Twitter Takeover: The Line Between Free Speech and Hate Speech

When Elon Musk acquired Twitter in October, the acquisition became fuel for memes and online mockery—yet beneath the jokes, there are serious implications. In a social media-obsessed society, the billionaire’s takeover of Twitter is an example of money buying power and influence. Musk’s changes to the platform, as well as the resulting fallout, raise important questions regarding the role of social media and the distinction between free speech and hate speech. 

Musk’s time as Twitter CEO so far has been marked by seemingly impulsive decisions that have led some to claim he is making it up as he goes. Just a few of these decisions include laying off approximately half of Twitter’s employees, introducing a now-paused paid verification system with Twitter Blue, and promising to reinstate previously banned accounts—including Donald Trump’s account and those that have previously violated Twitter’s rules on hate speech. These changes open the door for alt-right accounts to have more reach and influence.

Jennifer Best (A’22) spoke about her own experience with Twitter. “I’ve seen more friends and accounts I’ve followed getting attacked with right-wing campaigns to try to report them or just hate comments. More people that I know have been getting that and very specifically once Elon Musk took over,” she said. 

In the wake of changes and Twitter’s currently precarious position, over 1000 additional employees have resigned. Musk is also scaring off advertisers, with 50 of the platform’s top 100 advertisers having slowed or halted their Twitter advertisements. Media Matters for America cited Musk’s “rash of brand unsafe actions” as the reason for these decisions. 

Many of Musk’s actions as CEO boil down to his goal of increasing free speech on Twitter and his contested claim that Twitter is “the de-facto town square.” 

However, the legal right to free speech refers to government regulation, not a company like Twitter. “His version of free speech seems more like letting hate speech exist,” Best argued. “[Twitter] is a private company that does have the right to regulate speech.” 

Best currently works as the Communications and Outreach Manager at the Massachusetts AAPI Commission, and, while she has not seen a rise in hate on the account she professionally runs due to the organization’s small size, she still voiced concern over what may be to come. 

Sophomore Maya Chandrakasan, an avid Twitter user, shared similar sentiments on Musk’s free speech claims. “It’s free speech for people who he agrees with and whose voices he wants to platform,” they said.

In a written statement to the Tufts Observer, philosophy professor Benedetta Giovanola said, “[W]e should go beyond an exclusive focus on the speakers’ right to freedom and acknowledge also the importance of the hearers’ rights, such as the right not to be harmed and the right to be respected as a person.”

Hate speech has in fact increased since Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Part of this may be attributed to the fact that content moderators were among those laid off. Large amounts of hate speech online can contribute to the normalization of this language and hateful actions offline. 

Giovanola wrote, “Besides showing a strong correlation, if not a causal link with hateful actions offline, hate speech online promotes the spread of a background culture of hatred, exclusion, and disrespect that is detrimental for the society as a whole.” She continued that this may “erode our capability to engage in dialogue with others.” 

At the same time, there have been claims of accounts being suspended for making fun of or challenging Musk himself. There appears to be a double standard with what content is considered hateful on Twitter. Chandrakasan said, “It’s just super hypocritical of Elon Musk to say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to reinstate all of these banned accounts,’ while he’s continually in the process of banning other accounts that are critical of him.” 

In the same vein, a lack of proper content moderation will also result in increased misinformation. During the short time it was in place, Twitter Blue allowed for the impersonation of previously verified accounts. Some used this function to seemingly mock large, controversial corporations—such as a fake Eli Lilly and Co. account tweeting, “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.” However, this raises the concern of any account being able to impersonate anyone should paid verification be reinstated, including public figures or news sources.

The power Musk holds over Twitter is concerning when viewed in relation to Twitter as an information source. The platform is a valuable tool for many journalists, both in conveying news and receiving tips. Along the same lines, activists and organizers often use Twitter to connect with one another, share underreported stories, and publicly communicate information on protests and other similar events. Chandrakasan cited Twitter as an important way she receives first-hand news from other parts of the world. 

According to Pew Research Center, for approximately 69 percent of US journalists, Twitter is a favored social media platform for job-related purposes. This percentage jumps to 83 percent among younger journalists between the ages of 18–29. 

“Social media [has] become the main source of information for most people. Yet, social media companies are not considered (and do not want to be considered) as media, but rather as networks that connect people and ideas,” Giovanola wrote. “This (mis)conception has serious implications not only for the issue of content moderation (which is left, at best, to the decision of automated algorithmic systems or single individuals) but more deeply for the understanding of social media’s role in shaping the public sphere and for the regulations they need to be subjected too.”

Best said, “People underestimate social media and how complicated and important it is. How people get a lot of news, and also within activism, a lot of information is shared through Twitter. And so if we were to lose it, we’re not just losing a way to stay in touch with friends, but important information networks.”  

These crucial uses of Twitter for information now essentially lie in the hands of a singular billionaire. Chandrakasan said, “It’s just dangerous for a single person to have control over such a big platform. Twitter is so widely used by so many people around the world, and it’s just such a big place for people to challenge power and create community.”

When one has as much money as Musk, power is inevitable. It is this disproportionate amount of wealth that allowed him to buy Twitter in the first place. 

Regarding Musk’s current power over Twitter as just one person, Giovanola said, “All [of] this can amplify a problem that already affects social media, that is, the problem of a concentration of power in the hands of a few private individuals that set the rule[s] of the game.”

This concentration of power with the wealthy is a concern shared among many. Best said, “Hopefully people will start to realize how much capitalism is really controlling and suppressing and limiting options and giving uber-rich people the power to do what they want.”

The future of the platform rests in Musk’s hands, and if the past couple of months have been any indication, even he might not know what is next for Twitter.