After news broke that Elon Musk plans to purchase Twitter, anti-trans figures celebrated by wantonly breaking the platform’s rules against misgendering and begging the billionaire to bring back accounts suspended for anti-trans hate. Despite their reactions, Musk’s purchase will take months to finalize and Twitter’s rules against misgendering and deadnaming remain in effect.
The adulation is rooted partly in the fact that Musk has a long history of expressing animus toward trans people and making phony appeals to free speech. But it’s also related to the possibility that Musk’s purchase of Twitter was partly inspired by a desire to restore the right-wing parody site The Babylon Bee after it was suspended for harassing a transgender government official.
Reactions to Musk’s Twitter takeover reveal the sort of platform anti-trans figures hope to build under the billionaire’s ownership
Immediately following the announcement of Musk’s pending purchase, right-wing figures took to Twitter to celebrate what they assumed would be their newfound ability to further target trans people with hateful rhetoric. Many invoked the attacks on Adm. Rachel Levine that had resulted in the high-profile suspensions of accounts for The Babylon Bee and The Christian Post.
Worse still, Twitter appears to already be caving to pressure from right-wing outlets by refusing to enforce its content policies on misgendering, allowing verified accounts with sizeable followings to break the rules without repercussions. Here are just a few examples of tweets breaking the platform’s rules, all of which were still on Twitter as of May 4 at 9 a.m. EDT.
- Right-wing columnist Larry Taunton: “Rachel Levine is a man. Not a woman. A man in drag with a woman’s name. AN EFFING MAN. I can say the truth now!”
- Daily Wire culture reporter Megan Basham: “‘Rachel’ Levine is a man and God bless the Babylon Bee.”
- Blaze TV’s Sara Gonzales: “Rachel Levine is a man.”
- Conservative Youtuber Behizy tweeted a picture of Levine, adding, “Can we all finally agree that this is a man?”
- Right-wing radio host John Gibson: “A twitter experiment: Rachel Levine is a man.”
- The Daily Signal: "‘Elon Musk buying Twitter has shown these would-be totalitarians they don't have as much power as they thought,’ says feminist Meghan Murphy, who was banned by Twitter for “misgendering” a man.’” (Murphy was banned in 2018 for misgendering a trans woman.)
Others took to the platform to call on Musk to reinstate accounts banned for targeting trans people, as seen here:
- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): “Free @TheBabylonBee”
- Right-wing radio host Clay Travis: “Rejoice. Elon Musk now owns Twitter. What are your suggestions for him? Mine are free @TheBabylonBee & bring back Alex Berenson. For starters at least.”
- The Daily Signal: “Memo to @elonmusk: here's some accounts you might want to let back on Twitter or speak freely again.” (The tweet included a link to an article from The Daily Signal titled “11 People and Outlets Censored by Twitter for Questioning Gender Ideology.”)
- Conservative commentator Adrian Hilton: “I'd definitely like to see Graham Linehan @Glinner restored to Twitter – a man more sinned against than sinning; his treatment has been appalling.” (Linehan is a TV show creator reportedly banned from Twitter in 2020 for posting anti-trans rhetoric.)
- Former OAN host Liz Wheeler: “Hey @elonmusk, bring back: Babylon Bee. ... And the journalist who interviewed NCAA swimmers about Lia Thomas.”
Some large accounts banned for attacking Levine have already returned and made their intent to continue harassing the trans community clear. After the pending sale was announced, Fox’s Tucker Carlson and Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk both silently deleted the offending tweets that earned them bans, with Carlson's team insinuating that Musk’s purchase prompted their return.
Upon returning, Kirk tweeted, “What Thought Crimes should I commit today on Twitter?” In the days since, Kirk has used the platform to push anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, tweeting on April 28, “We have a two-party system in America right now. It's the Parents Party or the Perverts Party.” A day later, Kirk tweeted, “The same people who think men can get periods and women can have penises want to put an end to ‘disinformation.’ Make it make sense.”
Elon Musk wants to help craft the platform that anti-trans bigots crave
It appears increasingly likely that Musk’s Twitter takeover was inspired at least in part by a specific disdain for rules on misgendering. After The Babylon Bee was suspended in March for misgendering Levine, the outlet’s chief executive said, Musk called him to verify the suspension, reportedly musing that he “might need to buy Twitter.”
Since purchasing the platform, Musk has shared at least two memes that originated in circles of anti-trans discourse. On April 27, Musk tweeted a meme of a discussion between right-wing podcaster Tim Pool and Twitter’s general counsel Vijaya Gadde in which Pool argues that rules against misgendering are an example of left-wing bias in social media. Musk used this reasoning to make similar assertions about bias on Twitter. The next day, Musk tweeted a meme suggesting those on the left had been unduly radicalized. The meme originated with anti-trans campaigner Colin Wright, who has attacked the LGBTQ suicide prevention hotline The Trevor Project for providing confidential counseling to at-risk youth.
The potential deleterious outcomes of Musk’s Twitter ownership for trans people do not stop at targeted harassment, however. As noted by journalist Katelyn Burns, Musk has also suggested requiring users to verify their identity, a policy that could lead to many trans people being exiled from the platform due to not having legal documents that match their name.
Musk’s transformation of Twitter into a repository for hate could still fail. Until then, Twitter’s leadership has a responsibility to enforce the rules.
Musk purchased Twitter to force the platform to conform to his worldview, one shaped by faux free speech idealism and the right to target other users, and indeed the rules banning misgendering and deadnaming of trans people may be the first policy changes Musk would seek to implement should the sale be finalized. However, Musk’s $44 billion does not necessarily mean he will succeed in building his haven for harassment.
Aside from the myriad ways in which the deal could fall apart, or even the possibility that he will just lose interest, Musk might also discover that running a platform absent of rules that protect its clientele is not the financial boon he might think it is.
Musk has said rules on content should be dictated only by the laws of the country in which users reside. Not only can this have serious implications for users who reside in countries with governments that criminalize LGBTQ people, but this is also the same moderation policy of platforms like 8Chan, a site that has platformed extremist rhetoric, including calls for violence, against the LGBTQ community.
The advertisers that provide Twitter with nearly 90% of its funding could lose interest if its user base begins to shrink due to a user experience marred by trolling and intimidation. Internally, Twitter employees have already expressed concern that having “an open homophobe and transphobe” at the helm of the company will hurt their ability to recruit new talent. As Adam Conner, vice president for technology policy at the Center for American Progress, put it, “Elon Musk will have to learn the hard way what everyone who has run Twitter has learned. An unmoderated space is not one that functions for long.”
Correction (5/4/22): This piece originally stated that tweets breaking Twitter’s rules against misgendering were still up as of 9 a.m. May 5; the date should have been listed as May 4.