Elon Musk’s criticism of a content decision made by Twitter Inc.’s legal team was followed by a wave of abusive tweets directed against the company’s top lawyer, Vijaya Gadde.
Musk, who has 86.4 million followers on Twitter and has clinched a deal to buy the company for $44 billion, often uses the site as a way to criticize Twitter’s decisions, particularly when they involve banning accounts from people who violate the platform’s rules, some of whom Musk sees as being unfairly sidelined.
On Tuesday, he faulted a decision the company made in 2020 to block a New York Post story about Hunter Biden. He called the move “incredibly inappropriate.” While he didn’t identify Gadde by name, the post was in response to an article in which she was mentioned prominently.
Suspending the Twitter account of a major news organization for publishing a truthful story was obviously incredibly inappropriate
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2022
Musk was responding to a tweet from Saagar Enjeti, host of a political podcast, who in turn was referencing a report by Politico that Gadde broke down in tears at a meeting with her staff this week.
The Post story referenced by Enjeti had alleged that Biden, son of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, had improper connections to an executive at a Ukrainian energy firm. Twitter later reversed the move, but not before it was accused of censoring information that could have hurt a Democratic candidate.
Musk’s remark was followed by a barrage of negative comments from Twitter users. Some used expletives or racist slurs referring to Gadde’s Indian heritage, including words like “curry,” and references to India’s caste system. Others used expletives or derogatory language and blamed her for having “destroyed countless @Twitter accounts for speaking the truth.” Some called for her to be fired or suggested she should leave on her own. Some of the abusive tweets were later removed for violating Twitter rules.
On Wednesday, Musk posted an additional tweet with a meme about Twitter’s “left wing bias.” It featured Gadde’s face and drew a rebuke from former Twitter Chief Executive Officer Dick Costolo, who asked why Musk was “making an executive at the company you just bought the target of harassment and threats.”
Twitter, based in San Francisco, declined to comment.
Musk has often said his goal is to make the social media platform a bastion of free speech. “By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law,” he said in a tweet Tuesday. “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.” In some cases, his remarks ignite his considerable fan base to publicly mock people he has criticized, from a local health official early in the pandemic to current Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal.
Some racist comments that followed his Tuesday tweet also made a connection to Agrawal, who is of Indian origin as well. Musk has taken potshots at Agrawal too, posting a meme last year superimposing his face onto Russian dictator Joseph Stalin’s. The doctored image depicted Agrawal, formerly Twitter’s chief technology officer, purging co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey, just as Stalin did to Soviet secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov.
Some users publicly urged Dorsey to take responsibility for the decisions during his tenure, given that Gadde reported to him, or at least defend her work. But he was silent, even as other employees, including former CEO Ev Williams, chimed in to defend her.
Musk’s comments on the legal decision coincided with a securities filing Tuesday with details of the Twitter transaction, including a section on “public announcements” that had a limitation on what Musk can tweet. He is is still allowed to discuss the deal on Twitter, but not in disparaging terms, according to the filing.
“The equity investor shall be permitted to issue tweets about the merger or the transactions contemplated hereby so long as such tweets do not disparage the company or any of its representatives,” according to the filing. It’s unclear whether his reference to Gadde would violate those terms or what would happen to Musk if it did.
John C. Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School, said it would be unlikely that Twitter jeopardizes the deal by calling out Musk for the tweets.
“Even if Musk did violate the anti-disparagement clause, the last thing Twitter would do is call off a deal that is probably overpriced,” he said.
And it’s hard to know what Twitter would get from such a move, Coffee said. “If you were to say that he violated the anti-disparagement clause, there is no natural penalty that corresponds to it.”
In acquiring Twitter, Musk has promised to turn it into a platform for free speech with few restrictions, a move he has said is “essential to a functioning democracy.”
Musk defined the goal for Twitter at a TED event earlier this month, saying, “A good sign as to whether there is free speech is: Is someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like? If that is the case, then we have free speech.”
But those who have said things Musk didn’t like have seen their reputations publicly trashed. Vernon Unsworth, a British caver who helped rescue 12 boys trapped in Thailand, called Musk’s efforts to help a “PR stunt” in 2018. Musk retaliated by calling him a “pedo guy.”