The Industry

One of the Biggest Red Flags of Elon Musk’s Twitter Takeover

He wants to “review” the company’s anti-trans harassment policy. There’s a worrying history here.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 31: Elon Musk attends Heidi Klum's 21st Annual Halloween Party presented by Now Screaming x Prime Video and Baileys Irish Cream Liqueur at Sake No Hana at Moxy Lower East Side on October 31, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for Heidi Klum)
Musk and his Halloween costume. Noam Galai/Getty Images

This article is adapted from Assigned, a project tracking anti-trans coverage in the media.

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has seen a hurricane of changes, including the firing of top executives, leaked plans to charge users to stay verified, and at least one ugly, entirely self-inflicted PR fumble. Musk has said he thinks content moderation is too heavy-handed on the platform. In that realm, he reportedly has two top priorities, according to Bloomberg News, which cites sources said to be familiar with the matter. “The first is Twitter’s general misinformation policy, which penalizes posts that include falsehoods about topics like election outcomes and Covid-19,” according to Bloomberg. The second is that “Musk has also asked the team to review Twitter’s hateful conduct policy, according to the people, specifically a section that says users can be penalized for ‘targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.’ ”

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In my work for the journalism project Assigned, I cover the overlap between transphobia and misinformation. Musk has dabbled, at the very least, in both. And it’s not hard to see a link between the two. 

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The connection between Musk’s desire to buy Twitter and his views on moderating harassment of transgender people isn’t an obscure one. Around the time Musk was buying up shares in Twitter earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported, he was upset that the Babylon Bee, a right-wing knockoff of the Onion, was required to remove a tweet misgendering a prominent trans woman in the U.S. government. Musk’s affinity for misinformation seems equally deep-seated. In one of Musk’s first tweets after assuming ownership of Twitter, the billionaire posted a link to a piece of false news from an untrustworthy far-right news source. This fake story sought to shift blame for the attempted assassination of Nancy Pelosi by a right-wing conspiracy theorist onto the LGBTQ community. It was subsequently removed by the site in question, and Musk apparently deleted his tweet. These sorts of incidents suggest that Musk, for all his power and wealth, is in one sense a victim of the ongoing right-wing disinformation movement, which treats people with reactionary beliefs as marks and tells them lies they’re calculated to like better than reality. Reactionary beliefs, in other words, are the foundation on which misinformation (and, for some, full-blown conspiracy theories) gets built.

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It’s impossible to know what’s in Musk’s head and heart. But there are certainly transgender people in his life. His ex-partner, Grimes, dated a trans woman after the split; his own trans daughter said, in changing her name, that “I no longer live with or wish to be related to my biological father in any way, shape or form.”

If transphobia made Musk more vulnerable to false news more broadly, he wouldn’t be the first. Transphobia is an effective gateway for misinformation because a lot of people are at least a little bit transphobic, and because so much misinformation on the right directly pertains to trans people, including blatant lies, but also half-truths, wishful thinking, and opinion masquerading as basic science. Anti-trans lies and propaganda work on people because they feel true for those already predisposed to be uncomfortable with trans people’s existence. (The overall phenomenon was famously described by Stephen Colbert, in 2005, as the concept of “truthiness.”)

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For example, there’s no particular reason to believe that girls are particularly vulnerable to social contagion effects, or that the rise in young people who identify as trans men or transmasculine has been caused by one. However, if you’re someone whose gut tells you that trans men aren’t men and can’t be trusted to describe their own experience, social contagion effects are an explanation that can sound plausible. Even people who consider themselves skeptics who follow the evidence (and Musk seems like he might be that sort) can become marks for obvious misinfo when the real evidence points in a direction that feels wrong to them.

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Whatever their source, Musk’s apparent attitudes toward trans people, and his vulnerability to lies and distortions brought on by his choice of media, are bad news for the social media platform he just bought, and especially bad news for trans people on Twitter. For all their talk of free speech as a value, the right-wingers and centrists who have made it their cause célèbre have never genuinely reckoned with the fact that trans people are much more likely to be online harassment targets than online harassers. In a way, the core disagreement between left and right on this isn’t about whether harassment chills free speech, but rather a disagreement of the factual question of who bears the brunt of the harassment, fancy columnists or ordinary trans people. Musk seems to believe that free speech is harmed when trans people have a voice and use it to push back against transphobia. Twitter’s policies against transphobic harassment are actually fairly limited, as any trans person can tell you. Every instance of misgendering is not removed, which makes sense when you read their guidelines, which state: “We prohibit targeting others with repeated slurs, tropes or other content that intends to dehumanize, degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes about a protected category. This includes targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.” Despite harassment still very much happening to trans people on Twitter, it’s been a place where trans people have often succeeded in the marketplace of ideas, in large part because there are no gatekeepers there to withhold access to amassing an audience on the basis of a transgender identity. (This dynamic has helped many groups find audiences on Twitter who have struggled to succeed in traditional print or broadcast media.)

Like others on the right, Musk seems to feel that anti-trans opinions should be protected to the point of removing restraints on harassment against trans people. This might make sense if the misinformation he seems to have consumed were true, and trans people were responsible for the bulk of all harassment on the internet. It is, however, completely false. Unfortunately Musk seems very invested in ensuring falsehoods thrive on Twitter under his leadership.

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