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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

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OPINION | Elon Musk’s free speech hypocrisy has gone too far

Elon Musk is the owner of X and a self proclaimed “free speech absolutist.” But do his personal beliefs and authority as a public figure enable the posting of derogatory hate speech on his platform? (Sofie Duffner)

On Sept. 4, 2023, business tycoon Elon Musk complained about the current 60% deficit in U.S. advertising revenue on the platform X, formerly Twitter. As the owner of X, he blames the loss in revenue exclusively on the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization. Musk threatened a defamation lawsuit against the group based on the allegation that the ADL has been “trying to kill [the platform X]” with accusations of antisemitism.

With the hashtag #BanTheADL currently trending on X, it is crucial to unpack the ideas which underpin Musk’s reproach of the ADL, as well as the inherent problems that arise from his management of X.

Since Musk’s acquisition of X in October 2022, antisemitism has increased more than twofold on the platform, with Holocaust denial and other forms of conspiratorial rhetoric skyrocketing under his ownership. While many have called for Musk to take action against such harmful rhetoric, no such moderation has taken place.

As a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” Musk’s stance on the issue is that the purveyors of antisemitism on his platform have the right to do so — in other words, he does not want to take action because he believes that doing so would violate users’ freedom of speech. Unfortunately, Musk’s perspective on free speech rests upon the misconception that all speech is of equal merit, and therefore, all speech deserves to be platformed — including speech which incites hatred and violence.

While tolerance and accepting others’ views are integral to maintaining freedom in democracy, the fact of the matter is that not all speech is fair, and there must be consequences for promoting ideas which endorse prejudice against others. 

In the 20th century, philosopher Karl Popper illustrated this using a concept known as the paradox of tolerance. His paradox states that in order to preserve tolerance and freedom, action must be taken to prevent the spread of intolerance — for instance, refusing to platform the same antisemitic conspiracy theories which now permeate X. If people enable the platforming of rhetoric which opposes the basic rights and freedoms of others, then that intolerance will escalate to active threats and acts of violence. 

This idea is well illustrated by the fallout of Kanye West’s promotion of antisemitic conspiracy theories and support of Adolf Hitler. Eventually, people felt motivated to commit violent acts of antisemitism because West’s ideas were enabled and promoted.

By refusing to take action against the rampant antisemitism on X, Musk has enabled hate to proliferate further. While he may not personally make every antisemitic post on X, his intentional decision not to deplatform the content indicates a degree of complicity. 

Unfortunately, the issue of antisemitism on X does not stop here. In recent weeks, Musk has gone from simply enabling the antisemites on his platform to actively interacting with them. Musk directly interacted with white nationalist, Keith Woods on X and complained to him about the ADL. This interaction catalyzed a further uptick in antisemitic posts on X, increasing tensions between Musk and the ADL.

As someone who claims himself to be “against anti-Semitism of any kind,” Musk has proven otherwise. By deliberately refusing to stop the rise of antisemitism on his platform and actively interacting with the white nationalists who brandish it — not to mention his invocation of antisemitic tropes outside of this debacle — he has become both complicit and directly involved in the spread of anti-Jewish prejudice on X. This is precisely why the ADL accused Musk of antisemitism and why some media outlets have rightfully denounced his behavior.

Given that Musk is a free speech absolutist, his support of #BanTheADL is extremely hypocritical. If he believes that everyone should have the right to express their views, then he should respect the right of the ADL to speak freely on X. Unfortunately, Musk’s hypocrisy sheds light on a much larger issue.

The entrepreneur has a history of restricting free speech on his platform whenever people are critical of him, outright banning journalists from X if they criticize him. This is antithetical to the concept of free speech. In reality, it appears that Musk only endorses free speech conditionally — free speech which agrees with him and attempts to silence criticism. In other words, Musk believes in “freedom for me, but not for thee.”

The ADL is far from a perfect organization, and there are many issues with its past conduct which should be addressed. However, Musk’s rebuke of the ADL is not based on legitimate criticism, but rather only the fact that the ADL criticized him. If Musk truly believed in free speech, he would not try to suppress its ability to speak on his platform, but sadly, he has made it clear whose speech he prioritizes. Seeing as he would rather ban the ADL for calling out antisemitism than address that antisemitism to begin with, Musk has clarified how he feels about antisemitism and free speech, despite what his posts might say.

At the end of the day, the controversy surrounding Musk and the ADL is more than just a question of free speech and how it works; it is also a question of personal responsibility. It is far more likely that the revenue deficit on X is not due to the ADL, but because of how Musk has changed the platform for the worse — for instance, the introduction of Twitter Blue, firing a significant portion of his workforce, allowing publishers to charge users for accessing their content and enabling unchecked bigotry on his platform.

As the owner of one of the largest social media platforms on the planet, Musk bears a lot of responsibility for the state of X, and scapegoating the ADL is arguably a means of deflecting from a series of problems which Musk’s management either amplified or outright caused. Rather than silence his critics and double down, Musk needs to take action and protect tolerance and free speech on his platform by fighting the antisemitism that sparked this issue in the first place.

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