"Free speech absolutist” Elon Musk bans journalists, brings back far-right activists

Twitter's mercurial new boss has allowed right-wing extremists to return, while banning reporters on flimsy excuses

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published December 24, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Elon Musk (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Elon Musk (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It has been a chaotic week on Twitter, even by the standards of Elon Musk's brief tenure as the site's owner and CEO. Shortly after abruptly suspending the Twitter accounts of several prominent reporters for the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and other outlets, Musk reinstated several accounts associated with far-right commentary which had been banned for spreading misinformation about the 2020 election or the COVID pandemic.

Musk claimed the journalists in question had "doxxed" him by publishing articles about Musk's suspension of a Twitter account that had shared public information about the movements of his private jet. In fact, their articles did not share any information about Musk's real-time location or that of any of his family members. At most, they wrote about sites where that information was hypothetically available.

"If you doxx, you get suspended," Musk posted earlier in the week. That's it. End of story." Shortly after that he changed his mind, tweeting that Twitter would lift the suspensions following the results of a public poll on the site in which a majority of respondents favored doing so immediately. 

Musk's feud with journalists seemed to become increasingly capricious as the days passed. He also suspended the account of Insider columnist Linette Lopez, who hadn't written anything about the flight-tracker site or Musk's private jet, but has reported on his business career for years. All this has unfolded against the backdrop of Musk's announced "amnesty" for a large number of suspended accounts with a verifiable record of posting misinformation and amplifying false right-wing talking points, according to Media Matters

Musk has reportedly reinstated more than 15,500 accounts, including such prominent users as Donald Trump, British far-right commentator Katie Hopkins, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, former Trump aide turned podcaster Steve Bannon and various others. Many reinstated accounts belong to allies of Trump and MAGA World personalities who promoted falsehoods about the election or played important roles in fueling the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, for example, has remained one of Trump's most tireless supporters in spreading outlandish claims that the 2020 election was stolen or rigged by an array of foreign hackers and left-liberal operatives. Under Twitter's former ownership, Lindell was permanently banned him in January 2021 for consistently violating the platform's misinformation policy and posting false election fraud claims. 

After his account was restored, Lindell returned to Twitter in celebratory fashion, tweeting: "Thank you @elonmusk and by the way MELT DOWN THE ELECTRONIC VOTING MACHINES AND TURN THEM INTO PRISON BARS!"

Last February, Dominion Voting Systems, a leading manufacturer of voting machines and election software sued Lindell (and various others, including former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and Fox News) for defamation over those claims, seeking more than $1.3 billion in damages.  

It does not appear, however, that Lindell is ready to back down in his crusade against voting machines. The bedding entrepreneur recently went after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely Trump opponent in the 2024 Republican primaries, making the implausible claim that DeSantis' re-election campaign this year was boosted by voter fraud.

In a recent appearance on "The Lindell Report," his eponymous online news-talk program, the Pillow Guy outlined a brand new conspiracy theory and said he wanting to audit this fall's Florida election, in the spirit of bipartisanship.

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell celebrated his return to Twitter with an all-caps post — "MELT DOWN THE ELECTRONIC VOTING MACHINES" — and an implausible attack on Ron DeSantis.

"So I'm just going to show everybody, just like we always tell you about Democrats where they stole their elections.... I'm going to find out in Dade County, what happened there," he said. (DeSantis carried Miami-Dade County, which traditionally leans Democratic, in winning a sweeping statewide victory over Democrat Charlie Crist.)

Lindell previously published a series of graphs on his social media accounts and on his livestreams that purported to show real-time midterm election updates. He referred to apparent upswings in Democratic candidates' vote counts as "crime spikes," theorizing that large amounts of votes for a Democrat was evidence of nefarious activity.

But these "spikes" based on unofficial election data were not evidence of anything, let alone fraud. Vote counts can change dramatically as areas that are heavily Republican or Democratic report their results, and in any case Lindell was relying on data from Edison Research, which provides unofficial tallies while results are being counted, as Reuters reports.

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Another prominent election denier who recently had his Twitter account reinstated is former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, who was suspended by the site days after the Jan. 6 attack for repeatedly spreading false claims that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen.

Byrne testified last summer to the House Jan. 6 committee about attending a now-infamous White House meeting with Trump's inner circle on Dec. 18, 2020, to discuss how the then-president could potentially overturn the election results. That was the meeting at which attorney Sidney Powell urged Trump to appoint her as a special prosecutor, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn suggested that Trump should declare martial law and order the U.S. military to seize voting machines in states Joe Biden had won.

"Elon Musk's acquisition and subsequent running of Twitter will radically transform the current information landscape in much the same way that the emergence of Fox News changed the information landscape back in the late '90s — and we will all be worse off for it," Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, said in a statement.

Musk has called himself as a "free speech absolutist" despite his long pattern of retaliatory moves against critics, and has repeatedly denounced Twitter's prior content moderation policies, both before and after he bought the site and since then. Some of the extremists whose accounts he has reinstated since taking control, critics suggest, have flooded the platform with overtly racist and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Also returning to Twitter have been QAnon conspiracy theorists like Greg Locke, Shiva Ayyadurai and Mindy Robinson, all previously suspended for spreading misinformation. 

Those returning users and many others on the right have celebrated Musk's ownership, and lament his recent vow to step down as Twitter CEO if and when he can find a replacement. Media watchdog and advocacy groups, meanwhile, have raised concerns that Musk's control of Twitter may have serious consequences for data privacy and will likely fuel increased online harassment and extremism.

"Simply put: Twitter is now on a glide path to becoming a supercharged engine of radicalization," said Carusone of Media Matters. "Under Musk's leadership, Twitter will become a fever swamp of dangerous conspiracy theories, partisan chicanery, and operationalized harassment."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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Elon Musk Far-right Furthering Media Matters Mike Lindell Qanon Social Media Twitter