Elon Musk rose to the top of Twitter by promoting free speech, catering to a fan base that demanded he reinstated the accounts of controversial users who had been suspended or permanently removed for violating its hate speech rules.
Weeks after he won his ambitious bid to buy Twitter, he began to enact his free speech promises, including reviving the account of the twice-impeached American president Donald Trump.
He said that he would offer amnesty to users who the previous leadership had suspended. He expelled the content moderation council with “widely diverse viewpoints from the company.”
“This is a battle for the future of civilization,” Musk said just this past Monday. “If free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead,” he added. As of this week, he has reinstated roughly 62,000 accounts, according to the American tech newsletter, Platformer.
He recently took on Apple, Twitter’s biggest advertiser, accusing the iPhone makers of being anti-free speech for allegedly pulling off its adverts from Twitter. He alleged that Apple has threatened to kick Twitter off its App Store, a move that Musk says will force him to create his mobile device.
Now, he is abandoning his free speech campaign.
On Friday, Twitter suspended the account of controversial rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, after he posted an image of a swastika inside the Star of David that experts say is antisemitic. Musk said of the decision that Ye “violated our rule against incitement to violence,” adding that his “Account will be suspended.”
Why it is all about profits
Twitter has always struggled with making profits. Musk had marched into Twitter with big plans to make the company more profitable. He rolled out a premium Twitter product, initially offering a blue check verification for users who will subscribe to his “Twitter Blue” for eight dollars a month.
He has said that already verified users will lose their verification if they don’t pay the subscription in the next 90 days. Now he has paused that product as he fights to bypass the 30 per cent cut that Apple gets for subscriptions paid through apps on its App Store.
The free speech campaign had looked very attractive to Musk and others who supported him with hopes of having vested interests in a profitable Twitter.
The idea is that by showing that on Twitter, anyone can say what they want, more users willing to subscribe to Twitter Blue will come to the app. This, some experts have said, will help him turn Twitter into a kind of super app, a single app that meets almost all the digital needs one might have. With the subscription and the creation of the super app, he would not need advertisers’ money because users will pay to use Twitter.
He was wrong.
Musk’s free speech troubles
In the weeks since Elon Musk barged into the Twitter headquarters with a literal sink announcing that he wants it to “sink in,” that he now owns the place, hate speech has been on the rise on the platform.
According to the Brookings Institute, the American research group, “Twitter saw a nearly 500% increase in the use of the N-word in the 12-hour window immediately following the shift of ownership to Musk. Within the following week, tweets including the word “Jew” had increased fivefold since before the ownership transfer. Tweets with the most engagement were overly antisemitic.”
In protest, users have been deleting their accounts and abandoning Twitter. Some advertisers have withdrawn their ads from Twitter. According to Media Matters, roughly half of Twitter’s top 100 advertisers have put a hold on ads on the platform.
Elsewhere, global brands, including the luxury fashion company Balenciaga have deleted their Twitter accounts.
Twitter’s automated reporting function has also been malfunctioning or just not working at all. Footage of the infamous massacre of 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019 has been uploaded on the platform undetected by the automated reporting function. The New Zealand government had to alert Twitter before the clips were taken down.
In the months that Musk entered the role of “Chief Twit,” he has begun to realise the difficulties of running a social media company and the pressure users place on founders to expel extremist accounts. As he struggles to make the company profitable, Elon Musk is realising that even “the de facto town square” needs to find common ground where all users can agree.
He held a public town hall with Twitter’s primary advertisers a few weeks ago in a desperate plea to retain them as customers. He has also said that Twitter would be “forming a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints,” after he fired the previous content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints.
As Musk comes face to face with the reality that some form of moderation that restricts his idea of “free speech” will be vital for the profitability of Twitter, through any routes he decides to take the company, he will need to take steps back and withdraw some of his earlier promises. Now Ye’s account lies in sunder, vanquished and suspended.
This is just the beginning of a very long windy night for Musk.
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