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A meme hints at Elon Musk’s problems with Twitter

The meme has become a popular image on conservative parts of the internet where content moderation has become synonymous with liberal bias within tech companies.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk Testifies In SolarCity Trial
Elon Musk in Wilmington, Del., on July 12, 2021.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Among the dozens of tweets and many memes Elon Musk has posted in recent weeks related to his efforts to acquire Twitter, one in particular suggests that Musk shares similar ideas with conservative influencers and thought leaders about politics and Twitter policies.

It’s a meme that has circulated on conservative social media for years, though to the average person it might be difficult to decipher. But behind its meaning and origin are details that help explain Musk’s suggestions that he’d like to undo much of Twitter’s moderation efforts and revert the platform to a free speech focus.

The meme (above) is a reference to an episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast from March 2019 in which Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of legal, policy and trust, and Jack Dorsey, then CEO, discussed the company’s moderation efforts alongside Tim Pool, a far-right YouTube creator who has claimed that Twitter’s moderation efforts were biased against conservatives.

In the meme’s image, Pool and Gadde are stuck in a circle with four parts. In the first, Pool puts forward an unidentified example of “Twitter’s left wing bias,” which Gadde, in the second part, says has to be taken in context. Pool responds that Twitter’s interpretation of the context is biased, to which Gadde says she needs to see an example, leading to the original part in which Pool offers an example. In the middle is a logo for Rogan’s podcast.

The meme adds to a growing series of comments and posts in which Musk has drawn from far-right online culture. On Thursday, Musk said he supported President Barack Obama but feels as though “today’s Democratic Party has been hijacked by extremists.” He’s also interacted with multiple conservative internet influencers in recent days, including Steven Crowder, Jack Posobiec and Ben Shapiro. 

Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a Washington think tank, said Musk’s posts have been consistent and are relatable to some.

“I think that adds to the perception that his current audience or base may have, which is that he uses the internet like the rest of us, to send jokes and jump in with snide commentary,” Holt said.

The podcast episode that the meme is taken from runs for more than three hours. The interview is especially striking considering Twitter’s usual strategic communications about platform moderation. In it, Gadde walks through questions about people who were banned, many of whom violated any number of Twitter’s policies. 

Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, immediately recognized the meme from Rogan’s podcast. She said that the meme’s particular topic centered on “deadnaming,” the practice of using transgender people’s pre-transition names as a form of abuse.

“The claim [Pool] was making throughout the interview about Twitter taking action on behalf of anti-trans harassment did go in circles because Gadde and Pool did not agree with a basic premise that a trans woman is a woman and that misgendering or dead naming a trans person is a form of symbolic violence,” Donovan said in a direct message. “Tim called that point of view ‘left wing bias,’ whereas Gadde saw it as a policy issue, neither right or left.”

Currently, Twitter’s hateful conduct policy prohibits “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.” Donovan, who is an expert in online extremism, media manipulation and disinformation campaigns, said that Musk has posted transphobic content in the past.

“It’s obvious that he sees Gadde as a problem, and I’ve never seen workplace harassment at this scale,” she said. 

Musk did not respond to requests for comment.

The appearance generated a swift reaction from Rogan’s fans and more right-leaning parts of the internet. It’s difficult to pinpoint who created the image or when it was first posted online, but an image on the Joe Rogan subreddit from shortly after the episode was first published appears to be among the first. 

The concept of memes has become shorthand for image-fueled internet humor and commentary that has in recent years been adopted by a wide variety of groups. Conservative memes have emerged as a distinct genre of online political culture, fueled in part by a fervent online fan base that follows former President Donald Trump.

Holt noted that Rogan has emerged as a popular figure among Trump supporters and influencers.

“If you talk to people who listen to him, oftentimes I’ll hear folks express the sentiment that they feel he represents some kind of anti-establishment voice, that he’s an independent voice, and speaks to sentiments that aren’t normally represented in media,” said Holt, who researches domestic extremism on the internet.

The broader implication of the meme is clear: Twitter’s moderation efforts have a liberal bias, and their defense of them relies on avoiding any question of its bias. 

Nonetheless, academics who have studied the platform have found that it tends to favor conservative speech and that bans of conservatives were due to their propensity for spreading misinformation, which is against Twitter’s user policy.

Pool, who criticized Twitter’s banning of far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, replied to a comment on Musk’s tweet and said, “I think the meme is more referring to the fact that I called them out on having [an] overtly biased set of rules that half the country thinks is politically incorrect.”

During the debate, Pool argued that Twitter’s 2017 introduction of rules against misgendering transgender people was politically motivated, a claim individuals who worked on the policy have disputed. Brianna Wu, who told NBC that she advised Twitter’s trust and safety team on the policy, said that transgender users who identified as left-leaning, centrist and right-leaning were all consulted on the policy. 

Musk’s tweet spread quickly, drawing a response from former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, who responded: “what’s going on? You’re making an executive at the company you just bought the target of harassment and threats.”

Holt said that he observed a surge of targeted harassment toward Gadde.

“If you look online, she’s getting all kinds of nasty stuff directed toward her after this,” he said. “I think it’s not a great sign that one of the first things Elon does after this acquisition plan is announced is target what would soon be his colleagues.”