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Elon Musk Just Gave Us a Clearer Look at What He Means by ‘Free Speech’ and It’s Awful

In closeup, a white hand holds a cell phone open to Elon Musk's Twitter profile.

Since multi-billionaire Elon Musk began talking about buying Twitter, he claimed it was in the interest of “free speech”—that he was going to “liberate” the platform from “censorship.” But those are incredibly vague terms and while a lot of bigots and conspiracy theorists are already celebrating what they see as a personal, preemptive win, it’s yet to be seen what exactly he intends to do.

But in a message posted Tuesday afternoon, which is currently his pinned tweet, he gave us our best look yet at what he thinks that “liberation” looks like, and it’s not great.

First, he accused those not celebrating his acquisition of the platform as an “extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech” which is just a massive generalization. But hey, that’s his “free speech” at play, I guess!

He followed that up, writing, “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”

This is, in short, total nonsense. First of all, Musk has already contradicted himself and his views of free speech by promising to ban bots from the site.

I would love to have fewer/no spam bots on the site but they are not against the law, meaning Musk is already—already!—veering into “free speech unless it’s something I don’t like” territory.

Not that that’s new for him. He’s been very strongly opposed to free speech in the past when that speech is critical of him or when it threatens his business.

(Both of those threads are worth clicking through to read in full.)

Additionally, Musk’s insistence that a company or community should not have any guidelines beyond the law is such a weird way to view the issue at hand. Musk writes that “If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect” but literally no one is asking for less free speech in terms of laws, we just don’t want to have to put up with Nazis and racists on a social media platform. It’s just such a bad faith argument to say those have to be the same thing.

(Also, Musk declines to use an article before government so will Twitter in every country conform to America’s laws or will the terms of service vary based on location? And if it’s the former, then how are foreign users supposed to “ask government” to change the laws? None of this seems very well thought out!)

On top of all of this, the perception Musk is projecting of Twitter as a free-speech-squashing censorship-fest, that’s far from reality.

TechDirt’s Mike Masnick provides receipts:

Twitter’s legal team has been one of the most aggressive (if not the single most aggressive) companies in defending the privacy and free speech rights of its users. From early on, when various entities both private and public have sought to unmask anonymous Twitter users, the company has gone out of its way to defend the right to anonymity and to push back on questionable subpoenas that seek to unmask people over 1st Amendment protected speech.

The company also spent years fighting for its own 1st Amendment rights to reveal when governments demand information from companies, something it chose to do alone, after all the other big internet companies reached a settlement with the DOJ over what they would reveal regarding government demands for information.

That is what protecting free speech actually looks like. There are obviously a lot of things wrong with Twitter but Musk’s obsession with “censorship” isn’t really one of them. And it’s very clear that the only thing he’s interested in in terms of censorship “liberation” is letting bigots run free.

(image: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.