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Musk at an antisemitism conference in Krakow this year. Alamy Stock Photo

How Elon Musk has courted Ireland's far-right by taking aim at the government's hate speech laws

For those not on his social media site, Musk’s interactions with Ireland’s far-right fringe have probably gone unnoticed.

ONE OF THE more curious developments in the recent proliferation of Irish anti-immigrant sentiment and activism on X, formerly Twitter, has been the interest taken by the website’s owner in debates around issues popular with Ireland’s far-right fringe.

Elon Musk has criticised the Government on topics including freedom of expression, Ireland’s asylum system and environmental policy, at one point saying that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “hates the Irish people”.

Publicly wading into debates on these topics has become something of a habit for Musk.

In recent years, he has interacted with some of the Irish far-right’s most prominent figures on social media, and last month pledged to fund any future legal challenges against Ireland’s proposed hate speech laws, which are hated by the movement and still making their way through the Oireachtas.

In doing so, he has encouraged aspects of the far-right here and raised questions about the impact his views could have on Irish political discourse.

But such interventions are not unique to Ireland and Musk has previously talked a similar game in countries like the US, Germany and Italy. 

Free speech to hate speech 

Since buying Twitter in 2022 and rebranding it as X, Musk has faced criticism for allowing previously banned accounts to return to the platform.

Many of these were previously banned for abusive behaviour, such as US conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, or potential incitement to violence, like former US president Donald Trump.

The return of these accounts has coincided with a change in the standard of discourse on the platform since Musk sacked most of the company’s moderation staff after taking over.

It has led X to become a major conduit of misinformation, according to a study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), including in Ireland.

“Virtually all the most prominent actors in the Irish mis- and disinformation ecosystem were highly active on Twitter,” the report says.

Musk has rejected such criticism and defended his readmission of banned accounts on an ideological basis close to his heart: allowing free speech.

For Eileen Culloty, deputy director of the Institute for Media, Democracy and Society at DCU, Musk has a particularly American understanding of free speech, something she says is common among “free speech absolutists” – including those on the far-right – in Ireland.

“Musk is continuing a long tradition of US tech companies treating US values as though they are global norms,” she says.

His views on hate speech, particularly Ireland’s proposed legislation to combat it, may derive from this source.

The proposed bill Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022 is currently stalled in the Seanad, having already passed in the Dáil, after attracting criticism early last year.

The bill will, if it passes into law, introduce more up-to-date protections than those contained in existing legislation, such as gender identity and disability.

In a nutshell, the new laws seek to strengthen the legal recognition of hatred in Ireland’s criminal justice system, and hate could become an aggravating factor during sentencing in criminal trials.

It is not just controversial among conservatives and members of the far-right, however.

During a Dáil debate on the bill last year, People Before Profit’s Paul Murphy, a TD who would definitely see himself on the opposite end of the political spectrum to Musk, made a series of failed last-ditch attempts to amend the legislation. 

He repeatedly warned about the bill’s creation of “thought crime” and complained about its lack of an explicit reference to the right to freedom of expression.

Musk was among the bill’s most prominent early critics.

A self-described “free-speech absolutist”, he has been vociferous in pushing for the right of people like Alex Jones to express his views, which among other things have included the false story that a mass school shooting at Sandy Hook in the US was faked by “crisis actors”.

In April last year, Musk replied to a post by Irish far-right commentator Keith Woods about the text of proposed hate speech legislation. 

“This is a massive attack on freedom of speech,” Musk wrote. 

Woods replied: “Thank you Elon. Twitter is a lifeline for political free speech in Ireland. I hope you will hold good on your promise to safeguard it.” 

Interacting with the far-right

Since last year, Musk’s musings on Irish politics have found an enthusiastic audience among members of the country’s far-right movement as he has taken up anti-immigrant and anti-government talking points.

He has on numerous occasions interacted with some of these accounts when commenting on Irish political issues.

In one case, he replied to a post complaining about the incident in which three children and their carer were stabbed in Dublin last November. 

The user Musk was replying to, Michael O’Keefe, is a regular source of xenophobic diatribes, an advocate of anti-immigrant conspiracy theories, and an active member of Ireland’s anti-immigrant movement with links to the far-right National Party.

O’Keefe’s X account description reads: “Banned under Twitter regime, restored by Elon and X.”

Last August, Musk also replied to a post on X from the Irish website Gript, which featured Media Minister Catherine Martin being questioned about the EU’s Digital Services Act, legislation which aims to combat the spread of misinformation online.

“When is the next election in Ireland?” Musk asked, suggesting he wanted to see the government removed because of its support of attempts to fight misinformation.

In the wake of the Dublin riots last year, Musk weighed in after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government planned to speed up the introduction of hate speech legislation.

“Ironically, the Irish PM hates the people of Ireland,” Musk wrote in response to a post that said “The Irish government want all of your freedoms”.

That comment prompted Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane to defend the Taoiseach, replying “No he doesn’t”.

