How does he do it all? Elon Musk is a father of seven, a busy businessman, a would-be coloniser of Mars and a full-time internet troll. As if he didn’t have enough on his plate, the world’s richest and most attention-seeking man has also just reached a deal to buy Twitter for $44bn. Not content with simply spending an inordinate amount of time posting puerile jokes on the platform, he is now seizing the memes of production.
But don’t worry: it is not just a vanity project, it is “philanthropy”. Musk has explained that he is buying Twitter to protect free speech and civil liberties. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said in a statement posted to his new toy.
If you are a billionaire, Twitter may be a digital town square where existential matters are debated, but for most users it is more like a school playground that the bullies have taken over. I have been using Twitter for more than a decade. In that time, it has gone from being a joyful place populated by brilliant, witty people to being an awful cesspit full of Nazis and killjoys. Rightwingers will harass you for being a woman with an opinion. Leftwingers will harass you for being a woman with the wrong sort of opinion. (I had to lock my account after suggesting that demisexuals — people who are not sexually attracted to others unless they have a strong emotional bond — are not the most oppressed people on the planet.)
Twitter has become an objectively horrible place, yet I can’t seem to quit it. I am helplessly addicted. The joy has been sucked out of the platform, but it remains a uniquely efficient way to hear a variety of opinions on a variety of subjects. Plus, it remains a place where you are expected to have a presence if you want a career in the media.
Is it possible that Musk will make Twitter great again? The right certainly thinks so. There has been a lot of jubilation from conservatives about Musk’s acquisition; they seem to believe a billionaire buying a social network is a win for free speech and a rebuke to big tech. (No one does mental gymnastics like a conservative.)
Liberals are not so enthused. Many people have vowed, on Twitter, that they will quit the site as soon as Musk takes over. They won’t, of course. Because, as I said, the sort of people who care that Musk is taking over Twitter are also the sort of people who are hopelessly addicted to it.
It is important to put Musk’s acquisition into perspective. He is not taking over a socialist cooperative that fosters the best in public discourse. He is taking over a hellhole that is owned mainly by institutional investors and whose founder is a billionaire. That said, it is important that we don’t minimise the harm Musk could unleash as the head honcho at Twitter. Musk is notoriously thin-skinned, yet he likes to describe himself as a “free-speech absolutist”. It seems highly likely that he will unravel what little content moderation there is at Twitter, making life harder for minorities, who are disproportionally harassed on the platform.
You know what else Musk will probably do? Let Donald Trump back on Twitter. Trump has insisted that he has absolutely no interest in rejoining Twitter, but that is hard to believe. The former president’s new social network, Truth Social, has been a complete disaster and his relevance has plummeted since being kicked off Twitter. If Trump has any hope of making a political comeback, then Musk is his best bet. I have no idea how Musk’s acquisition of Twitter will pan out, but it looks as if the trolls will inherit the Earth.
Published in The Guardian on April 26, 2022.Reprinted with permission.