Elon Musk’s Top 10 Free Speech Moments in 2023

In 2023, Elon Musk metamorphosed X into, perhaps, the formidable opponent of the censorship industry since its birth in 2016. Musk, who named himself a “free speech absolutist” as he completed the acquisition of Twitter in October 2022, has made good in myriad respects on his promise to roll back speech suppression on the platform.

Musk’s success is evident from the words of the most influential censorship thought leaders themselves. Government-funded censor Alex Stamos warned Musk that he would face a “hellish existence” if he restored free speech on the platform — then lamented “Twitter’s Thursday Night Massacre” as censors were fired. Dean Jackson, formerly of the U.S. government’s foremost regime change outfit, the National Endowment for Democracy, complained in a podcast that Musk’s decision to roll back censorship and cut staff at censorship departments became “often imitated by other companies” like Meta. Katie Harbath, of the Atlantic Council, cited Musk’s free speech policies in her call for censorship network colleagues to “Panic Responsibly” ahead of the 2024 election. Musk and X now set the standard for reversing the tech industry’s 2017-2022 lurch towards censorship.

Here are ten examples of Musk and X’s historic contributions to rolling back the censorship industry:

1) Disbanding the Trust and Safety Council

“Trust and Safety,” along with “election integrity,” evolved into one of the major pretexts for platform censorship between 2016 and 2022. It once referred to a fairly benign goal: protecting users from spam, phishing, malware, and other types of non-political junk content. But, over time, the role of trust and safety departments in suppressing political speech became their most high-profile and notorious feature.

Shortly after his takeover, Musk disbanded X’s “trust and safety” council, an advisory council made up of several external organizations. The trust and safety council’s members included the Anti-Defamation League, a notoriously pro-censorship nonprofit that would go on to whip a massive advertising boycott against Musk’s platform, joining 26 other NGOs that called for an advertiser boycott before Musk’s purchase of the company was even finalized.

By the time of Musk’s takeover, the ADL was firmly embedded in the censorship industry. In 2020, it founded Stop Hate For Profit, a coalition of organizations that pressure social media platforms and their advertisers to censor disfavored political content. Its first order of business was urging Facebook advertisers to use their influence to censor “misinformation and conspiracies” on the platform. Musk’s decision to snub the ADL was a strong signal of his genuine belief that free speech is valuable enough to weather blowback from the censorship industry.

Musk would later double down, branding the ADL a partisan organization that operates far beyond its stated mandate of combating anti-Semitism.

2) Reinstating Banned Accounts 

Banning Donald Trump from every major platform was a high water mark in dystopic achievements for the censorship industry. In January 2021, years of influence-building and pressure campaigns culminated in the unprecedented removal of a sitting U.S. president from every major digital platform.

It wasn’t just social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook: Trump was also cut off from essential e-commerce tools like PayPal and Shopify. The digital silencing of an elected head of state even drew murmurs of concern from jurisdictions that are usually allies of the censorship industry, like Germany and the European Union.

Musk’s takeover of Twitter ensured that the censorship industry would be pushed back from their high water-mark. In November 2022, shortly after his takeover of the company, Musk restored Trump’s account. The decision set a trend: Facebook unbanned the former President’s account two months later in January 2023, with Google-owned YouTube following suit in March.

X went further than just unbanning Trump. Major accounts that had been banned under Jack Dorsey’s regime, such as influencers ALX and Laura Loomer, were reinstated. Dissident voices from abroad were also allowed back on: the English activists Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins, who had been banned from multiple platforms following pressure from UK-based “anti-hate” nonprofits as well as elected officials in the UK, recently had their accounts reinstated. The most high-profile reinstatement other than Trump has been Alex Jones, who had been banned from every major platform following pressure on advertisers from CNN and pro-censorship nonprofits. Jones’s account was reinstated on X in December 2023.

3) Rolling Back “Election Integrity” 

“Election integrity” was the censorship industry’s branding term for suppressing political discussions about the 2020 US presidential election — in particular censoring discussion of mail-in ballots.

FFO has extensively documented how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) played a leading role in facilitating social media censorship by creating the purportedly nonpartisan “Election Integrity Partnership,” which facilitated the censorship of millions of tweets from American citizens.

As Musk himself put it, the purpose of much of the private and public “election integrity” apparatus was to undermine election integrity.

Musk made his comment as he drastically downsized X’s “election integrity” department, including the removal of its head, Aaron Rodericks, who FFO had exposed just two weeks earlier for recruiting censors from the institution where Yoel Roth works, snubs at at his boss Elon Musk, and advertising an X competitor in his profile. On X, FFO Executive Director Mike Benz also noted Rodericks’ interest in hiring former intelligence operatives for “election integrity” positions.

