Elon Musk and Twitter: is freedom of expression a right-wing value?

On March 15, 2022, the satirical conservative site Babylon Bee posted an article on Twitter announcing that Rachel Levine, a trans woman and United States Assistant Secretary of Health, had been elected. “man of the year”. Because Twitter policies prohibit trans gendering (saying a trans woman is a man), Babylon Bee’s account has been temporarily suspended.

Twitter said the suspension would be lifted if the tweet was deleted, but the site’s CEO, Seth Dillon, refused to remove it. Troubled by this censorship, Elon Musk contacted Seth Dillon, and according to the latter, the CEO of Tesla would then have mentioned the need to buy Twitter.

Three weeks later, the social network accepted Elon Musk’s takeover offer for $44 billion. Since then, much of the American right has welcomed Musk as a savior of freedom of expression, as the hero who could bring Donald Trump back to the social network.

When Musk declared himself “freedom of speech absolutist” and said he wanted “unleash the potential” of Twitter, the right applauded while the left saw it as a danger to democracy, the door open to the uncontrolled dissemination of disinformation and hate speech, which are legal in the United States.

Pole reversal

On Twitter, a fringe of the right sees in freedom of expression the possibility of making transphobic jokes and spreading disinformation about Covid-19 or electoral fraud. While for the left, freedom of expression is synonymous with a strengthening of the power of those who want to oppress minorities.

“It’s only very recently, particularly on college campuses, that people have begun to see free speech as a conservative, even reactionary value. Unfortunately, political responses to the Musk debate reinforce this misconception.explains Jonathan Zimmerman, historian at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It is a view that ignores the history of our republic, in which all the great advocates of social justice were free speech absolutists, he continues. They understood that if you restricted it, you also restricted their ability to fight against oppression.”

He quotes abolitionist writer Frederick Douglass, women’s suffrage activist Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King and leaders of the LGBT+ rights movement, all of whom have experienced censorship as a weapon. against social change.

According to Zimmerman, two recent historical trends explain this reversal. In universities since the 1980s, restrictions on free speech have been put in place to protect ethnic minorities from racist speech; moreover, mental health and psychology have begun to weigh in on the debate, with the idea that certain “micro-aggressive” speeches can do harm. In this context, restrictions on freedom of expression have become synonymous with protecting the weak, and the defense of a form of censorship has become a progressive position.

If the right claims to be anti-censorship, it is only when it suits it ideologically.

For Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, a free speech organization, “The lack of concern for freedom of expression and the ease with which university administrations censor ‘bad opinion’ is a much deeper disaster than one imagines. It is an epistemic crisis.

Tip the scales

The situation is all the more complex in that it is not a classic scheme with a central power that censors marginal voices. The landscape is more fragmented, with certain places of power tending more to the left and others to the right.

“Today, institutions like journalism, higher education, science and some large corporations are dominated to varying degrees by people who are more left-leaning, exposes Greg Lukianoff. On campus, the left of the 1960s revered free speech, while later generations began to find it detrimental not to be able to punish speakers who held views they deemed retrograde. This change means that conservatives, who are in the minority on campuses, in journalism and in other cultural institutions, have now begun to see the value of free speech.”

Conversely, when they have power, as in certain Republican states, conservative elected officials do not hesitate to limit freedom of expression, particularly that of teachers in public schools, with laws that prohibit any lesson that could be seen as guilt-inducing for white students (in Texas) or any discussion “inappropriate” on sexual orientation and gender (in Florida). Some also call for the censorship of books in school libraries. If the right claims to be anti-censorship, it is therefore only when it suits it ideologically.

Since the election of Donald Trump, the possibility of defending freedom of expression in a neutral way has been particularly challenged.

Elon Musk’s idea, on the contrary, is that the best solution is to be neutral: “For Twitter to earn the public’s trust, [le réseau] must be politically neutral, which means that he will have to irritate the extreme right as much as the extreme left”, he tweeted.

Variable geometry neutrality

Several recent censorship decisions can be considered contrary to this principle of neutrality: in 2020, Twitter suspended the account of the tabloid New York Post following an article on the computer of Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden ( a decision subsequently qualified as“error” by Jack Dorsey, the former CEO of Twitter). The same year, accounts which defended the idea that the Covid had escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan were also suspended. It also happens that accounts be suspended for statements like “women don’t have penises”a statement that some consider transphobic.

That said, while the right feels they are more targeted on Twitter, recent research shows that this is largely because right-wing accounts are more likely to spread posts containing misinformation, for example on Covid-19 and the 2020 elections.

Since the election of Donald Trump, the possibility of defending freedom of expression in a neutral way has been particularly challenged, in particular in reaction to the increase in lies disseminated by the former president and his allies. In this context, it becomes more difficult for someone like Elon Musk to sell his idea of ​​a neutral approach.

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The political polarization of this issue creates a vicious circle: the more a conservative channel like Fox News champions free speech, the more that value becomes suspect on the left, and the more that right is seen as a threat rather than a promise of release.

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