Following Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter on October 7th, 2022, there have been a handful of controversies surrounding the app. One particular instance that has upset users is Musk’s change in policy enforcement regarding parody and impersonation accounts. Before the change in leadership, Musk argued that under his ownership, the platform would allow all speech that is protected under the 1st Amendment. This idea goes against Twitter’s policy under its previous management, as well as other social media platforms. Typically, platforms make rules stricter than the First Amendment because as a private company, they are allowed to restrict free speech and set their own guidelines on what type of speech is allowed. Musk, however, supported his stance and his interpretation of the 1st Amendment, stating that no user should face lifetime bans. He also showed support for comedy on the site by tweeting “Comedy is now legal on Twitter” on October 28th, 2022.
However, after several parody accounts from blue checkmark holders mimicked Musk, he issued a policy change statement that appears to contradict his stance on free speech and Twitter comedy. In a series of Tweets on November 6th, 2022, Musk wrote that “Going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying ‘parody’ will be permanently suspended,” and that “there will be no warning.” In defense of his position Musk said that, “tricking people is not ok” and that Twitter needs to be an accurate source for information.
Those who took issue with Musk’s policy change pointed to his change in opinion towards comedy and free speech when the joke was directed at him. Although Musk was restating Twitter’s previous policy that “parody accounts must be clearly labeled and must not use a fake identity in a manner that disrupts the experience of others”, some took issue with his switch from the extreme moderation to banning accounts with no warning. The move to permanently ban accounts can be seen as going further than even Twitter’s previous policy of temporary suspensions. In addition,The Guardian reported that despite Musk’s promise that accounts clearly labeled as parody would be allowed, some users with clearly labeled Musk parody accounts still had their accounts locked.
The issue of banning unlabeled parody accounts goes further than just Musk’s decision to overturn his stance toward free speech, however, as many see parody accounts as a way to express political and social frustrations through humor. Some users feel that requiring users to label their accounts as a parody account limits their expression. This is because, according to satirical accounts like The Onion and NY Times comedy writer Jason Zinoman, labeling something as a parody ruins the humor of the parody. Therefore, some see the requirement of labeling their account as an infringement of their ability to use humor in relation to political and social issues. In addition, Musk’s move to open the verification process to anyone who pays a monthly fee makes the issue of parody accounts more complicated, as prior to this, users could determine fake accounts based on the lack of a blue check mark, highlighting the opinion held by some users that the problem is not parody accounts themselves but Musk’s new policies.
However, as Zinoman points out, while labeling “something a parody might be bad for comedy, it can be essential for credibility because if people can’t tell whether an article was satirical or not, it chips away at the trust that is essential for a news organization.” What is best for the comedic elements of a tweet may not be what is best for social media platforms where thousands of people get their information daily, signaling that there may need to be a balance between free speech and the limitations of parody accounts. At the beginning of Musk’s tenure, one of the most vocal arguments made by Democratic political leaders against his takeover was centered around Musk’s free speech and limited content moderation stance because they were worried about the spread of misinformation and hate speech. So, while users may be mad about Musk’s sudden policy change, the change seems to be in line with what Democratic political leaders had wanted for Twitter since the beginning: to move toward forcing parody accounts to label themselves as such to prevent the spread of misinformation.
There is a thin line between parody and misinformation and Musk is not wrong when stating that parody accounts can be deceiving and cause harm, in part due to the tendency of people to not read beyond the headline. Thus, labeling an account as a parody and banning those who don’t follow platform rules can be an important step in helping people determine what information is credible.
Finally, the biggest argument both users and those involved in the conversation used against Musk before his policy change towards free speech is that Twitter as a private company and is not bound by 1st Amendment rules. Therefore, Musk is free to set platform free speech rules as he sees fit, and while this new move may be against his previously stated stance on allowing all free speech that is protected under the 1st Amendment, he is free to change his platform rules as a reaction to parody accounts mocking him.
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