It turns out free speech under “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk is not so absolute. According to the new Twitter CEO, “freedom of speech” does not include “freedom of reach.” Musk said, “Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized,” meaning users “won’t find the [offending] tweet unless [they] specifically seek it out.” In other words, Musk is keeping at least some of Twitter’s notorious shadowbanning practices.
Not only is Musk continuing to limit the reach of certain users, but his perpetual ban of Alex Jones and suspension of Kanye West suggest violations of Twitter’s generalized “hateful conduct policy” have nothing to do with federal laws against harassment and threats and don’t care about upholding the First Amendment. Instead, what is and isn’t acceptable speech rests solely in the opinions of one tech billionaire.
Before Musk took over, Twitter routinely shadowbanned, meaning it limited the influence of posts or entire accounts without notifying the user. For example, pre-Musk Twitter could stop users from seeing a particular person’s replies to tweets and finding a particular person’s profile in the search results. Twitter could also stop a user’s tweets from being visible in search results (even when searched word-for-word).
Shadowbanning creates a loophole for tech giants to censor a user’s content or entire account without being held accountable because the user doesn’t even know he is being silenced. Free expression being distorted by the higher powers running Twitter’s backend is not really free speech.
It’s unclear if Musk will keep Twitter’s old version of shadowbanning or adopt a new one. What we do know is that shadowbanning isn’t going away under Musk and that many accounts are still suffering, such as The Federalist CEO and co-founder Sean Davis, who has been heavily shadowbanned since January 2021. If you follow Davis and search for him, his account appears. But if you do not follow him, his account will not show up in search results, even if you type in his username word-for-word.
Musk has not made any updates to the app’s “debunking Twitter myths” page, where the company states, “Simply put, we don’t shadow ban! Ever.” This was a lie before Musk owned Twitter and it is still a lie now. The Federalist asked Twitter to specifically outline its shadowbanning policies via its communication team’s account on the app but did not hear back.
The Twitterverse’s New Arbiter of Truth
Musk claimed two months ago that an intellectually diverse council would decide whether to restore banned users such as Donald Trump (though if free speech is really “absolute,” the reinstatement of Trump and others would be a given). Yet today, Musk appears to be making many of the censorship decisions unilaterally — without a council or even Twitter’s policies to back him up.
When asked about the banning of Alex Jones — the InfoWars founder who was recently ordered to pay more than $1.4 billion in the Sandy Hook shooting defamation suit verdit — Musk said Jones would remain off the platform because of his personal distaste for Jones without citing any Twitter violations. “I have no mercy for anyone who would use the deaths of children for gain, politics or fame,” said Musk.
Last week, Kanye West’s account was suspended. Musk attributed the suspension to an image West posted of what appeared to be a Nazi swastika (which by itself is not allowed on Twitter according to its “hateful conduct policy”) inside a Jewish Star of David. But the trademarked symbol is actually owned by the United States Raelian Movement Corporation, a UFO-based religious group.
“[A]t a certain point, you have to say what is incitement to violence,” Musk said. “Because that is against the law in the U.S., you can’t just have a ‘let’s go murder someone club,’ that’s not actually legal.” Musk did not explain how the image is an incitement of violence or illegal.
This appeal to Twitter rules is reminiscent of Musk’s predecessors censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story. Last Friday, Musk and journalist Matt Taibbi released “The Twitter Files,” a reminder that in 2020 Twitter inappropriately used its “hacked materials policy” as an excuse to squash the Biden scandal.
Twitter had no proof the explosive laptop story was “hacked.” Twitter execs were simply going off the word of corrupt former intelligence heads and partisans in the corporate media who were claiming — without evidence — that the story was “Russian disinformation.” We now know that censoring such an explosive and valid story ahead of the 2020 election affected the results.
Since Twitter censorship appears to be based on Musk’s personal opinions as well as selective and arbitrary company policies, any tweets or people he deems “negative” and “hateful” could be shadowbanned — making Musk’s system just as bad as the one run by the wokesters he fired.
Free Speech False Advertising
Musk has unbanned conservative voices that never should have been banished from Twitter. He has gone after child predators that his predecessors allowed to exploit kids on the app for years. Musk is publishing “The Twitter Files,” which expose Twitter’s former deceit and corruption. These are all positive moves, but we can’t let ourselves be conned into believing the current Twitter censorship policies are clear or fair. Twitter might be kinder to conservatives right now, but that doesn’t mean speech is flowing freely.
While Musk orchestrated an incredible “free speech” ad campaign, his own hubris has failed to allow Twitter to live up to the hype. Freedom of speech without freedom of reach isn’t really freedom at all. It’s like calling a news outlet that prints a newspaper but gets flogged for distributing it “freedom of the press.” It’s not. Until shadowbanning stops, Musk’s free speech promises are all talk.