(Trends Wide) — Every morning between January 20, 2017 and January 8, 2021, I checked President Donald Trump’s Twitter account. It was as important a step in my routine as brushing my teeth, albeit one that made me feel a lot less fresh.
As a journalist who primarily covers US news, monitoring the Trump account was essential. Although less than a quarter of Americans say they use Twitter, Trump’s caustic quirks, taunts and attacks on the platform consistently set the agenda, and for several years it was normal to see major news sites hastily change any top story. that they had planned to reflect the presidential whim of that morning.
Then, without any ceremony, he left. Two days after the grisly events of the Capitol uprising, on January 6, 2021, Twitter announced that it was permanently suspending Trump’s account, in accordance with his policy on inciting violence. The daily clamor that had affected so many lives was extinguished in a second, and millions breathed a sigh of relief.
Cut to this week. Elon Musk, who is in the process of buying Twitter for $44 billion, announced that once he is in charge, he will unban Trump’s Twitter, even though Trump claims he prefers to keep his own social media platform. TruthSocial. Musk, an outspoken advocate of “free speech,” said the decision to suspend Trump was “morally wrong” and “didn’t kill Trump’s voice. He will amplify it on the right.”
Both statements are incorrect. Banning Trump was the only consensual response to January 6, and disabling the platform is proven to kill off provocateurs. But the fact that Musk is able to act on these ideas despite everything speaks to an axiom that Trump himself exemplified: in today’s America, a person without a conscience and with access to the right pressure points can do almost anything. what you want. And, as Trump’s record shows, people who are willing to twist the truth as a means — or excuse — to abuse their power once, will almost certainly do so again.
When Trump ran for president in 2016, he promised to make America “great” and “secure.” In November 2019, The New York Times investigated the 11,390 tweets he had sent on his presidency to date. More than half were attacks on other people, and they set the tone for his presidency. Trump broke US foreign policy, alienating nations already at odds and, in the fall of 2017, tweeting that North Korea might “not be around much longer!” that country called a “declaration of war”.
As the coronavirus pandemic hit, Trump repeatedly referred to it as the “China virus,” a label associated with a dramatic rise in anti-Asian racial hatred on the internet. After losing the US election, the lies he spread on Twitter were one of his most popular posts, fueling unprecedented violence.
Of course, Trump’s contempt for consequences extended far beyond social media. Even as he used his platform to erode faith in democratic institutions, Trump appointed Supreme Court justices whose explicit political affiliations would determine the fate of millions to endear himself to the voters he believed would keep him in power. .
When he needed the evangelical vote, he promised he would appoint anti-abortion judges, abandoning his own earlier pro-choice stance. About 27% of the voting population chose Trump in 2016, but now, 100% of the population will bear the consequences for decades. In the words of former Trump supporter Kanye West, “no man should have all that power,” but he does.
Increasingly, it appears that Elon Musk is cut in a similar way and is acquiring similarly outsized influence. He constantly claims that he values free speech, but seems to not understand what it is, and has repeatedly shown that he is a hypocrite when it comes to defending it.
Tesla employees, dozens of whom have reported racism, sexism and other forms of abuse, are subject to strict limitations on what they can say about the company. Tesla hides vehicle safety information from public view (in response to media inquiries in the past about its handling of safety data, Tesla did not comment), and Musk has often tried to to control what journalists and bloggers write about him and his companies. He even once canceled a customer’s order when he discovered a blog post he wrote that he deemed “rude.”
When a teenager tracked the progress of Musk’s private jet on Twitter using publicly available information, Musk tried to shut it down. Although he moves in a different sphere than Trump, his words also carry great weight, moving the stock markets through the most casual comments on his Twitter.
In recent months, Musk has forged an association in the public mind between his name and free speech by sheer repetition, despite the usual gaffes on the subject. He has said that people should be able to speak freely on Twitter “within the limits of the law”, but also says that some examples of “hate speech” are “ok” while others are not.
In fact, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, because governments can abuse hate speech laws to suppress critics. As commentators point out, Twitter is not so much the “town square” for the unrestricted self-expression that Musk idealizes as a store, with an obligation to maintain order.
Musk seems so comfortable contradicting himself that it’s hard to tell how much of what he says is deliberate prevarication and how much is simply ignorance. Just as Trump was content to disregard the advice of seasoned colleagues when he was president, Elon Musk seems to have decided that he has a better command of the vagaries of social media and content moderation than anyone who has run a platform before him. His statements about how he will run Twitter constantly reveal a blindness to how complicated it really will be, and a Trumpian certainty that he needs to know better.
Like Trump, Musk hasn’t let his own background or lack of insight get in the way of presenting himself as the figurehead for a cause, and because, like Trump, he has a huge and attentive audience, he’s had a big success. His willingness to overlook or ignore the facts in pursuit of his ambitions bears an ominous resemblance to Trump, as does his ease with repeating himself ad nauseam until people accept his statements as a done.
If we’ve learned anything from Trump’s time in the limelight, it’s that he should never have been allowed in the first place. Time and time again, he exposed design flaws in both state and private systems that should have better protected the public, whether by lying to his millions of Twitter followers or by appointing judges to cushion his position in government.
Elon Musk’s crusade in the name of “free speech” is already exploiting the same weaknesses. Shameless and uncompromising men must not be controlled, but more reliable limits on their influence are urgently needed. Musk shouldn’t be running Twitter like the Wild West, but given the law, he can.