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Meet the New Twitter, Same as the Old Twitter?
Matt Walsh's "What is a Woman?" is the kind of content most thought would be safe under new Twitter ownership. A new battle over the film feels like an attack of nanny-Twitter déjà vu
At roughly 8:30 a.m. ET this morning, Jeremy Boreing, co-founder and co-CEO of the Daily Wire, posted a lengthy thread on Twitter outlining what appeared to be a major reversal on speech issues on the Elon Musk-owned platform. “Twitter canceled a deal with @realdailywire to premiere What is a Woman? for free on the platform because of two instances of ‘misgendering,’” Boreing wrote, adding, “I’m not kidding.”
Noting the film would be labeled “hateful conduct,” the thread detailed a months-longer roller-coaster dispute between the producers of What is a Woman?, a controversial documentary by Matt Walsh released a year ago today, and the current incarnation of the bird site.
In celebration of the release anniversary Walsh, Boreing, and the Daily Wire began making plans to partner with Twitter for a 24-hour livestream today, June 1, 2023. Twitter at first responded with enthusiasm, offering the chance to buy “a package to host the movie on a dedicated event page” and “a chance for us to promote the event to every Twitter user over the first 10 hours.” The initial exchange came roughly a month ago, and the Wire team planned a significant ad buy and other promotions.
Weeks later, Twitter ominously asked the Daily Wire for a review copy of Walsh’s movie. Boreing said the firm then found out Twitter would not only “no longer provide us with support,” but bluntly told them they would “limit the reach” of the film if the Daily Wire went ahead with the event on its own. In one of many odd twists to this story, the problem involved two alleged instances of “misgendering,” a category of offense Twitter controversially removed from hate speech guidelines in April.
“They gave us the opportunity to edit the film to comply. We declined,” wrote Boreing.
Boreing’s tweet-storm today provoked a quick backlash on the platform, with personalities like Tim Pool promising to terminate his “enterprise Blue subscription” if the decision wasn’t reversed. As if by magic, Musk at 1:33 p.m. tweeted that it was a “mistake by many people at Twitter”:
However, as of this moment (at 2:27 p.m., an hour after Elon’s tweet), the movie is still labeled “limited,” because it “may violate Twitter’s rules against hateful conduct:
No matter how this mess turns out, it’s a significant development, in large part because What is a Woman? — a sarcastic doc that gently tinkles in the face of transgender orthodoxies — is just the kind of content many conservatives in particular imagined would no longer arouse the ire of censors.
Walsh himself last year celebrated Musk’s “liberation of Twitter,” a fact the Washington Post considered significant enough to report at the time (though it followed the now-common habit of not linking to Walsh’s Twitter account or to Daily Wire content about the film). If new Twitter continues to label and suppresses this movie, it will send a clear message to conservatives that the honeymoon is over. At the very least, it’s time to pack.
Even if the matter is ultimately fixed, it’s important to note that The Daily Wire was already forced to cancel a major promotion, and has been negotiating with Twitter for some time before today. “This was not some kind of fluke or glitch,” Walsh wrote. “It’s a very intentional decision by Twitter.” In fact, as Boreing notes, the decision was presented to The Daily Wire as a conscious expression of Twitter’s “speech not reach” policy, another way of saying Twitter considers de-amplification or suppression legitimate tools, not free speech violations.
I wrote about What is a Woman? a year ago after noticing it was driving huge online traffic and was much talked about across media (in both positive and negative ways), but was non-covered as if by universal agreement. The subject matter was so taboo, people were afraid to mention it even to denounce it. “The most prominent outlets who’ve admitted to watching it,” I wrote on June 8, 2022, “have names like the Christian Post and Spectator Australia, despite a 96% audience rating.” The movie ended up ranked as Rotten Tomatoes #1 most-watched film at home, downloaded in 70 countries, but garnered virtually zero mainstream reviews.
This was too bad, because irrespective of your take on the underlying issue, the movie was quite clever, a classic example of the satirical technique of hoisting a target with his own petard.
What is a Woman? was a unique test case because it appeared written with censors in mind. The film’s conceit is that proponents of modern transgender theory are so unwilling to define their own beliefs they can’t answer the question: “What is a woman?” Virtually the entire doc is told in the words of Walsh’s interview subjects, while Walsh says almost nothing, or parries counter-questions about why he’s asking.
