Twitter owner Elon Musk has a long history of silencing journalists and critics while branding himself as a “free speech absolutist,” most recently suing the Center for Countering Digital Hate over an investigation into hate speech on Twitter (now rebranded as X). A Media Matters review found that 77% of articles that mentioned Musk's claim that he is pro-free speech or would make Twitter a free speech platform failed to push back on his claims.
In the lead-up to his takeover of Twitter in October 2022, Musk branded himself as a free speech advocate intent on establishing the platform as a “digital town square,” free from an often bemoaned but ultimately nonexistent anti-conservative bias. However, mainstream media coverage of Musk rarely questions his supposed commitment to free speech, despite a long history of suppressing his critics.
A Media Matters review of articles published in the top five U.S. newspapers — The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times — found that out of 119 articles mentioning Musk’s self-professed pro-free speech position published since his October 2022 takeover of Twitter, 92 of them (77%) failed to include any pushback or mention of his previous actions to suppress speech at his various companies.
Musk has a documented track record of controlling speech that he does not like. While serving as the president and CEO of electric car manufacturer Tesla and rocket manufacturer SpaceX, Musk notably:
- Required former employees to sign strict nondisparagement agreements “with no end-date” when they left Tesla, and withheld severance pay and benefits from former employees who refused to sign them.
- Barred journalists from an outlet that published stories on Tesla requiring customers to pay separately for hardware that was included in the sticker price of the car from attending Tesla product launches and press events.
- Pressured Tesla car owners to sign agreements including nondisclosure clauses as a precondition for regular vehicle maintenance and repairs.
- Fired at least five employees after an open letter circulated at SpaceX expressing concerns over Musk’s leadership.
Musk’s anti-free speech actions since taking over Twitter have often targeted individual users of the site or journalists who wrote remotely critical articles about him. Despite Musk’s history of limiting the ability of employees, customers, and the press to criticize his leadership at other companies, the top 5 U.S. newspapers still under-covered Musk’s suppression of speech on Twitter. Notably, Musk has:
- Banned journalists who published articles critical of Musk’s leadership of Twitter, including reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN.
- Designated NPR, the CBC, the BBC, and other public news outlets as “state-affiliated” or “government-funded” media while publicly lambasting their coverage as “propaganda,” leading several news outlets to abandon their presence on the platform.
- Removed a BBC documentary critical of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi after being pressured by Indian government officials.
- Fired multiple Twitter employees who were critical of his leadership, including one engineer who suggested Musk’s low post engagement was due to a lack of interest from users.
- Banned a Twitter account that tracked his private jet’s flight information, which is publicly accessible.
- Artificially throttled posts containing links to the blogging platform Substack, ensuring a decrease in views and engagement on posts containing linked content.
Media Matters searched print articles in the Factiva database from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today for either of the terms “Twitter” or “Musk” within 50 words of either of the terms “free speech” or “freedom of speech” from October 28, 2022, when Elon Musk took control of Twitter, through July 28, 2023.
We included articles, which we defined as instances when an article included at least one passage claiming that Musk is pro-freedom of speech or that he will make Twitter a free-speech platform.
We then reviewed the identified articles for whether they mentioned any criticism of Musk’s claims as a champion of free speech, which included instances that described Musk, past or present, as engaging in anti-free speech activities, such as limiting or suspending Twitter accounts or removing tweets, or silencing critics through legal intimidation or revoking employment.