Elon Musk Goes on Offense to Defend Offensive Speech

FILE PHOTO: Elon Musk. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo (REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: Elon Musk. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo (REUTERS)

Summary

The billionaire is fighting forces he says chill people from speaking. Some say he’s the one suppressing speech.

Elon Musk wants you offended.

His fight to protect free speech didn’t end with buying Twitter and simply loosening content moderation.

More than a year into owning the social-media platform now known as X, Musk’s aggressive tactics to defend myriad spectrums of speech are becoming clearer. Meanwhile, some say those efforts actually protect speech he likes, and repress other views.

“It’s actually good that I’m reading some things that offend me because that means freedom of speech is alive," Musk said this past week during an audio event on X in which he talked in depth about his philosophy.

His approach looks twofold: He is trying to protect individuals’ ability to say what they please on X without fear of losing their livelihoods. All while he is also actively fighting—with lawsuits and his own X megaphone—outside critics who maintain X has become a bastion of hate.

Part of his approach is drawing criticism, including from the American Civil Liberties Union, that X is the one trying to stifle speech. Meanwhile, some of his supporters worry aloud that he’s going too far, risking offending customers of his other businesses, such as the electric-car maker Tesla.

The way Musk frames his thoughts on free speech seems straight from the techno libertarianism that flourished in Silicon Valley around the time he arrived in Palo Alto in the 1990s and as he chased his dreams during the early days of the dot-com bubble.

It was a period when a new generation of techies wanted to minimize government regulation as the idea of the internet took root, arguing that the free market would guide the best choices.

Except, in Musk’s case, today he appears perplexed and frustrated by the free market’s reaction to his X changes.

Advertisers from Apple to Disney have fled the platform, worried about associations with antisemitism, pro-Nazi and other hate speech, and ensuing dramas regarding his ownership.

They are effectively exercising their freedom of speech by taking their valuable ad dollars elsewhere.

Doing so, in Musk’s view, can have a chilling effect on speech that’s outside the norm, encouraging a world of conformity. He even went so far as to call it blackmail and, in November, infamously told advertisers to “go f— yourself." And he called for Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, to be fired, or, put another way, canceled.

More than just throwing f-bombs, Musk is also fighting back against groups that are working to highlight content on the platform they say is offensive.

In July, for example, X filed a lawsuit against the Center for Countering Digital Hate after it published research critical of X, including a report that said the company had taken no action against 99 of 100 posts that researchers contend were hateful.

X claimed the group’s findings were flawed and said the attention resulted in several advertisers’ halting spending. A key part of the lawsuit against the center is X’s contention that the group violated the social-media platform’s terms of service that prohibit the process of collecting, or scraping, a large number of public posts.

The center is asking a federal judge in San Francisco to dismiss the case, calling “for an end to this baseless effort to silence honest criticism and punish critics." A hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

The ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Knight First Amendment Institute have filed a brief supporting the center, saying that scraping is a basic digital tool used to provide the public with insight into how powerful platforms, such as X, operate.

They argued that the company is simply attempting “to punish" the center for “its speech by enforcing its term prohibiting scraping," which if allowed they say would have a chilling effect and give X an end run “around the First Amendment."

As his lawyers fight that, he’s also focused on helping individuals in their own fights.

Earlier this month, for example, X backed a lawsuit against Disney by actress Gina Carano, claiming she was wrongly terminated from “The Mandalorian" series after she made controversial posts on social media. Disney hasn’t yet responded to the lawsuit.

It is the highest-profile example yet of Musk’s previous pledge to protect his users. “If you were unfairly treated by your employer due to posting or liking something on this platform, we will fund your legal bill," he tweeted in August.

Also this month, Musk focused on the company’s policies around doxing—seen as a form of harassing someone by posting personal information online—saying they included a prohibition on outing a user’s real name behind an anonymous account.

“Doxing is not strictly speaking illegal, but it does impinge upon freedom of speech," Musk said during the audio event on X. “There’s a lot of people if they say something, they may get fired or ostracized and so I think there’s value to a nom de plume."

The issue of doxing has been a thorny one for Musk since he took over X. Musk used X’s policy as the reason for suspending several journalists from X shortly after he acquired the platform in late 2022. It came in the midst of news coverage of another X user whom Musk had suspended for using public information to track his private jet, which the billionaire said threatened his and his family’s safety.

“Any account doxxing real-time location info of anyone will be suspended, as it is a physical safety violation. This includes posting links to sites with real-time location info," Musk tweeted at the time.

Doxing emerged again as an issue when Musk earlier this month tweeted that revealing real names behind anonymous accounts would result in account suspensions.

The episode sparked a debate about the pros and cons of anonymous content, whether it allows a free flow of ideas or removes accountability.

Musk made his post in response to his longtime buddy Jason Calacanis, a Silicon Valley investor who had asked publicly about the identity of a user named @KanekoaTheGreat, who has more than 700,000 followers of his right-leaning content, and had tweeted, “Who are you? Are you American, Russian, Chinese? Who do you work for?…"

Calacanis, who later clarified that he wasn’t asking people to dox the person, deleted the tweets, saying the user told him that his mother was in danger.

Musk, himself, knows the power in unmasking a critic.

A few years ago, before he owned the platform, the billionaire put pressure on the employer of a vocal critic of his once the person’s Twitter identity was revealed online.

The critic, who went by the nom de plume of Montana Skeptic, stopped posting critically about Musk for a while. These days, Montana Skeptic, now in retirement, is back on X.

His bio reads: “Annoying Elon since 2016."

Write to Tim Higgins at tim.higgins@wsj.com

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