Former President Donald Trump once hailed Special Counsel John Durham, predicting he would uncover “the crime of the century” — the Clinton-funded Russia collusion hoax that sought to slander and undo Trump. After an over three-year investigation, the Durham probe was a disappointment to Trump and the millions who hoped that those behind the hoax, working within and with the government, would be brought to justice.
In October 2022, the same month the Durham probe officially turned out to be a bust, Elon Musk acquired Twitter. From the onset, conservatives were optimistic, embracing Musk and praising him for his “free speech absolutism” rhetoric.
Over the last couple of months, Musk has delivered on exposing and criticizing the old-guard Twitter for its corruption and discrimination via “The Twitter Files” — though even that has packed only a half-hearted punch, with Musk giving the files to largely less-experienced journalists and dripping them on his own platform, often during low-traffic hours such as a weekend night or Christmas Eve. All in all, Musk has proven to be hardly any better than his predecessors, deploying a punitive shadowbanning system and dolling out arbitrary suspensions and bannings. Just like Durham, Musk hoodwinked conservatives.
On Sunday, Musk told Twitter users who believe they are shadowbanned that their low engagement numbers are a result of uninteresting tweets. It started with a tweet by Mike Solana, vice president of the venture capital firm Founders Fund, who tweeted,“*writes one mid tweet* wait sh-t omg did Elon shadow ban me[?]” A “mid tweet” is internet slang for a boring or lousy tweet. In other words, Solana is saying that those who believe they are shadowbanned under Musk’s new leadership are delusional.
Musk replied with a tweet supporting Solana’s sentiment, writing, “Step up your game,” followed by laughing emojis.
Of course, the idea that shadowbanning is a figment of users’ imaginations, as Musk indicated, has been refuted by Musk himself, who has said on many occasions that “freedom of speech” does not mean “freedom of reach” and that under his leadership, “Negative/hate tweets will be max deboosted & demonetized.”
Gaslighting users into believing that when their content gets limited interaction it’s just bad content and not something more sinister actually helps fulfill the purpose of shadowbanning. Shadowbanning limits the influence of posts or entire accounts without notifying the user. Its purpose is to demoralize the thought criminals (often conservative) by making them think there is no audience for their ideas. Shadowbanning a user is meant to make them feel isolated and abnormal, pressuring them to join the ideological herd.
Of course, there’s another reason to shadowban: It takes away Musk’s accountability. Shadowbanning is uniquely secretive. Users often either don’t know or only suspect that they are shadowbanned. This allows Twitter to avoid informing suppressed users or needing a specific Twitter guideline violation to silence them. Its covert nature also protects the company from public backlash, which would be detrimental to Musk’s “free speech” Twitter rebrand.
Musk is both actively shadowbanning users and keeping shadowbans on accounts targeted by his predecessors. For example, The Federalist CEO and co-founder Sean Davis has been shadowbanned since January 2021. If you follow Davis and search for him, his account appears; however, 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). Davis remains shadowbanned under Musk’s “free speech” Twitter and, to this day, has no idea why or whether there is a specific tweet that instigated the ban.
Last month, The Federalist asked Musk to specifically outline its shadowbanning policies via its communication team’s account on the app. We still have not heard back. But then, of course, disclosing a criterion for shadowbanning defeats its purpose. Most of Musk’s censorship appears based on Musk’s whims, not concrete criteria.
Alex Jones, the InfoWars founder who was recently ordered to pay more than $1.4 billion in the Sandy Hook shooting defamation suit verdict, remains banned on the platform because Musk personally has “no mercy for anyone who would use the deaths of children for gain, politics or fame.”
Kanye West’s account has been suspended since last month, a decision Musk attributed to an image Ye 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. The suspension is confusing, though, considering that the trademarked symbol is actually owned by the United States Raelian Movement Corporation, a UFO-based religious group.
Just as Durham never delivered genuine justice for the biggest political scandal in modern American history, we should be skeptical that Musk will deliver digital free speech. Musk’s “free speech” marketing campaign has enticed marginalized and desperate right-wingers to get sucked back into Twitter. But it’s false advertising until Musk stops the arbitrary and personal targeting, shuts down the shadowbanning, and embraces freedom of speech and reach.
Until he does that, Musk is no better than the Twitter leaders he replaced. And for conservatives who were hopeful he would deliver a victory, he’s no better than Durham.