News broke on Monday afternoon that Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, had acquired Twitter for $44 billion. In Musk’s telling, this move is simply about the public good and his attempt to restore free speech to what he calls “a digital town square." There is ample reason to question this narrative, given Musk’s history of using the platform for legally dubious ends, as well as his unambiguous anti-union, anti-speech, anti-worker policies and positions as Tesla leader.
Unfortunately, many of the initial reports adopted Musk’s framing without question or critique. To the extent that any were critical of Musk, it was largely through innuendo or suggestion, rather than concrete examples from his past.
The New York Times wrote that Musk “has had a rocky relationship with online speech.” The post then mentioned Musk’s attempt to remove a Twitter account that tracked the publicly available movements of his private jet, which is a fine — if relatively low-stakes — example of how Musk deals with his adversaries. Another Times write-up entirely adopted Musk’s preferred framing, telling its readers that the top issue he sought to address was “free speech” and Musk’s worry that “content moderators go too far.”
The Washington Post told its readers in the second paragraph of its story on the deal that Musk “took umbrage with content moderation efforts he views as an escalation toward censorship. He said he sees Twitter as essential to the functioning of democracy and said the economics are not a concern.”
A Wall Street Journal report speculated whether Musk will bring “his commitment to a more hands-off approach on speech to a company that has struggled to reconcile freewheeling conversation with content that appeals to advertisers.” The same story described Musk’s proposed changes as getting the platform to “softening its stance on content moderation.” Unlike the Times, neither the Post nor the Journal gave their readers reason to doubt Musk’s commitment to “free speech.”
In some cases, outlets added some information about Musk’s history later – often burying it and not changing the original story or the framing of his intentions. The Los Angeles Times’ write-up highlighted Musk's stated free speech concerns, and although the story included Musk's history of misleading the Securities and Exchange Commission, that information came late in the story. CNN’s digital newsroom included some language later in the piece to reflect general concerns about Musk's approach, but those details largely took a back seat to the friendlier framing up top.
Axios offered a milquetoast “both sides” framing in its report, writing that the deal is “sure to be criticized by those who disagree with Musk's laissez-faire views on content moderation and cheered by those who believe Twitter has been too heavy-handed with its block button.”
Some outlets did more than others to push back against Musk’s framing of himself as a “free speech absolutist,” such as CNBC’s reporting, which was surprisingly antagonistic. “Though Musk has indicated that his primary interest in Twitter has to do with what he views as the company’s censorship of free speech, Musk critics are concerned that the billionaire’s control over the platform will result in the silencing of their voices and others with whom he may disagree, given that he’s often blocked critics from his personal account,” CNBC’s Lauren Feiner reported.
Like many in the conservative movement, Musk is masking his reactionary views behind the banner of “free speech.” There’s no reason for mainstream outlets to do his work for him.