In Elon Musk’s mind he’s absolutely a free-speech absolutist. He’ll absolutely defend your right to speak out, as long as you don’t criticize him. If you do … well … then you’re out of luck.
To no one is this more evident right now than the good people at the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). The nonprofit organization investigates the spread of hate speech across social media, and has devoted much of its recent research to Musk’s many failures since taking over Twitter last fall.
In return for its work, CCDH is now on the receiving end of a lawsuit filed by X Corp., the company that until recently was known as Twitter, claiming that the organization “engaged in a series of unlawful acts” when researching the platform.
The lawsuit is just the latest Musk assault on free expression. “Twitter has made a series of escalating and ever-more-bizarre moves to try to silence or intimidate CCDH. Starting [with] Musk calling the organization ‘evil’ and its CEO a ‘rat,’ then by his office cold-calling the chair of the CCDH Board,” a CCDH spokesperson wrote several allies in an email. “Musk’s billionaire bully-boy tactics to try to shut down his critics couldn’t be more at odds with his purported commitment to open and transparent debate.”
These attempts to silence his critics are not surprising to anyone who’s followed Musk’s erratic behavior. The magnate positions himself as a champion of free and open debate while taking extraordinary efforts to silence any honest criticism and independent research that might negatively impact Musk and his many businesses.
Musk has targeted CCDH for exposing how hate and disinformation have mushroomed on Twitter since he took over in late October. That he still considers himself a free-speech absolutist is stunning given his past efforts to silence anyone who questions his motives or criticizes his businesses.
Musk’s taste for shutting down dissenting voices predates CCDH and even his takeover of Twitter. Here’s the history:
Working with China to censor critics
As Musk began rolling out sales of Tesla in China in 2021, he and company colleagues became unnerved by a number of consumers who had taken to Chinese social media to complain about issues with the company’s malfunctioning electric cars. Rather than fix the problems, Tesla called on the Chinese government to use its censorship powers to block its critics online.
By the end of the year, the company filed defamation claims against at least two Chinese citizens who raised concerns about the safety and quality of its vehicles, according to Bloomberg.
Firing employees who speak out
A Tesla employee was fired in 2022 after he posted critical video reviews of Tesla’s autopilot system, including an instance where he had to disengage the function and take control of the car to avoid a possible crash.
Other employees claimed they were fired for reporting racist harassment at several Tesla plants. When one brought his complaints to management at the company, he was fired for “not having a positive attitude,” according to The Guardian.
Helping repressive regimes silence dissidents
More than his predecessors at Twitter, Elon Musk has gone out of his way to appease repressive regimes seeking to shut down the social-media accounts of their critics. X Corp. has helped India’s Modi government take offline a BBC documentary that criticizes the leadership for inciting religious-based violence against the country’s Muslim population.
Beneath the surface of Musk’s free-speech jingoism is a man who is far too willing to defer to repressive regimes. “My preference is to hew close to the laws of countries in which Twitter operates,” he tweeted in 2022 in response to those who called on him to defend dissident voices worldwide. He claimed that his Twitter predecessors took the same approach. Except they didn’t: Prior to Musk, Twitter frequently took a stand against governments that attempted to silence dissent, calling on these regimes to respect freedom of expression.
Suspending journalists who reported on Musk critically
In late 2022, Musk suspended the accounts of several high-profile journalists who covered his businesses. To justify this action, he suddenly changed the company’ policies so that he could also bar the account of a person who had been tracking the whereabouts of Musk’s private jet using publicly available information. Most of the journalists who were suspended, including reporters from CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, were merely writing about this suspension or questioning Musk’s supposed allegiance to free speech.
“Musk already has a long track record of trying to silence people he dislikes or speech that is critical of him,” Free Press’ Nora Benavidez told NPR at the time, noting that the suspension of journalists “endangers the broader public’s ability to know what is happening inside Twitter.”
Blocking access to Twitter competitors
Just this spring, Musk began suppressing Substack links on Twitter. The newsletter company had earlier announced plans to launch a Twitter-like service called Notes, which allowed people to share short updates to a reverse-timeline feed. The move angered several journalists who were using Substack and Twitter to build large followings for their newsletters and other commentary. (Musk had previously — but temporarily — blocked Twitter users’ ability to link to Mastodon, another competitor.)
“Musk’s attack on Substack is part of [a] pattern, since he bought Twitter in October, to suppress content on an essentially ad hoc basis — from enabling the Indian government to silence dissent to reinstating white nationalists and haphazardly banning journalists,” wrote The New Republic’s Prem Thakker at the time.
Right now CCDH is Musk’s target. Next week he’ll pick another, someone else who is brave enough to call the billionaire’s bluff, criticize his alt-right politics or highlight X Corp.’s many failures.
Musk’s habit of bullying those he disagrees with emboldens his many followers to pile on and harass his critics until they go quiet. The danger is not just that anyone speaking truth to power must put up with increased abuse, including Musk’s own attacks. Groups like CCDH are forced to play defense to a set of hollow accusations, which distracts from the necessary work of holding people like Musk and companies like X accountable to their users.
The headlines are focused on CCDH; they should instead center on Musk and his attempts to turn a popular social-media platform into a weapon he can wield against his foes and anyone who doesn’t follow his reactionary agenda.
The only thing absolute about Elon is his refusal to give a fair hearing to any of his critics. And that’s absolutely not free-speech absolutism.