Editorial: Musk already showing his true colors

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday November 2, 2022
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Elon Musk had owned Twitter for three days when he retweeted a baseless anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory about the recent attack on Paul Pelosi. Photo: Courtesy Sky News
Elon Musk had owned Twitter for three days when he retweeted a baseless anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory about the recent attack on Paul Pelosi. Photo: Courtesy Sky News

Elon Musk had owned Twitter for all of three days before he retweeted an anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory about the vicious assault on Paul Pelosi, who is the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Paul Pelosi, 82, was attacked around 2:30 a.m. October 28 when a man, later identified as David DePape, allegedly broke into the home and attacked him with a hammer, fracturing his skull and causing other injuries. DePape was quickly apprehended by San Francisco police and now faces numerous federal and state charges in connection with the incident. Nancy Pelosi was not at home at the time, and DePape allegedly called out, "Where's Nancy?" an eerie echo of shouts made by some of the January 6 insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol nearly two years ago.

It's important to recognize that the attack on Paul Pelosi is an extreme result of just how toxic political discourse has become activated in this country. According to reports, DePape told Paul Pelosi that he would wait until Nancy Pelosi returned home, and allegedly brought tools with him including a hammer and zip-ties. Republicans have used Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in U.S. politics and second in line to the presidency, as a bogeywoman for years, hurling insults on social media and in campaign ads.

But leave it to Musk, who just spent $44 billion to acquire Twitter, to try and out-Trump former President Donald Trump with his tweet spreading a bizarre anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory about the attack that had been published on the Santa Monica Observer, a fringe website with a legitimate sounding name, as the Los Angeles Times has reported. Musk was responding to a tweet by former secretary of state and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who was critical of the Republican Party spreading "hate and deranged conspiracy theories." Musk responded early Sunday morning with a tweet that said, "There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye," and linked to the baseless article. Musk deleted his tweet about five hours later, but by then it had been retweeted more than 30,000 times and liked more than 110,000 times.

That episode, in a nutshell, is why LGBTQs should be very concerned about Musk as the owner of Twitter. It is now a private company, and he has dissolved its board (though he apparently plans to name a new one). It's no secret that Musk has had his issues with Twitter, and has been critical of the company's bans on officials like Trump. But to have the world's richest man diving into the cesspool of baseless claims and then spreading that misinformation to thousands of people is dangerous. And it's not the first time. In 2018, Musk called experienced British caver Vernon Unsworth a "pedo guy" in a tweet because the two got into a war of words over Musk's efforts to help with the rescue of the trapped Thai schoolboys. Unsworth sued Musk for defamation but lost in federal court in Los Angeles.

We're not alone in our concern now that Musk owns Twitter. The Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest LGBTQ rights organization, issued a statement October 27 after Musk officially acquired the social media company. It said the deal raises questions about content moderation and safety for marginalized people.

"We are very concerned about Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter," stated Jay Brown, HRC's senior vice president of programs, research, and training. "Musk has pledged to restore the accounts of dangerous people who push extremism and disinformation. When this happens, Twitter — a place where many marginalized people, including LGBTQ+ people, find both community and face an onslaught of hate — will quickly become even more hostile. Adding insult to injury, Musk's reported plans to cut staff levels — including employees who provide moderation — are deeply troubling.

"As a company, Twitter has a right, and a responsibility, to keep its platform from being exploited to fuel a dangerous media environment," Brown added. "This isn't about censorship or discrimination of ideas — it is about what kind of company they want to be and what kind of world they want to shape."

Based on Musk's first few days of ownership, we're not holding our breath that he cares about any of this. When you're as rich as Musk, you play by your own rules. He's demonstrated that with his Tesla car company, when he defied Alameda County shut down orders in the early months of COVID, and he seems to be operating Twitter one tweet at a time. Granted, there's a lot we don't know about in terms of Musk's plans. He has floated the idea of creating a content moderation council, which will be made up of people with "widely diverse viewpoints," per a tweet. As of now, he wrote, no changes have been made to content moderation, but one of his first acts as the new owner was to fire the content moderation chief — as well as the CEO and other executives.

Make no mistake, Twitter was already fertile ground for bigotry against LGBTQs long before Musk took it over, and since then the platform has seen haters come out of the woodwork with antisemitic tropes and anti-Asian prejudice. The company was often slow to respond to reports of alleged violations of its terms of service — like virtually every other social media platform. What's different here is that there is now no public accountability for this company and that is indeed alarming. The bird may be free and feel freer to spew hatred and disinformation.

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