Elon Musk calls himself a ‘free speech absolutist’. Is it yet another one of his Twitter jokes?

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It’s official! Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man, is buying Twitter. He has used the social media platform, where he has more than 84 million followers, to shape his public persona – he riles people up, and when he wants to he gets all jokey. Now he wants to transform Twitter.

Musk has big plans for the site, which he believes is not living up to its potential as a free-speech platform. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” said Musk in a statement when the deal was announced Monday.

The billionaire who calls himself a “free speech absolutist” wants his worst critics to continue tweeting on the micro-blogging website which he believes is extremely “important for the future of civilisation”.

He wants to make Twitter a friendlier place for free expression by “being cautious about” permanent bans. “A social media platform’s policies are good if the most extreme 10% on left and right are equally unhappy,” he tweeted Tuesday.

But it’s one thing to tom-tom about free speech and another to take criticism in your stride. We take a look a Musk’s track record.

Firing employees

If the Tesla CEO’s employees and critics are to be believed his “free speech” claims are nothing but a farce. Leave aside defending their right to speak up, Musk has in the past stifled it, slapping people with lawsuits and finding a way to punish them for their condemnation. He has fired employees who have disagreed with him.

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John Bernal, a former Telsa employee was sacked, after he posted YouTube reviews of the car’s autopilot function on his channel. The video showed his Tesla hitting a billboard.

Before the dismissal, Bernal was told by his managers that he “broke Tesla policy” and that his YouTube channel was a “conflict of interest”. However, the written separation notice did not specify a reason for his firing.

“Seems @elonmusk is a free speech absolutist… unless it involves safety concerns IMO,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday.

In a video posted earlier this month, Bernal said, “I was fired from Tesla in February with my YouTube being cited as the reason why. Even though my uploads are from my personal vehicle off company time or property with the software I paid for.”

Bernal is not the only one who has paid a heavy price for censuring Tesla. Cristina Balan was fired from the company after she raised alarms about the safety of vehicles. That’s not all. The company also started leaking misinformation about her to the press. Balan, who has filed a defamation suit against Tesla, told The Times, “Musk is an absolutist about absolutism, which is the exact opposite of free speech.”

The Tesla Motors CEO has fired employees who have been critical of the company. AFP

The Tesla Motors CEO has fired employees who have been critical of the company. AFP

Going after journalists, critics

Those who are not working with Telsa but are engaging with the company as customers or journalists are far from safe.

It requires customers testing the full self-driving technology to sign nondisclosure agreements that say they should “selectively” choose what they post to YouTube because “there are a lot of people that want Tesla to fail”, reports LA Times.

A journalist, who did not give rave views to the Tesla Model X launch event, was called by Musk and had their order for the vehicle cancelled.

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Things didn’t go well for an unnamed investor, who goes by the moniker “Montana Skeptic”, when he predicted that Tesla’s stock would tank. Musk found out who he was, called his company, and threatened to sue.

Skeptic decided to deactivate his Twitter account and stopped writing about Tesla. “My response to his [Musk’s} threats was simply to protect my employer and preserve my employment,” he wrote in a blog.

‘Not a guy you want to cross’

Musk’s alleged intolerance extends beyond Tesla. After cave rescue driver Vernon Unsworth said that Musk sending engineers and subamarine to rescue stranded children in Thailand was a “PR student”, the entrepreneur called the man a “pedo” (paedophile) on Twitter. He hired a private investigator to prove his accusation and called the man a “child rapist” in an email to a BuzzFeed reporter.

Unsworth sued Musk but lost the case. His lawyers argued that a reasonable person should not take his tweets seriously.

Musk “is willing to go to great lengths to punish or retaliate against people who speak ill of him,” Ed Niedermeyer, who struggled to find sources to talk to him, even off the record, for his book on Tesla, told LA Times. Sources who did contact the writer told him “Elon Musk is not a guy you want to cross”.

Elon Musk is one of Twitter's most-followed personalities with more than 83 million followers. AP

Elon Musk is one of Twitter’s most-followed personalities with more than 84 million followers. AP

The malicious MuskBros

Musk has vowed to “defeat the spam bots or die trying”. Ironically, many of his and Tesla’s millions of followers are bots.

He also has a dedicated fan base that is known to viciously attack and troll people online, and even run dedicated campaigns against them if they have anything unsavoury to say about Tesla or its owner. They often dox people for having views that are not favourable to either.

Musk’s fans who revere him are “known for haranguing people they believe have crossed him, journalists especially, with relentless fervour,” writes The Verge in an article titled ‘The Gospel of Elon Musk, According to his Flock’.

If Musk hits out at the media over negative publicity, his fans follow. They continue to attack those singled out by the entrepreneur for days. Some of the toxic fan base do not hesitate to target women.

“…there is an army —mostly young, mostly white, almost entirely men—that marches behind him. These MuskBros, as we call them, make it their mission to descend on women who criticise Musk, and tear them to pieces. I know, because it has happened to me. More than once,” wrote journalist Erin Baba in The Daily Beast.

Musk might call himself the poster boy of free speech but evidence suggests otherwise.

With inputs from agencies

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