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On Twitter, Nazis have free speech — but Elon Musk’s critics face censorship

Twitter’s parent company has threatened a defamation suit against a nonprofit researching the rise of hate speech on the platform

Nearly every agency that studies hate speech has noted an alarming uptick in antisemitism and white supremacy on Twitter — recently renamed X — since Elon Musk bought the social media platform last fall. Musk has defended the platform’s loosened moderation as part of his philosophy of free speech. But while “Hitler was right” might count as free speech on Twitter, “Elon Musk was wrong” is apparently defamation.

Twitter’s parent company, X Corp., which is owned by Musk, is threatening to sue a nonprofit research organization for defamation after they released research critical of Twitter’s moderation.

In June, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which studies hate speech on social media, published a study showing that Twitter had not taken action against 99% of hate speech posted by paying Twitter Blue users. According to The New York Times, X Corp., sent a letter last week to the nonprofit think tank, referencing the research and calling its conclusions “baseless,” as well as accusing CCDH of intending to harm Twitter’s advertising business. The letter also accused the research of being funded by Twitter’s competitors and foreign governments in pursuit of an “ulterior agenda.” (CCDH told the Times that they do not accept funding from tech companies or governments.)

Baseless claims, ironically, are the bread and butter of the conspiracy theorists and hate mongers that Twitter has been promoting via the Twitter Blue program, which boosts the tweets of paying users. Extremist users often post with little data to back up negative claims about LGBTQ+ people, Jews, Muslims, Black people and women.

Take, for example, a tweet falsely claiming that it has been “proven beyond a reasonable doubt” that “the Jewish Mafia wants to replace us all with brown people except for some sex slaves”; this tweet is linked and screenshotted in the CCDH’s study.

But if CCDH demonstrates intent to harm Twitter by publishing negative research, then extremist Twitter Blue users must also be demonstrating intent to harm Jews, LGBTQ+ groups and whoever else they are tweeting negatively about. This would require Twitter to remove them from the platform for violating the terms of use.

Musk’s decisions have never been particularly logical. While promoting free speech, he has approved 80% of governmental requests to remove information from Twitter, up from about 50% under the platform’s previous leadership. He also announced that the word “cisgender,” a technical term used to refer to someone who identifies as the same gender they were assigned at birth, would be considered a slur, potentially resulting in suspensions or bans from Twitter. Meanwhile, tweets in CCDH’s study show comparisons of Black people to zoo animals.

Musk himself has insinuated that he agrees with some of the hate speech allowed on the platform; he has replied encouragingly to posts promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories and anti-trans hatred. Technically, Musk is no longer leading Twitter; he installed a new CEO, Linda Yaccarino. But Musk’s personal ideas and beliefs still appear to direct the platform.

Really, the rules of Twitter’s use seem clear: Follow the whims of Musk, and your tweets will be allowed. Otherwise, have your lawyer ready.

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