No hero: Elon Musk doesn’t care about freedom of speech—or you
If you were wondering whether Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter will be good for democracy, just look at who's happy about it. | AP

One of the richest men on the planet, Elon Musk, is claiming he wants to protect “freedom of speech” and “democracy.” His strategy for doing so is by acquiring one of the most influential social media platforms in the world, Twitter, and placing the digital forum with over 330 million monthly users under his sole direction. Musk is doing this for an estimated $44 billion.

As noble as that may sound to some, Musk is no hero of the people, nor does his idea of freedom have anything to do with the betterment of society—not in a way that would benefit the majority of working-class people. He’s yet another example of new-age billionaires that believe their hoarding of wealth alone makes them the most “worthy” to forge a way ahead for mankind. The current system we live under, which they profit so much from, tells a different story.

Musk likes to wax poetically about how he came to the United States from South Africa with only $2,000 in his pocket. He’s talked about how he graduated from college with $100,000 in debt and couldn’t even afford to pay for a second computer when he began his tech company Zip2. He and his brother eventually sold the startup for $300 million.

One could debate the merits of the self-made mythos Musk has built around himself, especially given that his father Errol Musk is a known wealthy South African businessman. Yet, we only have to look at the SpaceX and Tesla CEO’s business practices since acquiring his initial wealth to know where Elon Musk stands when it comes to democracy and freedom.

The Twitter page of Elon Musk, April 25, 2022. On that day, the electric car and space rocket billionaire reached an agreement to buy Twitter for about $44 billion. | Eric Risberg / AP

For years, Musk has touted that he is a “free speech absolutist” and an advocate of the First Amendment. In previous court cases, when his tweets or business practices have come under scrutiny, the electric car and space rocket chief has pushed back, claiming that his First Amendment rights were being abused. This year, Musk’s lawyers filed a letter in the Southern District Court of New York stating that the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) was targeting him and his company because “Mr. Musk remains an outspoken critic of the government.” His attorneys claimed the SEC’s efforts seemed “calculated to chill his exercise of First Amendment rights.”

One could see this behavior, and his antics of smoking weed on video podcasts, and think that Musk is a rebel against the status quo who answers to no one. They’d be wrong. Musk answers to the almighty capitalist dollar, and his “everyman” antics are part of the bread-and-circus act often employed by the wealthy to distract working people from real dangers to their democracy. Musk wants freedom for himself and his money, not so much for everyone else—especially not the workers at his companies, his critics, or the independent news media.

Various new reports have come out regarding how Tesla has a practice, after firing employees, of pressuring them to sign separation agreements that include a strict non-disparagement clause with no end date. The clause prohibits former employees from sharing negative views publicly about the company, advising people they know that the company mistreats employees, and giving any negative commentary about the company to the media. Essentially, Musk puts a gag order on anyone he’s ever employed. So much for being a free speech absolutist.

As reported by CNBC, while under the leadership of Musk, Tesla has been under a three-year-long investigation by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) concerning hundreds of complaints from Tesla workers regarding their work environment.

According to DFEH, evidence was found concerning racist harassment of and discrimination against Black workers that has persisted for years. This includes, but is not limited to, keeping Black workers in the lowest levels of the company, retaliation against Black employees who formally complained to human resources, allowing racial slurs to become commonplace on the assembly line, and being slow to “clean up racist graffiti with swastikas and other hate symbols scrawled in common areas.”

The California agency is currently suing Tesla, while the company (which Musk leads), is claiming in public statements that DFEH is using “litigation as a bullying tactic.”

A variety of incidents suggest otherwise. Just last year, a California jury ordered Tesla to pay Owen Diaz, a Black former employee, $137 million in damages for essentially ignoring the racism he encountered on the job. In another lawsuit regarding racist treatment at work, an email emerged that Musk allegedly sent to the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, addressing the racist culture in the company. Reportedly, Musk wrote:

“Part of not being a huge jerk is considering how someone might feel who is part of [a] historically less represented group… Sometimes these things happen unintentionally, in which case you should apologize. In fairness, if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology.”

Musk believes workers who experience racist ridicule on the job should just have “thick skin” and move on, but he takes a very different approach when public criticism comes his way.

When it comes to the free press, Musk seems to not be an absolutist, especially if the press doesn’t write glowing remarks about him. It has been reported that Musk and Tesla have asked reporters to sign NDAs or show article drafts to the company to obtain approval before publishing. After the media blog Electrek published a story explaining how Tesla was charging owners $1,500 for the hardware they already paid for, Musk directly gave the order to stop inviting the blog’s staff to company events.