A signature moment involved Patrick R. Grzanka, chairman of the Interdisciplinary Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Grzanka balked when Walsh said he was “just trying to get at the truth,” replying, “Yeah, I’m really uncomfortable with that language… getting to the truth.” When Walsh asked what he meant, Grzanka — a professor at a state university — said invoking a question about truth “sounds deeply transphobic to me,” and “if you keep probing, we’re going to stop the interview.”
Both alleged violations involve describe real historical episodes in which the “misgendering” is done by third parties. One involves an elderly man in Aberdeen, Washington who refuses to call a trans councilperson “she,” and the other is a news story about a bitter Canadian divorce case involving a father called “CD” who reportedly refused to use preferred pronouns.
This would make scenes in What is a Woman? reporting, not commentary, like footage of January 6th (also suppressed on some platforms). Walsh outside of What is a Woman? has used more provocative language, and was for instance demonetized by YouTube for using male pronouns to describe Dylan Mulvaney, the TikTok star controversially featured in a Bud Light campaign. But What is a Woman? makes its point almost entirely through the statements of trans advocates, and if that type of rhetoric can be deemed “hateful conduct,” it’s not clear how one could argue any controversial topic.
Whether or not you agree with Walsh, it’s hard to imagine Twitter found a legitimate pretext to suppress What is a Woman? in the movie itself. Moreover, not even old Twitter announced the mechanics of “visibility filtering” in such unapologetic detail as was proudly done under the new “speech not reach” banner, where Daily Wire producers were told “limiting” the movie meant “our own followers would not be able to see it in their feeds.” Such frank de-amplification can be worse than removal, as it results in users not knowing their information landscape has been altered, warping the sense of reality for everyone, not just those interested in this topic.
Hailed as a speech champion before the Twitter acquisition, Musk has definitely complicated his reputation. Twitter recently announced it would comply with the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and suppress opposition content ahead of elections. “To ensure Twitter remains available to the people of Turkey,” the firm wrote, “we have taken action to restrict access to some content.” Twitter is also limiting visibility for users of Substack, with whom the firm is in a dispute over its Twitter-like “Notes” program, among other things.
It should be noted Twitter’s turnaround on What is a Woman? roughly coincided with a May 12th announcement that former Ad Council chair Linda Yaccarino would replace Musk as Twitter CEO, a move widely seen as taken to appease advertisers. Last fall, a coalition including Accountable Tech, Media Matters, and GLAAD called for a global boycott of Twitter. GLAAD has specifically called Twitter “not safe” for queer and trans people, and Human Rights Campaign (HRC) accused Walsh of leading a “highly organized attack campaign.”
As someone who rooted for new Twitter to succeed and hoped it would be able to resist the pressure to clamp down that overwhelmed previous owners, this development raises eyebrows. Twenty days ago, news broke that former Fox News host Tucker Carlson — the highest rated anchor on cable — would be moving to Twitter. Carlson in the past year hosted Walsh and/or cited What is a Woman? multiple times, and even showed clips of the movie on Fox, raising an obvious question. What’s going to happen if and when this subject comes up on a hypothetical future Carlson broadcast on Twitter?
While working on the Twitter Files, I saw the current system was designed so that even the most defiant CEO of a platform like Twitter would quickly be forced to choose between speech and survival. The reach of the “anti-disinformation” complex is such that the loss of a potential multi-million-dollar advertiser like The Daily Wire is a pittance compared to regulatory issues, corporate boycotts, and other nightmares that can be thrown at a platform that bucks on content. Nervous heterodox voices seem already to be wondering what it will mean if Musk Twitter really folds over relatively genteel thoughtcrime like What is a Woman? If this has to go, what stays?
Editor’s Note: Musk at 6:39 p.m. Thursday tweeted that the film would be “advertising-restricted,” as “advertisers have the right to decide what content their ads appear with.” The film then began streaming at 8:00 p.m. and had 3500 retweets within minutes, at which point it was slapped with a “hateful conduct” and appeared to be blocked from retweets. Some users tried to access the movie through the Daily Wire home page and found the pinned tweet with the link missing. It would also not appear on the “trends list,” amid other restrictions. Elon throughout promised it would be fixed by the next day and even cheered the Streisand effect caused by his own firm’s suppression, a unique sight at least. Then this morning, Elon tweeted, “Every parent should see this,” which prompted thanks from Walsh, after news leaked out that Trust and Safety chief Ella Irwin was leaving the company.
Draw your own conclusions, but it looks like the same dynamic that gradually heightened tensions between advertisers/the advertising lobby, Fox, and Tucker Carlson is also present here.