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It sure seems like Elon Musk is purging left-leaning Twitter accounts

Musk isn't the champion of free speech he claims he is.
Image:Elon Musk speaks during a press conference at SpaceX's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas.
Elon Musk speaks during a press conference at SpaceX's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas on Feb. 10, 2022.Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images file

Elon Musk has presented his brief tenure as the CEO of Twitter as a bid to revive "free speech" on the platform. But there are signs that he is quietly suspending left-leaning Twitter accounts for ideological reasons, while reinstating far-right accounts that broke Twitter's rules in the past.

It's a deeply worrisome development. Musk has established himself as the fickle king of the one of the most influential public squares in the anglophone world. He currently has absolute power to silence any dissent in a space where news and commentary go a long way toward shaping political possibility. Right now it looks he's choosing to intervene against the left, while simultaneously reactivating accounts of neo-Nazis and other far-right figures who were generally booted off the platform for hate speech or incitement to violence. The emerging picture is a political agenda to tilt the platform in favor of the far right.

One thing two accounts suspended last week had in common is that they both very recently mocked Musk.

According to a report in The Intercept, Musk has suspended several notable left-wing accounts over the past week or so. A number of them were anti-fascist researchers and organizers who focused on documenting far-right activity.

Notably, the disabled accounts documented in the report were singled out for criticism by the far-right writer Andy Ngo, who Musk often publicly interacts with on Twitter. "Musk invited Ngo to report 'Antifa accounts' that should be suspended directly to him," the Intercept reported. In at least once case, Ngo seems to have succeeded at directing Musk to suspend an account that Ngo failed to get suspended by Twitter before Musk took over the company.

There have been other puzzling examples of Twitter disproportionately suspending liberal or left-leaning accounts — some of which are just as mysteriously reinstated later — for no obvious reason can be explained by Twitter's terms of service. But one thing two accounts suspended last week had in common is that they both very recently mocked Musk.

These kinds of suspensions have a chilling effect on speech on the platform. I comment regularly on Musk on Twitter, and I'm now more concerned about how I word my critical posts because I fear being kicked off a platform that's essential for my livelihood. I've also noticed several examples of Twitter users who find my views objectionable tagging Musk in their responses to my tweets, with the intention of getting my account flagged or suspended.

That practice of tagging Musk to get his attention illustrates a recognition of the emerging reality that Twitter is being run as a dictatorship. Like any dictator, Musk appears sensitive about his power and arbitrary in his judgments. He's suspending accounts unilaterally without clear explanations. He threatened permanent bans after users went wild impersonating him. He's making hugely consequential decisions about reinstating political figures who have incited violence, like former President Donald Trump, through preposterous user polls rigged in favor of an outcome he prefers.

Twitter is in a state of unusual chaos due to Musk's managerial strategy, which has involved him instantly laying off most of the company's staff. Theoretically, one could give him him the benefit of the doubt and surmise that skyrocketing hate speech is a temporary hiccup that necessarily accompanies a massive rehaul of a company that's always been far from perfect.

But Musk has forfeited his right to that generosity through his own reckless and clearly politically motivated behavior in sabotaging Twitter's verification system, his eagerness to court right-wing attention, and his open flirtation with white supremacist ideology. In light of his embrace of an authoritarian movement, it seems more than plausible that Musk wants to run Twitter as an authoritarian as well.