Twitter Headquarters in San Francisco, California, USA, 13 September 2022. EPA-EFE/JOHN G. MABANGLO


Does Twitter under Musk really believe in free speech?


Twitter has sparked a furore by restricting the launch of the controversial transgender documentary What is a Woman?, despite the platform’s owner, Elon Musk, stating that showing the film was allowed under the social media giant’s rules.

What is a Woman? was due to be aired across Twitter by the US-based conservative media outlet the Daily Wire, which wanted to give 24-hour free access to its film via Twitter in light of the beginning of LGBT Pride Month, which celebrates minority groups including transgender people.

The Daily Wire is highly critical of the transgender ideology, and the documentary reflects this strongly, showing academics who promote transgenderism as being unable to answer simple questions, among other unfavourable representations.

Referring to the decision to limit access of the film on the site, Musk said it “was a mistake by many people at Twitter”, adding that the streaming “is definitely allowed”.

Ella Irwin, Twitter’s top executive for content moderation and safety, resigned from her post on the same day the confusion came to light.

Musk further muddied Twitter policy waters, calling the decision to restrict the film a “mistake” and that the situation would be “fixed”. However, he also said only certain people could see it in their feed, and it wouldn’t be associated with advertisements. Twitter’s decision means that, for a large number of users, sharing and liking the video is difficult if not impossible.

What is a Woman was largely ignored by mainstream media, but was a big hit with the wider general audience and received very positive reviews. It got a score of 97 per cent on respected film review site Rotten Tomatoes and was the most-watched movie at home on the platform.

Within a few minutes of its release, prior to it being restricted, the video had garnered more than 5,000 retweets/quote retweets.

It was, however, deeply hated by those in progressive circles, many of whom decried the film as transphobic and a form of hate speech.

Twitter seemed to agree, describing two scenes in the documentary as misgendering and thus “hateful conduct”. The scenes referred to are one where a father in Canada is prosecuted for naming his daughter, who is transgender, a girl. The other shows a shop owner arguing with a transgender person, born a male, who demands to be acknowledged as a woman rather than a man.

Those scenes prompted Twitter to cancel its deal to freely stream the documentary, retract support for the Daily Wire, and limit the film’s accessibility and thus its reach.

That decision caused consternation at the Daily Wire and among broader conservative circles.

As part of the film’s restrictions, Twitter attached a label that read: “Visibility Limited. This Tweet may violate Twitter’s rules against Hateful Conduct.”

Apparently in response to the controversy, Irwin, who served as the head of Twitter’s trust and safety department, unexpectedly stepped down from her position on Thursday afternoon. The department she led is believed to have been behind the decision to apply the label that prevented Twitter users from retweeting or sharing the video with their followers.

In what is seen by many as a case of censorship, the situation raises questions about Twitter policy in relation to free speech, and Musk’s standpoint on such issues.

In Europe, meanwhile, the European Commission is threatening Twitter with fines and even a ban if it fails introduce increased censorship of what could be seen as antisocial material.