Free speech Musk was trouble waiting to happen


Here’s an excerpt from one of several tweets promoting or inciting violence against Jews that, according to a March 2023 report from the Anti-Defamation League, Twitter (now called X) declined to remove or sanction:

“Understand that they want you all dead. You are the only threat to them. When you are gone, all the races will be under the great Jewish heel forever. Fight back white man!!!”

The report concluded that “despite purported changes to its policy enforcement and the stated intent of its management, Twitter continues to host antisemitic threats and tropes.”

It quoted a January 2023 tweet from Ella Irwin, the company’s vice president of trust and safety, who emphasized that “threats or incitement to violence based on individual or group identities would not be tolerated.”

Yet the ADL found that tweets fitting this description remained on the platform long after they reported them. On average, it said, “only 28 percent of antisemitic tweets that ADL reported as a trusted flagger (an organizational partner that can report content and get it prioritized) were removed or sanctioned in some way.”

We shouldn’t rush to judge Elon Musk or his company. Monitoring speech on a platform where billions of words are flying daily is no easy task, especially when you’ve expressed a passionate commitment to “free speech.”

This, I think, is where Musk may have overplayed his hand. When he took over Twitter, he wanted to correct what he saw as obsessive and biased censorship. He would be the hero who liberated the platform, bringing unbridled free speech to social media. He must have known, however, that as a private company, X was under no obligation to uphold the First Amendment, which generally allows even hate speech.

Indeed Musk did have his limits to free speech, particularly regarding hate speech. As the ADL noted, after he acquired the company he stated that hateful tweets would be “deboosted and demonetized.” This was “a welcome promise,” the ADL noted, “[but] unfortunately, Twitter currently does not provide data on how it recommends or monetizes tweets, thus independent researchers cannot evaluate this claim.”

In other words, it’s a mess.

Musk is learning the hard way that threading the needle between free speech and hate speech is a complicated business. That’s why it pains me to see the public row now unfolding between Musk and the ADL. They should have been partners against hate, not public combatants. In a better world, Musk would have used the ADL as a resource to help him thread that needle.

Instead, he let his impulsive nature get the better of him and picked a fight with the ADL, which is only getting uglier.

It started when Musk posted that he was “against antisemitism,” but blamed the ADL for lost advertising revenue since his acquisition of the platform. When responding to a user’s question, Musk further alleged that the ADL has been “trying to kill this platform by falsely accusing it & me of being anti-Semitic.”

Then he added: “If this continues, we will have no choice but to file a defamation suit against, ironically, the ‘Anti-Defamation’ League. If they lose the defamation suit, we will insist that they drop the ‘anti’ part of their name, since obviously…”

The ADL responded in a statement: “Such insidious efforts don’t daunt us. Instead, they drive us to be unflinching in our commitment to fight hate in all its forms and ensure the safety of Jewish communities and other marginalized groups.”

The ADL is not Musk’s only target. His company filed a lawsuit last month against the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit that monitors hate speech and disinformation. He accused the center of orchestrating a “scare campaign to drive away advertisers from the X platform,” according to the suit.

But going after the ADL is a much more sensitive matter for the simple reason that it is a Jewish organization. And in today’s world, any news story with the word “Jewish” in it can get real explosive real fast, especially when accusations of antisemitism are thrown in. You can be a critic of the ADL and a huge Musk fan and still believe that Musk singling out the ADL in such a public way was ill-advised.

Not surprisingly, the rumble has taken over the airwaves, and activists have put on their uniforms and rushed to the social media war front. Those who hate Musk have used the occasion to bash Musk; those who hate the ADL have used the occasion to bash the ADL; and, of course, those who hate Jews have used the occasion to bash Jews.

We might call this the law of unintended consequences. Start with good intentions — whether promoting free speech or fighting hate speech — and watch things spin out of control.

When the ADL met recently with leaders of X to express concern about antisemitic speech on the platform, I’m sure they didn’t expect it to turn into an international incident. But Musk, in addition to being the world’s richest man with 150 million followers, is known for being brash and impetuous.

So, by going public with his accusation that a Jewish organization was causing him to lose revenue, and then threatening to sue, he elevated the story to a news volcano, and, sure enough, the volcano has been spewing lava in all directions.

Could the ADL have done more to anticipate and prevent this public eruption? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that it’s really unfortunate that the eruption had to happen in the first place.

I want to believe Musk when he says he’s against antisemitism. But even if I take him at his word, if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years it’s that you can be against antisemitism and still do things that feed it.

When Jew haters, for example, see Musk’s accusations, it’s no big leap for them to conclude that “the Jews punished Twitter because Twitter wouldn’t protect the Jews.” That’s the kind of hateful lava no one needs. There’s enough hate already out there.

I know that many people are picking sides and turning this brouhaha into another partisan food fight. But in the spirit of the High Holidays, I’d like to just offer an old lesson on the value of discretion.

If you read this, Mr. Musk, as much as I share your passion for free speech, please remember that in our everyday lives, especially when the stakes are so high, sometimes the best strategy is no speech.