Of all the things that can get lost on the internet, one’s sense of humor may be the hardest to retrieve. Intention, tone, nuance—these things don’t always come across with characters on a screen. Seasoned social media veterans, though, can usually glean your meaning. This should be obvious to Elon Musk.
And yet it seems not to be. Over the weekend, seemingly in an effort to show what can happen when anyone can pay $8 for “blue check” verification, several already-verified Twitter users—including comedian Kathy Griffin—changed their names to “Elon Musk” and then posted tweets seemingly out of character for the company’s new CEO. Griffin, for example, encouraged Americans to vote Democrat in today’s midterm elections; former NFL punter Chris Kluwe wrote, “If you want to be like me, drink your pee.”
Quickly, the accounts of Griffin, Kluwe, and others were suspended, and Musk issued a series of tweets explaining that “going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying ‘parody’ will be permanently suspended.” And: “Previously, we issued a warning before suspension, but now that we are rolling out widespread verification, there will be no warning. This will be clearly identified as a condition of signing up for Twitter Blue.” (He also noted, “Any name change at all will cause temporary loss of verified checkmark.”)
“Can’t take a joke?” is a common refrain online, one usually doled out by someone trying to be excused for saying something offensive. It’s the kind of posture Musk took a few weeks ago when he tweeted that “comedy is now legal on Twitter.” And yet little more than a week later, several of his critics are no longer allowed on Twitter.
It’s not that Twitter didn’t previously have rules about impersonating others—it did, although Musk’s ideas for enforcement feel more aggressive—it’s that Musk has identified himself as a “free-speech absolutist” and said, “I hope even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”
So, maybe what Musk means is that people should be allowed to criticize him but not laugh at him. But if he’s OK with parody, then he seems to misunderstand what parody is. Using comedy to address larger issues is the point.
It is true that none of the people who changed their Twitter name to his were labeling what they were doing as parody. It’s also true that when Daily Show correspondent Jaboukie Young-White impersonated CNN on Twitter and wrote things about President Biden’s sex life, he got suspended too. When comedian Patti Harrison pretended to be Sia pretending to take over the Nilla Wafers account and tweeted, “If you are bisexual, we do not want your business,” she got banned. Yet all of these are examples of satire and should be allowed, even if not labeled. A thing kind of stops being a parody if it’s labeled as such anyway, and you’d think anyone who once said The Onion was the “greatest publication in the history of all conscious beings, living or dead” would get that. But alas.
Jokes, if nothing else, should always punch up, not down. Free speech should (mostly) protect people who want to poke fun at multimillion-dollar companies (or their CEOs). Mocking people with racist, transphobic, sexist, homophobic, or other hateful rhetoric may be protected by the First Amendment, but at a certain point it’s no longer a joke (and probably never was one). Moreover, such speech can quickly devolve into harassment and violence. The speech may be protected, but the people it’s directed at are not.
So, do the tweets of Griffin et al. constitute punching down on Musk even if they don’t scream “PARODY”? Most likely not. It almost doesn’t matter. He owns the company; he can say who gets the last laugh.