It would seem Musk has an aversion to freedom of speech if it includes truths that he doesn’t like. Speaking of truths, there is also his involvement in the spreading of untruths and misinformation.

In the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic brought about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The politicization of the vaccine and mitigation tactics deepened an already-existing political divide in the U.S. Musk, his wealth, and his tweets played a large part in widening this divide and spreading misinformation.

In March 2020, he tweeted out to his over 80 million followers that the “coronavirus panic” was “dumb.” The next year, he would call into question the effectiveness of vaccines and vaguely reference “negative reactions” to them that he allegedly heard about. He also tweeted that additional coronavirus economic stimulus packages weren’t in the “interests of the people.” Of course, this wasn’t just about his right to question the government, but his right to force the workers in his factories to return to the assembly line despite the great risk to their health.

Musk did just that when he reopened the Tesla Fremont factory (the same factory where many of the Black employees reported a toxic work environment) in violation of public health orders in 2020. This needlessly put the 10,000 workers there in harm’s way. This also resulted in a recorded 450 COVID-19 cases linked to the plant, as reported by The Washington Post.

This abuse of workers’ rights gels with Musk’s history of anti-union sentiments. The United Auto Workers (UAW) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have cited numerous violations of workers’ rights by Musk involving illegal actions he’s taken against employees’ rights to organize.

Musk’s concept of freedom seems to only be in reference to what serves his pockets, and his increasingly right-leaning politics.

The Tesla CEO has described himself as being “right of center” when it comes to his political beliefs, but his various statements display he’s a bit more right than that. Such as when the U.S.-backed coup against Bolivia happened he tweeted, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” Musk has also played into the far-right’s culture war antics by bemoaning so-called “woke” cancel culture, ridiculing the use of preferred pronouns by trans individuals, and claiming that the Democratic Party has been “hijacked by extremists.”

This is why his move to take over Twitter resonates with right-wing mouthpieces who spew similar sentiments. Fox News host and far-right racist pundit Tucker Carlson called Musk’s purchase of Twitter “the single biggest political development since Donald Trump’s election in 2016.” He called it “certainly the most threatening challenge to the corrupt and incompetent leadership of this country.”

And why would Carlson, and others of the right, think this?

Free speech hero? Hardly. Musk puts a gag order on anyone who’s ever worked for him, preventing them from discussing anything negative about the boss or their work conditions. Lawsuits have revealed a racist work atmosphere in many of his enterprises, such as the sprawling Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. | AP

For the very reason, Musk pointed to in explaining his motivation to take over Twitter. Musk sees the platform as the “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” When Twitter began cracking down on misinformation and hate speech often tweeted out by right-wing accounts, many of that ilk claimed it was a great silencing of their freedom of speech.

Musk wants to allow such practices, like former president Donald Trump’s outrageous lies, to get equal footing on the platform again. Perhaps it is for the money he thinks it will bring in, or perhaps for his own ego, or for the power to control the conversation around politics, but it is clear—when you look at the cast of characters supporting his takeover—that it will do no good for those who want true democracy and reliable information.

The idea that this billionaire should be the protector of freedom of speech is just as outlandish as backing his idea of colonizing Mars. Yes, he and fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos (executive chairman of Amazon) want to spread their capitalist exploitation to the cosmos. And unfortunately, far too many corporate media outlets let these billionaires spread their “expertise,” as if they have any idea how to help mankind when they refuse to help the workers in their own companies.

This sentiment, that wealthy people are somehow smarter and more capable is a myth pushed by those in power to make those who work for a living believe they couldn’t possibly be the leaders of their own fates. We’re made to believe that if someone is rich it is because they’re just “better” at everything than the rest of us. But that literally is not true, since most of the wealth is made by the labor of the people. The people stop working, these billionaires stop making money. Those who hoard the wealth would have you think otherwise.

Carlson exemplified this tactic when he stated in his monologue on Musk’s Twitter takeover, “At this point, you have no choice but to put your hopes in the good intentions of an eccentric billionaire. There’s no other option because no one else is coming to the rescue.”

He’s lying. Musk is not our hero. No billionaire, millionaire, or grossly wealthy person is or can be. That power, to defend true democracy, freedom, and our basic human rights rests with us. Musk’s rap sheet proves he’s not up to the task, and he never had that in mind in the first place.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.