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2 December 2022

Elon Musk’s Kanye West problem

If you give awful people the ability to say anything they like, you can’t be surprised when they say something awful.

By Marc Burrows

“Kanye West has been suspended from Twitter for posting anti-Semitic images” is not a headline likely to surprise anyone that has followed the ups and downs of the rapper now known as Ye. He was banned from both Twitter and Instagram earlier in the year for the same reason, and it’s not a rhetoric he has particularly toned down since. His second booting from the platform comes with the familiar grinding sound of grim inevitability.

Ye is one of several people previously blocked from Twitter who were allowed back on to the service following Elon Musk’s much-publicised takeover of the company in October. Others include the former US president Donald Trump, the conspiracist congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, the misogynist “manosphere” influencer Andrew Tate, the tedious agitator Jordan Peterson and right-wing satirists Babylon Bee. On 23 November, Musk ran a Twitter poll asking followers whether a “general amnesty” should be held for accounts that had not “not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam”. His followers overwhelmingly agreed. “The people have spoken,” replied Musk.

Leaving aside that Twitter operates in hundreds of countries, many of which have completely different laws around hate speech and incitement on public platforms, and that “people that follow Elon Musk” is not “the people” (it is, at best, “some people”), this amnesty gets to the heart of the problems with Musk’s “Twitter 2.0”. He wants a “town square”, where honest and frank views can be professed and discussed in an attitude of openness and acceptance, brands can advertise their products, fans can post rapturously about their idols and everyday Twitter users can get on with the business of being weird, hilarious and unnecessarily over-sharing. This is, after all, just how we like it.

But Musk can’t have what he wants. The Kanye West problem shows us why. Ye was banned for posting inexcusable and consistently anti-Semitic and racist views. Just over a month later he was back – and within a matter of days he had posted image of a Star of David overlaid with a swastika. If you give awful people the ability to say anything they like, you can’t be surprised when they say something awful.

Freedom of speech is a noble principle, and one that we should absolutely aspire too. No one is doubting this. Robust debate is necessary, and to be honest it’s kind of fun as well. It’s one of the things we go to Twitter for. (That and the weird memes.)

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But as is often said on these occasions, “freedom of speech” doesn’t mean “freedom of consequence”. Twitter has a responsibility to draw a clear line about what is “right” or “wrong”, and it can’t just be based on “the law”, because even just between the EU and the US those laws are different. The company has to take a stand. That doesn’t mean being “left wing” or “right wing” either, it just means policymaking that’s based on empathy. On admitting that there are certain kinds of speech we should not platform.

The “anything goes within the law” approach, the one that seems so central to Twitter 2.0 can’t work. Not in the long run. Allowing toxic, racist, transphobic, homophobic and misogynist views that are within “the law” is going to drive away the platform’s most engaged users, and as Hugo Rifkind pointed out in a Times piece a few weeks ago, scare off advertisers in their droves. It’s already begun. And that will be the final nail in the coffin.

Users on the platform have been joking for weeks now that “the end is nigh”, and so far despite laying off swathes of staff, Musk has managed to keep the lights on (incidentally, if Twitter really was the fundamentally leftist organisation Musk claimed it was, staff would have been unionised, and better protected from layoffs).

The organisation needs money though. Lots of it. That $44bn Musk used to buy the company didn’t come from the back of his couch. He borrowed a lot of it, and it’s gaining interest every day. Twitter’s financial lifeblood has always been advertising, and advertisers go where the wind blows. They go with the crowd. If every banned user just does what Ye did and picks up their old drum to bang once again, the core users are going to abandon their playground, meaning the advertisers will follow and take their ball with them. The company needs to act quickly and decisively on these issues, continue to place common sense and empathy at the heart of its policies and decide, definitively, what is “right” and what is “wrong”.

[See also: Ye, Adidas and the trap of celebrity anti-Semitism]

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