4) The Twitter Files 

In the case of other companies, notably Meta, lawmakers had to threaten to hold executives in contempt of congress before they were willing to release information about the level of collaboration between tech platforms and the government to censor American citizens.

This was not the case at X. Shortly after Musk took over the company, he opened up its internal communications to a select number of journalists. Now called “The Twitter Files,” this bore fruit in a stream of bombshell stories revealing widespread pressure from intelligence agencies and other arms of the federal government to censor Americans, as well as other important tidbits, such as the fact that Twitter executives knew Americans were being falsely labeled as Russian agents in 2016-2020, but did not go public with the information.

5) Cutting off the Censorship Industry’s API Access 

An Application Programming Interface (API) refers to the mechanism by which programs interact with one another. In the context of Twitter/X, this means allowing third party programs to hoover up vast amounts of raw data from the platform for analysis, as well as a number of other potential uses such as automated posting.

One of the first concerns voiced by Election Integrity Partnership founder Alex Stamos about Musk’s takeover was that the vast network of “disinformation research” institutes and nonprofits that form the bedrock of the censorship industry might lose their privileged access to the platform’s API, setting back their efforts to monitor and censor Americans at scale.

His fears were quickly borne out. In 2023, Musk ended researchers’ free access to the API, replacing it with paid access tiers ranging from $100 per month for limited access to $42,000 per month for full access. The introduction of fees caused dozens of “disinformation” research projects to cancel or stall, with Reuters reporting that “nearly every researcher” they spoke to could not afford the access fees.

6) Anti-Censorship Lawsuits

In August 2023, Musk announced that his company would fund lawsuits against employers who fire their employees over their X content or interactions with other X content. “We won’t just sue, it will be extremely loud and we will go after the boards of directors of the companies too,” added Musk in a post on the platform.

The lawfare didn’t stop there: in November, Musk announced a forthcoming lawsuit against the pro-censorship nonprofit Media Matters, which Musk accused of deceptively linking X ads to alleged neo-Nazi content on the platform. In September, Musk also discussed a lawsuit against the Anti-Defamation League, which was quickly followed by the nonprofit resuming advertising on the platform.

Members of the censorship industry, including former Twitter top censor Yoel Roth, have consistently identified lawsuits and investigations as a major factor that prevent censorship from gathering fresh momentum. By targeting pro-censorship organizations in this way, Musk has become a major contributor to this slowed momentum.

7) Embracing Subscription Revenue

When Elon Musk took over Twitter, the platform had no subscription options available for regular users. Now it has three: basic ($3/mo), premium ($8/mo) and premium plus ($16/mo). While the platform has a ways to go if it wants subscription revenue to overtake or even replace ad revenue, the introduction of subscriptions suggests Musk understands the ad revenue model is a fundamental weakness in the business model of social media companies that has repeatedly been exploited by the censorship industry.

8) Paying Legal Fees For People Fired Over Tweets

Musk went above and beyond monetizing ad revenue and subscription revenue for creators on X; he extended the free speech cloak beyond the platform itself with the following pledge:

Musk made good on this promise in November when X’s lawyers defended an Illinois student threatened with disciplinary action by his university over tweets on the platform:

9) Badge Of Honor: Becoming the First Target of European Censors

Discussing the setbacks of the censorship industry in 2023 in a September podcast, Rebekah Tromble, who heads a government-funded disinformation lab at George Washington University, the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics characterized the European Union’s mammoth new code of internet regulations, the Digital Services Act, as the sole bright spot for censorship in a year of setbacks. Discussing cuts to “election integrity” and “trust and safety” teams across the tech world, Tromble expressed hopes that the threat of the DSA might lead tech companies to re-staff those positions.

If the censorship industry believes the DSA is now its greatest weapon, we can assume it will be directed at the censorship industry’s greatest foes. It is something of a badge of honor, then, that X became the first company to be investigated by the EU under the DSA, after months of warnings from EU officials that the platform was not doing enough to suppress disfavored speech.

10) “GFY”

It’s common to demand deeds over words, but sometimes words can have a massive impact – it’s why the censorship industry exists. Musk’s comments get a lot of attention, but few were more viral than his response to advertisers boycotting his platform: “go f*** yourself.”

By publicly refusing to back down, Musk sent a message to the advertising industry that boycotts will not work. Advertisers must either leave permanently, ceding access to X with its hundreds of millions of eyeballs, or resign themselves to their ads appearing on a platform that sometimes features content they disagree with. What they can no longer do is boycott the platform and expect policies to change or users to be banned. With three words, Musk reminded the censorship industry why he remains their number one opponent.