Free Speech Selectivity
While I cover a lot of tech news in my work, I generally make a point not to cover certain subjects that the media have already overanalysed. For instance, I’ll only discuss AI if I think there’s a genuinely interesting perspective to add to the conversation. By the same token, I almost outright avoid any news concerning a certain billionaire and his god-awful social media platform. I simply feel that said billionaire gets enough attention as it is.
But where there’s some good indie journalism to be shared, I’m gonna do my thing and talk in the margins. So yes, today I’m breaking my silence on Musk. Rest assured, I’ll take no offence if you skip this section, and that this won’t be a common occurrence.
Keeping up with the escapades of Elon Musk feels reminiscent of trying to keep track of what Trump was/is up to - overwhelming. But I did recently have the joy of catching Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales take aim at Spaceboy for Musk’s recent decision to bow down to pressure from the Turkish government:
Long story short, the Turkish government asked Twitter to censor their political opponents in the run-up to the presidential elections. And according to the “free speech absolutist,” himself, Twitter was helpless to do anything but comply. “The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?” he tweeted in response to one journalist on the subject.
To be clear, this is bollocks. And one person who knows full well that it’s bollocks is Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy Wales. Why does he know this? Because Wikipedia has been in Twitter’s position, and not only did they come out swinging, they won the fight. The encyclopedia was banned in Turkey some years ago, but Wikipedia had the ban overturned after a legal battle in Turkey’s highest court.
With this in mind, Wales made a not-so-subtle remark regarding the whole situation on Musk’s bird platform, tweeting that Wikipedia “stood strong for our principles and fought to the Supreme Court of Turkey and won. This is what it means to treat freedom of expression as a principle rather than a slogan.”
Now we could get into whether it’s fair to compare the two situations, but whatever you think of this remark, it is worth noting that under Musk, Twitter has agreed to more than 80% of all government censorship or surveillance requests. Before that, the platform had agreed to a somewhat more respectable 50%. Doesn’t exactly sound like the actions of a free speech absolutist to me, but okay.
However, the problem with calling Mr Absolutist out on his failures to protect free speech, is that Musk has a very different perception of what free speech entails. For him, it seems that free speech has little to do with protecting the rights of citizens against corrupt governments or corporations. Instead, it’s about protecting the rights of bigots to punch down on marginalised people without repercussions. If this wasn’t the case, he probably wouldn’t spend his time banning journalists who disagree with him or mislabeling whole organisations as governments fronts:
He also, as Robert Stribley notes, wouldn’t be weaponising his whole platform against transgender people. But that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Some of these attacks are blatant. Take Twitter “quietly” removing any mention of trans people or transgender hate from their hateful conduct policy. Musk also made reinstating a right-wing satire account banned for its transphobic comments one of his priorities when he took over the platform. In fact, he did so on the first damn day.
Many of Musk’s anti-trans tactics are far more subtle but no less insidious.
As Stribley points out, the billionaire frequently highlights and interacts with transphobic profiles, often under the guise of plausible deniability. “Is this accurate?” he asks under one hate-filled outburst. “Is it really true that four-year-olds are receiving hormone treatment?” he asks another far-right account. But that’s okay, he’s just trying to get the facts, right? Only, Musk never follows up. He never responds to the people telling him no, this isn’t true. Nor does he ever return with an answer to clarify to his followers.
“This dynamic plays out consistently: Musk highlights and amplifies misinformation, is corrected on it, but does not correct himself or the accounts he has already amplified.” - Robert Stribley
Musk isn’t just bumping into these accounts because his own app’s algorithm is broken (I mean, it is broken, but that’s another story). He’s intentionally following, and, as journalist Mark Binder recently highlighted, paying to see anti-transphobic content.
How’s that for trickle-down economics?
But this tangent is already getting long, so I’ll leave you with this passage from Robert Stribley’s article on the subject, which I implore anyone to read. In the meantime, maybe you should finally make that switch to Mastodon you’ve been thinking about (or make a blog and be done with the whole charade).
“Musk has basically given a pass to the platform’s most notorious and belligerent transphobes—a wink and thumbs up to continue with their harassment, misgendering, mockery, deadnaming, and dogpiling. Go ahead. He’ll not only allow it, he’ll amplify it. For the low, low cost of 8 bucks a month. All on Elon Musk’s no good, very bad, incredibly toxic transphobia-amplifying machine.”