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.