Last month, Musk gave an interview to Gript after interactions with one of their reporters on X.  

“Our default approach is to challenge any legislation that infringes upon the people’s abilities to say what they want to say,” he told Gript, referring to the hate speech law.

“We’ll make sure that if there’s an attempt to suppress the voice of the Irish people that we do our absolute best to defend the people of Ireland and their abilities to speak their mind.”

Not just Ireland

But Ireland is not alone in receiving the attention of the world’s richest person.

Musk’s interest in issues beloved of the Irish far-right fits a pattern of comments and stunts by the Tesla and SpaceX owner in other countries, including the United States, Germany and Italy. 

In September last year, he made a high-profile visit to a section of the US-Mexico border when he launched the live streaming feature on X.

While there, he was pictured alongside local sheriffs, politicians and border guards wearing a cowboy hat as he played the part of a kind of citizen journalist.

Debates around the policing of the border with Mexico are often divided along partisan political lines, with Republicans calling for harsher enforcement and deportation measures.

It has been a political flashpoint in Washington for decades but particularly since Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 after promising to build a wall along the border. 

In another case involving immigration, Musk responded to a post by an openly anti-immigrant X account that described how search-and-rescue boats from Germany are subsidised by the German government. The post endorsed the far-right German party Alternative für Deutschland (AFD).

“Is the German public aware of this?” he asked, to which the German Foreign Office replied, “Yes, it’s called saving lives.”

Musk said that he found it “interesting” that the German government was “actually proud of it” and said that German NGO boats taking shipwrecked people to ports of safety in Italy had “invasion vibes” – once again using the language of the far-right when talking about immigration.

He received a warm reception at a political conference hosted by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in December, during which he riffed on some of his pet political issues, including “the woke mind virus”, farming and environmental policy, immigration, and declining birth rates in developed countries.

“Woke” is an adjective that describes someone who is aware of (or awake to) social injustices, but it is most often used in a pejorative way by conservatives to mock people on the left. 

Regulations aimed at addressing climate change and environmental degradation are often cast as attacks on traditional farming by those in agriculture on the right. It has become a major talking point in EU politics of late.   

Musk has also enthusiastically endorsed policies aimed at increasing birth rates among native Hungarians, brought in by President Viktor Orban.

Birth rates are a subject of particular fascination among people on the far-right, especially ethno-nationalists like Orban who subscribe to the “Great Replacement” theory, which falsely claims that elites are conspiring to replace native populations in white majority countries.

Copy and paste politics

For Eileen Culloty, deputy director of the Institute for Media, Democracy and Society at DCU, Musk’s “unhelpful” interventions are particularly stark because of his loud voice.

“It’s another thing, though, for Irish groups and actors to be stirring up fears based on American ideas and American laws that don’t exist here,” she says.

The United States has extremely liberal laws regarding freedom of speech, as opposed to most other countries where the right is not absolute and is tempered by the existence of other rights, such as a citizen’s right to their good name.

According to free speech absolutists, the US constitution means governments should not place any limitations on speech - which is what Musk refers to when he calls himself a ‘free speech absolutist’.

“Presumably, his Irish acolytes think the same because they shout censorship whenever anyone calls for limitations on speech,” Culloty says. “They may as well be shouting about their ‘first amendment rights’.”

It is notable that Musk has not been such a robust defender of freedom of expression in other cases.

He has previously bowed to pressure from governments to censor dissenting political speech by politicians and journalists, for example, in India and Turkey.

Kevin Cunningham of the polling company Ireland Thinks sees Musk’s behaviour in the context of his transforming of Twitter.

While the platform previously had a largely liberal leaning user base, X has become home to more and more conservative users.

According to Ireland Thinks’ latest polling data, which is yet to be published, 39% of Irish people who use Musk’s platform said immigration is either the most or second most important issue to them.

“And that’s higher than any other social media network, which is a staggering change from where that would have been five years ago,” Cunningham explains.

“Now Twitter is clearly the most socially conservative social media network, which is a massive change.”

The change in the political makeup of the site’s user base and its content aligns with Musk’s own concerns as the billionaire owner of a car company, Cunningham says.

“He’s obviously raised the salience of immigration on Twitter, and other issues like the rise of the far right is also relatively high. If you’re consuming media which is just about immigration and the far right, then you’re going to think that these sorts of things are more important.

“As a consequence, issues like poverty and inequality, issues like the cost of living are lesser concerns for people who engage on Twitter,” he says.

Cunningham also points out that Musk is the owner of a car company, which has political implications.

“People who buy cars tend to be people in rural locations who – at least in the United States – tend to be more Republican. So you can see very clearly from some perspective that him winning support from these sorts of voters at least could help to sell more cars.”

Whether his motivations are financial, ideological, or both, Musk’s interventions and comments on his pet political issues have certainly become more frequent since buying Twitter and he’s shown no sign of kicking the habit. 

The question for those in Irish politics is: what does it mean for the future of these debates when the world’s richest man – and owner of a major social media site – keeps weighing in?