Ye tested Musk’s vision of “free speech” on Twitter

Elon Musk’s vision of a Twitter that allows any and all content was put to the test Thursday with rapper Ye’s tweet featuring a swastika.

Musk has moved forward with his plans to create a so-called free speech platform in the month since he acquired Twitter as part of a $44 billion acquisition — to remove its COVID-19 misinformation policy, cut key employees and reinstate banned accounts. But his decision to suspend Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, highlights that Musk is walking a tightrope between appeasing his supporters who welcome the vision of “free speech” and running a viable social media site.

“I suspect [Musk] I saw a moment of trying to work the room to say, “Look what I did. I turned off the swastika,” said Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the left-leaning monitoring group Media Matters for America.

Carusone said the decision was made in a special way and with special treatment for Ye. Before being suspended, Yi tweeted a screenshot along with a text from Musk saying, “Sorry, but you went too far. This is not love.”

“It’s not a system-wide thing and it doesn’t change the fact that there is no policy framework or enforcement mechanism to suppress this kind of hate,” Carusone said.

Now, Musk is facing backlash from both his critics and supporters. Twitter users who support his plans for minimal content moderation criticized him for commenting Ye and giving in to the “woke mob”. At the same time, critics pressing Musk to reinstate Twitter’s content moderation policies said the seemingly ad hoc decision regarding the lone figure does not contradict the fact that other right-wing extremists are able to use the platform to organize and spread hate.

“This is not really about Elon Musk or Kanye West. This is about a system that is not being managed properly,” said Jesica Gonzalez, co-executive director of the advocacy group Free Press.

“Was it right for him to stop Kanye West? Yes, but it shouldn’t take a swastika to get us there.”

Less than three weeks after Musk reinstated Yee’s account, which was banned under the previous leadership of Twitter after Yee posted other anti-Semitic messages, the rapper has tested the limits of what he can say now under Musk. The cap appears to come in the form of a tweet in the shape of a swastika, following Yi’s antisemitic rant during an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

“We need a comprehensive system that applies across the board, across languages, across regions — and these ad hoc decisions, while I think that’s the right one, it doesn’t give me peace of mind because I don’t see the rules being applied,” Gonzalez said.

“FIX KANYE PLEASE,” Musk told the user who pleaded with him, “Try [his] Better,” but Ye “has once again violated our rules against incitement to violence” and his account will be suspended.

Even so, Ye’s comment doesn’t appear to be representative of how Twitter handles other hate speech, based on data collected by advocacy groups that shows its increased reach on the platform since Musk became CEO.

Musk said perceptions of hate speech on Twitter have declined since he took over the company at the end of October. He tweeted a chart on Friday showing the supposed decline, similar to one he tweeted in mid-November showing the decline. But the graph, and Musk’s tweet, lack information about the data or analysis Twitter used to reach that conclusion.

Hill has reached out to Twitter for comment.

Research collected using data from Brandwatch found that hate speech on Twitter did, in fact, increase under Musk’s leadership, the Center to Combat Digital Hate said. In the week before Musk’s first tweet to the graph showing the supposed decrease in impressions of hate speech, the center found three times the rate of tweets using the “N” word compared to the month before Musk’s takeover, and up to a threefold increase in the 31 percent increase in other derogatory terms aimed at Jews and members of the LGBTQ community.

The Anti-Defamation League also found an increase in antisemitic content on Twitter and a decrease in moderation in antisemitic posts since Musk’s seizure of power.

Caruson said Musk’s comment about Ye is an example of the kind of behavior Musk and his supporters have criticized: It appears to be an arbitrary decision made on one account.

Musk is trying to use this one example of actions taken as he tries to lure advertisers back to Twitter, Caruson said, especially since the decision came after Ye’s Infowars interview, during which the rapper praised Hitler and the Nazis, among a number of other anti-Semitic comments.

“[Musk] He knows the spotlight is on him, he’s trying to think of revenue, so what does he do? “He takes the moment… he gets out there and does the procedure,” Carusone said.

Musk appeared to brush off the criticism on Friday, arguing that the backlash from opposing sides indicated the comment was a sign that Twitter was “fair.”

“You know Twitter is fair when extremists on the far right and far left are upset at the same time!” he wrote on Twitter.

But it still faces an exodus from advertisers, who have historically made up the vast majority of Twitter’s revenue. Since Musk took over the company, half of Twitter’s top advertisers appear to have ceased activity on the platform, according to a Media Matters report published last week.

Media Matters and Free Press are among a coalition of advocacy groups leading a campaign urging advertisers to stop advertising on Twitter based on changes made by Musk.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Twitter is offering advertisers incentives to boost their spending, including offers of 100 percent spending matching for those who book at least $500,000 in additional spending.

“I think the pressure he feels is demonstrated by the dramatic action that Twitter is taking at the same time as advertisers,” Carusone said.

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