When news broke in April that Elon Musk would soon acquire Twitter and take it private, many on the social media platform expressed serious concerns. This is, after all, a white, male wealth-hoarder with an ego so fragile he once canceled the Tesla order of a venture capitalist who criticized him in 2015. What would having a libertarian, “free speech absolutist” at the helm of an already toxic beast like Twitter mean for marginalized users, who are inundated with harassment and threats on a daily basis?
But not everyone saw Musk’s acquisition of Twitter as a loss; rather, despite Musk’s many lukewarm reassurances that he opposes the “far-right,” many of the perpetrators of said harassment and threats have since celebrated this news as a coup. On Friday, reports broke that a Musk associate told Charles Johnson—a white nationalist activist and influencer banned from Twitter in 2015 for threatening to “take out” Black Lives Matter protesters—that his account would be reinstated “hopefully soon.” Nick Fuentes, an unabashed white supremacist activist and commentator who’s denied the Holocaust and opposes women’s voting rights, responded to Musk’s purchase of Twitter by posting “LETS F-CKING GOOO. We’re back” on the fringe social media platform Telegram. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, currently on trial for her alleged role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, went so far as to outright claim Musk would restore her personal account, which was banned earlier this year after repeatedly sharing deadly covid disinformation.
The scary thing is that these banned, former Twitter users might be right. Kristen Doerer, managing editor of Right Wing Watch, tracks the spread of far-right and white nationalist activism and online disinformation, and believes figures like Johnson, Fuentes, Taylor Greene, and even former President Trump, have an ally in Musk. Musk, Doerer notes, has reportedly expressed frustration that Trump remains banned by the platform.
“[Musk has] said he’s against ‘censorship that goes beyond the law,’ and if you think about what the law is, when it comes to speech, you can say a lot that is pretty terrible, and that is still very legal,” Doerer told Jezebel. “If you look at hate speech, disinformation, conspiracy theories—they’re not crimes in and of themselves. If you take Musk at his word, all of that will be allowed.”
According to Doerer, mainstreaming these voices by allowing them on Twitter presents a significant threat to online safety and efforts to combat dangerous disinformation. After all, this is a country in which online right-wing conspiracy theorists’ lies about a child sex trafficking cabal in the basement of a DC pizzeria led to a 2017 shooting. Not to mention the former president’s lies about a stolen election that resulted in an armed attack on the Capitol and seven deaths. When terrifying, galvanizing, and often fundamentally racist and sexist conspiracy theories become more widely accessible, we’re all at greater risk.
“Right now, in order for people to follow Nick Fuentes, for example, they have to be a dedicated follower of his, they have to go find him on Telegram, because they won’t just stumble upon him on Twitter,” Doerer said. “And when people like him are allowed on platforms like Twitter, that gives them innate legitimacy.”
Nikki McCann Ramirez, associate research director at Media Matters for America, emphasizes that “these people weren’t simply banned for one mean tweet here and there.”
“It was a pervasive pattern of abuse of the platform’s tools, directing harassment or violence toward protected categories,” Ramirez told Jezebel. This reality, she says, is obscured by right-wing hijacking of narratives about free speech and “cancel culture.” They’ve framed themselves as victims despite how conservative users across social media platforms have “among the highest” engagement rates and account growth.
She went on to say that “what Musk and others are doing is essentially pointing to very isolated examples, like maybe Alex Jones, Laura Loomer, Milo Yiannopoulos, those who were saying very extreme things on the platform, targeting individuals and groups protected under content policies. Then, they’ll say, ‘Twitter is coming for you next.’”
Bridget Todd, communications director of the national women’s rights group Ultraviolet, fears the restoration of these bad actors to Twitter would carry the most harm for women and marginalized people, whose own speech and safety are jeopardized when they’re subjected to rampant harassment. “These users celebrating Musk are actively undermining, attacking marginalized users and the communities we’re trying to build online—it’s not an instance of them just saying their opinions,” Todd told Jezebel. “If they’re restored, you’d see a real, deep impact in the ways marginalized people use the platform. We already are seeing it.”
A third of women under the age of 35 and 70% of LGBTQ adults report being harassed online, says Ultraviolet’s research, and Amnesty International reports that Black women are 84% and women of color in general are 34% more likely than white women to be targeted by online abuse. Disinformation and right-wing conspiracy theories online can also be a driving force in attacks on marginalized people in real life, as we encountered when covid disinformation yielded spikes in anti-Asian violence, and Trump’s frequent racist lies about immigrants and other people of color contributed to a surge in hate crimes throughout his presidency. “What starts online doesn’t always stay online,” Todd said.
The real-life consequences of passing the mic to extremists are all too real for women, LGBTQ people, people of color, immigrants, and other marginalized groups. Having absolutely zero stakes in the matter, of course Musk can comfortably parrot out a white male-centric, objectively stupid definition of free speech to justify platforming Nazis.
Even though what Musk fails to grasp about his beloved First Amendment, as it’s defined by the Constitution, is that it protects us from being arrested for criticizing the government—not our right to deny the Holocaust happened without facing consequences from private corporations.
At the end of the day, what can we really expect a union-busting billionaire shouldering numerous lawsuits alleging rampant sexual harassment and “Jim Crow”-esque racism to know about free speech? No one and nothing is free in a world where billionaires like Musk own nearly all the resources — and can forgo a $6 billion pledge to end world hunger in order to blow $44 billion on a site to make it more (*insert eye roll*) “free.”