Does Elon Musk debacle expose Twitter’s true purpose?
Will the social media platform become safe space for racism and disinformation?
Elon Musk seems clearly brilliant about a few things, like rocket ships and electric cars. On many other subjects, however, Musk clearly has no clue what he’s talking about. Unfortunately, his supersized hubris blinds him to this fact. This is especially true on the subject of politics, where Musk regularly demonstrates a sophomoric grasp of reality. But it extends to other areas as well.
In 2018, Musk proposed using submarines to rescue a group of Thai children trapped in a cave. When the lead researcher rejected the submarine as an unworkable solution, Musk called him a pedophile. In the end, all of the children survived with help from actual cave rescue experts (and without any help from Musk’s fantasy submarine).
In 2020, when California was desperately in need of ventilators to help COVID patients, Musk heroically offered to donate 1,000 of the devices. But instead of shipping the real ventilator units, Musk dumped a supply of much cheaper (and basically useless) BiPAP machines on the state’s hospitals. Lacking any medical expertise, Musk perhaps didn’t know the difference between the two devices.
Also in 2020, Musk infamously called public anxiety over COVID “dumb,” blasted public safety measures as “fascist” and predicted a quick end to the pandemic. Two years later, over 1 million Americans are dead and we find ourselves in the middle of yet another surge of a new variant.
We also find ourselves watching yet another tiresome public display of Musk’s unfortunate tendency to express loud opinions on subjects where he lacks knowledge.
Last month, the Tesla impresario declared his plans to buy San Francisco-based Twitter and take the company private. Musk’s overture to Twitter sparked public outcry from those who feared his plans to turn the site into a Trumpian white supremacist disinformation platform. Since Twitter has an outsized influence on journalism and political discourse, Musk’s detractors feared he would buy the site in order to empower racists, bullies and disinformation.
And one of Musk’s first promises as Twitter’s would-be owner was to allow Trump back onto the site.
At first, Twitter seemed prepared to fight off the Musk invasion, adopting a “poison pill” strategy to fend off a hostile takeover. Once Musk made a $44 billion offer to buy the social media company for $54.20 a share, however, the bird app’s leaders started singing a different tune.
“In principle, I don’t believe anyone should own or run Twitter,” said Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, describing Twitter’s main purpose as a noble service to humanity. “It wants to be a public good at a protocol level, not a company. Solving for the problem of it being a company however, Elon is the singular solution I trust. I trust his mission to extend the light of consciousness.”
No one should own Twitter — except a megalomaniacal CEO who is willing to pay $44 billion to make Twitter a safe space for Trump, white supremacists and disinformation?
Apparently, Dorsey’s definition of “light of consciousness” can best be summed up by the poop emoji. Musk tweeted this popular emoji — a visual representation of a smiling fecal specimen with eyes — at Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal on Monday during a debate over the existence of fake accounts on the site. The animated response came in the aftermath of Musk's declaration that he was putting his Twitter purchase on hold to determine whether the company is telling the truth when it estimates that only 5% of the site’s accounts are inauthentic. When Agrawal responded with a well-reasoned tweet about how the company estimates the number of fake accounts, Musk retorted with a turd.
It was the latest in a series of apparent efforts by Musk to publicly humiliate and damage Twitter. Legally, Musk is supposed to refrain from publicly attacking the company as part of the deal. True to form, however, he’s breaking the rules and waging an insult campaign against the company he purportedly seeks to own. It seems like a preview of what’s to come — if Musk goes through with his purchase of the app.
Twitter’s stock price has plummeted, with Musk’s public irrationality plunging the company’s price far below the price he agreed to pay. The past few weeks have provided a dramatic rollercoaster ride of events in which Musk has telegraphed has intentions by attacking Democrats and expressing alignment with far-right figures while parading his naïve view of content moderation (and his willingness to overpay for the ability to wield control over it). All while simultaneously sinking the stock prices of both Twitter and Tesla.
On Wednesday, as Tesla shares tumbled, Musk waded further into political analysis by declaring that he will now vote for Republican candidates.
“In the past, I voted Democrat, because they were (mostly) the kindness party,” he wrote on Twitter. “But they have become the party of division & hate, so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican.”
In reality, Musk’s conservative politics came as a surprise to no one except Musk himself. He’s a white, male, union-busting billionaire who publicly criticized California’s COVID protection rules as “fascist” but doesn’t seem bothered by the new abortion bans passed in his new home state of Texas. The idea of converting to the Republican cause at a moment when the GOP’s defining characteristics are racial hate and insurrection tells us everything we know about Musk’s political leanings. (His conversion to the GOP cause also came one day before Insider ran a story about a $250,000 settlement with a SpaceX flight attendant who accused him of sexual harassment.)
Like Trump, Musk’s political positions appear driven by selfishness. He despises unions and COVID protections because they interfere with his desire to maximize his own profits and do as he pleases. Like Trump, his worldview is shaped by what’s good for his own interests, not what’s good for anyone else. Like Trump, he enjoys creating spectacles and making himself the center of negative attention on Twitter. Like Trump, Musk’s politics are simple, not complicated. It’s all about him.
Less clear, however, is what Twitter is getting out of this bizarre episode. Its stock price has sunk, it just fired key executives and many demoralized employees are reportedly eyeing the exits.
If anything, the Musk debacle has removed any illusion that the company’s supposedly high-minded ideals are anything more than empty PR. Turns out all the talk about preserving democracy and spreading consciousness was just boilerplate marketing gobbledygook.
In reality, Twitter is simply a weapon for harvesting user data and exerting an outsized influence over political discourse. And it’s for sale to the highest bidder.
In fact, as the press has reported, it was Twitter founder Jack Dorsey who suggested that Musk buy the company and take it private. The result of this “singular solution” has been a real-time disaster for the involved parties, but it’s been enlightening for everyone else.
Collectively, we are helping to create and empower a communications weapon that will very likely fall into the wrong hands one day and be used as a tool to destroy democracy and spread hate and lies. Regardless of whether Musk buys Twitter, Twitter’s users should reexamine the app’s role as “public square” for political thought.
At the very least, Twitter’s users — the sole source of its power — should find a way to organize and exert more power over the platform’s fate. By doing so, they can make it exceedingly clear that a fascist free-for-all version of the tweet app will quickly go the way of MySpace, Friendster and the dodo bird.
Jaron Lanier on “10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”