again, it's not my $44 billion.
For a glorious moment two weeks ago, Elon Musk seemed to remember why he had bought Twitter.
On Nov. 23, Twitter said it would stop enforcing its Covid “misinformation” policies. Those rules had led it to ban thousands of users, including me in August 2021. (Among the tweets that led to my ban was one that simply reported accurately on the results of Pfizer’s own vaccine clinical trial.)
The next day, Musk promised an “amnesty” to users suspended for breaking Covid or other Twitter rules.
Musk made the announcement following a poll in which he asked users to vote on what he called a “general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam.” In other words, nearly every suspended account would be eligible for revival. More than 3 million votes were cast, with 72 percent favored reinstating banned accounts.
The people have spoken.
(SPEECH IS FREE, BUT UNREPORTED TRUTHS ARE WORTH PAYING FOR!)
The promise of “general amnesty” marked a sharp turn for Musk.
After he took control of Twitter on Oct. 27, he had tried to assuage leftists censorship promoters by promising a content moderation “council” to help decide what users and speech would be acceptable. He publicly praised Yoel Roth, who as head of Twitter’s “Trust and Safety” division had been a top censor - as well as an open Democratic partisan.
But when Roth quit anyway, and the criticism from the left didn’t stop or even slow down, Musk seemed to recognize he couldn’t surrender to censorship.
The "general amnesty” announcement led to all the usual screaming from all the usual suspects. Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz, who has made a career out of covering and creating online hysteria, wrote that “Many predict the restoration of banned accounts will help bring on [a] “free-for-all hellscape.” (“Many predict/say” is the formulation that reporters use when they want to editorialize in what are supposedly news stories.)
Naturally, I was thrilled. That night, I tweeted:
But in the two weeks since the announcement, Musk has not kept his promise.
Not only has he not moved forward with a broad amnesty, he has continued to ban high-profile and large accounts from mRNA vaccine skeptics like Dr. Robert Malone or Naomi Wolf.
(To be clear, I think Malone and Wolf are overly alarmist. In a recent interview, Wolf said “people are literally the equivalent of being fed into ovens” in Covid vaccine campaigns. No, they aren’t, not literally and not figuratively. Rhetoric like Wolf’s does not help those of us trying to raise reasonable questions about the mRNA shots. But what I - or anyone - thinks of Wolf’s rhetoric is irrelevant. I have every right to tell you I disagree with her, but I don’t have any right to keep her from speaking.)
Further, after allowing Kanye “Ye” West back on Twitter, Musk banned him again after Ye tweeted this image during his “I like Hitler” meltdown last week.
In merging a Star of David and a swastika, the image conflates Jews and their Nazi killers. It is despicable.
But it isn’t a direct incitement to violence against any individual, or even against Jews in general.
It simply offended Musk.
What Musk does not seem to understand at the core is that having one very rich man make decisions about who is allowed on Twitter or what they are allowed to say is no better than having an army of company-paid hall monitors calling themselves “Trust and Safety” experts do the same.
If we’re going to tolerate speech we don’t like, we’re going to have to tolerate speech we don’t like. Whoever owns Twitter, it needs to be regulated and operate as as a “common carrier” that has both liability protection from and very, very limited ability to censor the messages it carries.
Harassment or doxxing directed at individuals, death threats, child and revenge pornography, criminal conspiracies - the same speech that is civilly or criminally liable offline should be subject to Twitter censorship. Nothing else.
What Musk also doesn’t understand is that this simple principle can be a bedrock - one that enables him to stand up to European bureaucrats and media critics and skittish advertisers alike.
I believe in free speech and debate; Twitter is an American company and the First Amendment is at the core of what it means to be American and the antidote to bad speech is good speech and I will not bend the knee for any country or advertiser that does not agree. If you want to ban us, ban us. If you don’t want to advertise on us, don’t advertise on us.
Instead he is caught betwixt and between, making up the rules as he goes along.
It’s still early. Musk hasn’t even owned Twitter for six weeks. He can still keep his promise of amnesty. He can still make Twitter the open town square it needs to be.
Let’s hope he does.