Twitter and Elon Musk: I’m not going anywhere for now

“After taking the company private, Musk tweeted that the ‘bird is freed.’ The bird, of course, was never in a cage. My almost-daily contact with trolls who openly spew the most hateful content proves without a shadow of a doubt that far too much is tolerated on Twitter already.”

Since Elon Musk’s $44-billion buyout of Twitter, many of its users have been worried about what it all means. Quite a few readers have asked me whether I plan to stick around. Simply put, it’s too soon to form an opinion on how this platform may be transformed, even though Musk’s declarations about being a “free speech absolutist” have many concerned it will become a place where extremist viewpoints will find a welcoming home. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having my reservations, but for now I’m staying put. 

Almost immediately after taking the company private, Musk tweeted that the “bird is freed.” The bird, of course, was never in a cage. My almost-daily contact with trolls who openly spew the most hateful content proves without a shadow of a doubt that far too much is tolerated on Twitter already. But it appears not to have been enough because some felt they needed even more freedom, and Musk bravely offered up himself as the hero of this imaginary quest. 

A bizarre six-month-old saga to purchase Twitter

It’s all been quite the adventure ever since. Back in April, when speculation first started swirling that Musk might buy the company, I wrote a column, “Elon Musk won’t save or sink Twitter” mainly in response to being inundated by messages written by random anti-woke boomers giddy at the news, overjoyed that Musk was about to singlehandedly save “free speech.” The deification of this man has frankly always fascinated me because I’ve honestly seen very little evidence that supports the theories that he’s a genius or even interested in free speech at all. 

Of course, back in April none of us had any idea that a six-month saga would commence. Musk first became the popular platform’s biggest stockholder. Then he offered to buy it at $54.20 per share. After significant back and forth, he eventually did purchase it for $44-billion. Then, in May, he got cold feet and, citing concerns about spam accounts, put the purchase on hold. By July he was announcing that he was terminating the deal. Twitter then threatened legal action and eventually lodged a lawsuit against Musk. He, in turn, countersued. Finally, in October, and while rumours were circulating that Musk was under federal investigation related to the Twitter purchase, Musk offered to finalize things and the deal was completed. 

Since then, narcissism and confusion

The first day after the purchase, Musk arrived at the company carrying an actual sink, tweeting “Entering Twitter HQ — let that sink in.” As moderately amusing puns go, that required far too much work and signalled that this hopelessly unfunny man aims to gain some sort of street cred via his purchase of Twitter, which, I can assure you, will not happen. There’s no amount of money in the world that can make someone funny or cool. All money can do is multiply the number of sycophants around them pretending to laugh at their mediocre jokes. 

Since then, Musk has been busy tweeting and making ground-breaking decisions like changing his Twitter bio from “Chief Twit” to the current “Twitter Complaint Hotline Operator.” So. Cool. So. Edgy. 

A platform for free speech? 

Musk has repeatedly said that he believes that Twitter isn’t living up to its potential as a platform for free speech. He’s so adamant about “free speech” that he once promised to restore Donald Trump’s Twitter account, which had many of Trump’s faithful excited. 

Most importantly, Musk wanted to take control of Twitter so badly that he went out and secured close to $50-billion in external funding, from multiple dubious sources, among them notorious free-speech advocates like Qatar and Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who committed $1.89-billion (that equals nearly 35 million shares) in equity. Because, let’s face it, when we think of free speech, we think of Saudi Arabia. 

“There’s not been enough scrutiny of the fact that Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover has been propped up with cash from Qatar & Saudi Arabia,” tweeted Business Insider‘s Ryan Gallagher on Oct. 28, and I adamantly agree. This should be a giant red flag, yet few “free-speech” advocates and fans of his seem to be bothered by this because they’re mainly interested in unfettered access to all things ugly and sticking it to those who don’t equate accountability and consequences with cancel culture. 

An immediate increase in hate speech

Already, those salivating at the idea of being able to say the vilest things uncensored and unmonitored have started testing the waters. Musk’s takeover sparked an immediate surge in the use of the n-word on the platform. The Network Contagion Research Institute, a research group that analyzes social-media content to predict emerging threats said that some were encouraging users to amplify derogatory slurs to test the limits. 

The result? The “use of the n-word increased by nearly 500 percent in the 12 hours immediately after Musk’s deal was finalized.” 

I don’t know about you, but if your idea of free speech is the unfettered freedom to utter derogatory racial or religious slurs, unencumbered by mundane things like content moderation policies, if you’re rejoicing at being able to share conspiracy theories unchecked, or bombarding users with misogynistic harassment, it’s not free speech that you’re interested in. You’re interested in hate speech. Call it by its name. 

What happens now? 

So, now what? Are people going to be terrified to criticize Musk in case he kicks them off their favourite platform? What will future changes bring? Will he really change anything at all? There are so many questions and very few answers for the moment. I don’t know what Musk’s input will do to a platform I have learned to enjoy and be part of. As a writer, it’s a great place to share links to my work, debate topics, share what interests me. I truly love Twitter and I am a little worried about what this vain, bizarre, self-centred man plans to do with it. But I also don’t trust much of what he says and announces. Mainly because he says a lot of things with little substance or follow-through. 

For the moment, Twitter’s content moderation policies remain the same. Musk recently said that he’s planning to create a “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints” to set new ground rules. He recently dissolved Twitter’s board of directors, has recently indicated that he may be reviving Vine (why?) and that he may start charging verified Twitter users $20 per month — a frankly laughable suggestion if you ask me. If anything, Twitter verification isn’t a status symbol, as Musk seems to imply, but operates as a security feature, helping combat disinformation. A vast majority of people who opt to use it would never pay for it. 

Right now, Musk looks like he’s just fumbling around trying to figure things out, something one would expect to have taken place before such a costly purchase. But, hey… what do I know… I’m not a gazillionaire used to throwing around money every day on impulse buys. I would never buy a sink just to use as a prop in an unfunny joke. 

In the meantime, while much remains unknown, many users are opting to remove themselves from the platform altogether. Others are adding extra security features like locking their accounts, preventing people they don’t follow from commenting. Corporate advertisers like Ford and General Motors have announced that until they get a better handle on the changes to the platform, they won’t be placing ads. I’m certain that Musk tweeting (then deleting without explaining or apologizing) a link to an unfounded fringe conspiracy theory about the violent attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, certainly didn’t inspire confidence in advertisers either. 

If Twitter is to remain viable, not much can change 

The truth of the matter remains that, despite Musk’s bluster and constant need to talk himself up as the man who’s going to change Twitter and restore whatever he thinks was lost, I don’t think he will change much. I don’t believe he truly understands Twitter’s power, nor how best to monetize it. If users start leaving in droves because he messes up, what exactly will remain of the platform that Musk needs to sell ads on? 

I think he may have bitten off more than he can chew and may soon find himself wondering why he ever bothered to take on the platform at all. It’s a platform, let’s not forget, that has primarily been funded by financial institutions like Morgan Stanley, Barclay’s, Bank of America and Silicon Valley Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison. These backers will want to see a return on their investment soon enough and Musk can’t afford to run Twitter straight into the ground.

This financial reality is probably why Musk was equally quick to state that “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape where anything can be said with no consequence” right after purchase, despite his free-speech bravado beforehand. 

Once the thrill of the chase dies down, the media focus on Musk (who also runs four other companies) dissipates, and once his inflated sense of self has gotten the ego-stroking it so clearly needs, he’ll have to focus on the task at hand. 

The task at hand may be more than he bargained for. I’m sticking around to watch the show. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.