Maybe Elon Musk isn’t the “free speech maximalist” he’s claimed to be. Maybe he’s worried that the perpetually cash-strapped Twitter could keep losing advertisers under his watch. Maybe the European Union’s threats got to him.
Whatever it actually was, something led Twitter’s new owner on Thursday evening to take an action so far unprecedented in his monthlong reign: booting off a prominent far-right figure he had welcomed back to the platform merely a couple of weeks ago.
Even by the already-shocking standards of Kanye “Ye” West’s actions this year—against Jewish Americans and ex-wife Kim Kardashian, among others—the most recent weeks in Ye have been something else altogether. There was last week’s dinner with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, for which Ye brought along white nationalist Nick Fuentes. This week, he and Fuentes, joined by the Twitter-permabanned Gamergate alum Milo Yiannopoulos (who’s now … a staffer for Ye’s 2024 presidential campaign?), showed up to record an episode of YouTuber Tim Pool’s popular podcast. However, when Pool pushed back a touch on Ye’s antisemitic remarks, the rapper stormed out. Then, on a Thursday Infowars broadcast, Alex Jones, of all people, tried to get Ye to relent on statements like “There’s a lot of things I love about Hitler. A lot.” The Trump-loving social media platform West was potentially going to purchase, Parler, announced that same day that the deal wouldn’t go through after all.
By nighttime, West was even straining things with his longtime admirer Elon Musk. Back in October, before Musk took over, Ye lost his tweeting privileges following his post about going “death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.” He returned to Twitter in November, and Musk, who claims Ye’s account was unfrozen before he took the helm, eagerly interacted with the rapper, even though West has not let up on his antisemitic remarks. (Or clarified just why he wanted so badly to title his 2018 album Hitler.)
But by Thursday, about two weeks after he started tweeting again, Ye stepped into it. That night, he tweeted a graphic of a swastika imposed within a Star of David, captioned with “YE24 LOVE EVERYONE #LOVESPEECH.” He then tweeted screenshots of texts Musk subsequently sent him, which pointed to the graphic and read, “Sorry, but you have gone too far.” “We had a nice run,” West captioned the conversation screengrabs, before tweeting a strange photo of Elon Musk in a bathing suit getting hosed down by Ye objector Ari Emanuel; this was offered up as his “final tweet.” (Musk responded, “That is fine.”) But there was “one last window” Ye wanted to “break” before leaving: He posted an NBA player’s headshot and claimed, “I caught this guy with Kim.” With that window now smashed, Ye’s verified checkmark was removed and his account was suspended; Musk tweeted that West had “again violated our rule against incitement to violence.”
Vile as Ye’s symbology was, this was a confusing statement, and an apt representation of Musk’s weird content-moderation philosophy. For one, Twitter does not actually have a policy against “incitement to violence”—though its terms do outline that users “may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people” and that “we also prohibit the glorification of violence.” The “death con 3” tweet seemed an unambiguous threat, but the graphic Ye was banned for is a murkier case that doesn’t fit cleanly within those guidelines. It’s not surprising Musk is unclear about his own company’s rules. But one can support Musk’s move here while also realizing that it’s another manifestation of a flailing governing style.
Musk’s entire Twitter reign has been defined by trial-and-error rounds on issues that many of the Twitter employees he fired had been cognizant of for years. He rolled out pay-for verification before realizing the dangers of allowing any rando to claim certain identities (and he already had to be convinced to delay his verification overhaul until after the midterm elections). And in May, he tweeted, “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law”—but the Ye graphic, however reprehensible, is still not illegal within U.S. borders. It seems Musk only understands the need for specific content moderation policies when he is unable to ignore the problems that necessitate them—like when he cracked down on parodies specifically because people were impersonating him and his other companies, like Tesla.
Still, West is far from the only Nazi admirer Musk has welcomed back to Twitter. Myriad hateful and white supremacist figures who were previously banned from Twitter have regained their accounts recently. It’s clear they are taking the platform chief’s free speech ethos to spread hateful rhetoric similar to Ye’s: The New York Times reported Friday on “unprecedented” hate speech surges on Twitter under Musk’s watch. If Musk counts Kanye West’s swastika as a suspension-worthy offense, will he take action on all that other hate speech? If Twitter newcomers returnees like the neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin feel empowered to share vile symbols and rhetoric, will Musk be consistent and go after all of them, as well?
After all, another event like this is surely inevitable. Post-suspension, West immediately turned to Trump’s network, Truth Social, to post more screenshots of his conversation with Musk and to “stand in truth with two Jan 6ers.” There’s much more ugliness to come.