From the firing of top executives “for cause,” to the restriction of employee access to content moderation tools, to right-wingers turning on the man they once believed to be their savior, to brands pausing their advertising on the platform amid a sharp rise in hate speech, to power users balking at a proposal to charge $8 a month for verification — you might say things got off to a rocky start.
At least outwardly, Musk seems to enjoy the chaos, whether he’s using his shiny new toy to amplify fake news about the man who allegedly tried to kidnap House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or sharing deep thoughts like “A neuron doesn’t realize it’s a neuron.” But underneath the idle shitposting he’s dealing with the existential problem of Twitter, as he sees it: How can you make this company profitable while ensuring “free speech”?
Musk’s currently pinned tweet suggests that advertisers can potentially be strong-armed into maintaining a partnership with a social site that has few safeguards against offensive, misleading, or abusive content. He groused today that it was “activist groups” pressuring them to pull out. In fact, as contextual links later appended to the tweet made clear, these corporations needed no encouragement from the public to take their money and run as Twitter devolved into mayhem.
Clearly, Musk doesn’t want to bend on the principle, however lazily conceived, that would give cover to bad-faith and malicious actors currently “silenced” for violating Twitter’s community guidelines. His obstincance could soon lead to a major test of that commitment — in the form of Kanye West.
The two moguls have expressed a lot of admiration for each other in the past decade. Ye is a Tesla fan and publicly defended Musk at moments of controversy. Musk advised Ye on his 2020 presidential run and says the rapper inspires him. They travel in the same celebrity orbit. They’re friends.
But it so happens that Musk achieved his contentious takeover of Twitter at a time when Ye was voicing antisemitic conspiracy theories with every megaphone at his disposal — including his social media accounts. When Instagram temporarily suspended him in early October, he hopped on Twitter to bash Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the photo app’s parent company, Meta. And who was there to welcome him back to Twitter, where he has over 30 million followers, but his good pal Elon Musk.
Not a day later, Ye caught a Twitter suspension for promising to “go death con 3 ON JEWISH PEOPLE.” Musk claimed to have talked to him about the post, expressing his “concerns,” which he believed Ye “took to heart.” Instead, the embattled musician dug in, delivering more antisemitic tirades and misinformation about the murder of George Floyd on the Drink Champs podcast — an interview so radioactive it had to be pulled from YouTube as the Floyd family announced a $250 million lawsuit against West. He took no lesson to heart from that incident, either, deciding to up his antisemitism on the right-wing Twitter clone Parler, which he is supposedly going to buy. Musk referenced the acquisition on Twitter with a since-deleted meme showing himself, Ye, and Donald Trump as the Three Musketeers, each one owning a different social media company. On Oct. 30, West also got slapped with another 30-day Instagram ban for comments about “Jewish business people.”
Today, Ye tested the boundaries of Twitter again, posting a screenshot of a Tweet from the rapper Daylyt and echoing it verbatim: “I’m starting to think anti Semitic means n—-r.” Twitter removed both Ye’s tweet and the original post, but Parler has allowed the content to stand, albeit behind a warning screen that labels it “Trolling Content.” Daylyt has been on the same page as West lately, with both supporting the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving, who has been suspended by the team after promoting an antisemitic film and failing to disavow those views. Irving has since apologized; he and the Nets will each donate $500,000 to anti-hate causes through the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
The ripple effects of all this are significant. In Los Angeles, on Oct. 23, an antisemitic group was emboldened to hang banners over a busy freeway declaring that “Kanye is right about the Jews,” even striking Nazi salutes. Yesterday, the FBI warned of a “broad” threat to synagogues in New Jersey — but were able to neutralize the situation before any violence occurred. On the Twitter side, the NAACP, having met with Musk, is now calling for a total advertiser boycott until the platform “safeguards our democracy and rids itself of any content or account that spews hate and disinformation.” The ADL joined them in that effort, linking to an ongoing campaign called “Stop Hate for Profit.”
Gutting the company has certainly limited Musk’s ability to stem the tide of toxic material that has Twitter’s longstanding business partners so worried. But it’s also his personal brand — and connections — that will determine the course of his “free speech” crusade. His pal Kanye has such a large audience, and is becoming so extreme, that “The Jews” have been trending on and off for the past month, including on Friday.
At what point will Musk decide that Ye’s behavior, which has cost the rapper untold millions to date, is also a threat to his own bottom line? And even then, will Twitter’s new “Complaint Hotline Operator” make an example of Ye, compromising the values he claims to hold so dear? If so, West won’t hesitate to attack him elsewhere, and neither will the MAGA crowd who envisioned an end to this kind of “censorship” under the Musk regime. Musk has already demonstrated that trying to intervene directly, as Ye’s dear and trusted friend, is hopeless, leaving him with the choice to suspend, ban, or sit on his hands. So far, it sounds as if he’s content to let anarchy reign.
Except, in addition to the financial woes incurred by this laissez-faire approach, it doesn’t guarantee that Musk can dodge the Kanye issue forever. A convergence of their relationship seems inevitable: Presently, from minute to minute, their two accounts are as closely scrutinized as any Twitter content ever has been. The next time West has an antisemitic comment removed, it may well occur to him that his buddy Elon is in a position to do something about it. When he asks for that favor, Musk won’t have anywhere to hide.