Elon Musk, Twitter and the endless culture wars
When Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, completed his $44 billion takeover of Twitter last week, the commentariat leapt to grandiose conclusions. A self-described ‘free speech absolutist,’ Musk has outlined a libertarian vision for Twitter, loosening content moderation guidelines to create a ‘digital town square’ of diverse opinion. And while that sounds appealing to free speech activists like me, critics say Musk is hiding vindictive agendas in the alluring syrup of populist expediency.
After all, the notion of ‘reclaiming’ free speech is a dopamine-drenched dog whistle at this point, and detractors accuse Musk using that crusade as a front for his real project: constructing an echo chamber of sleaze, slurry and misinformation. Indeed, opinions on Musk’s motives correlate with the wider culture wars – liberals whining, conservatives overreaching – intensifying the polarisation that tears our discourse asunder.
As an anti-political pragmatist who has been exploited by nefarious groups on the left and right, Musk’s subliminal politicisation of Twitter makes me queasy. By sharing debunked right-wing conspiracy theories and brutally culling staff within days of taking charge, Musk has aligned – at least optically – with fringe movements in the political extreme. Accordingly, it is not difficult to see how, under his aegis, Twitter could become a symbolic pawn in the verbal war across identity fault lines – an avatar of division, like masks and guns, rather than a tool of unity as originally intended.
Of course, narratives are quick to take shape and quicker to morph amid cognitive dissonance, but right-wingers are rejoicing and left-wingers are lamenting Musk’s ascent. As prominent users react to the takeover and announce their migration from Twitter, a quick scroll through the replies reveals a hellscape of MAGA jubilation. And within those caustic, deluded spats lies the cryptic potential of Twitter becoming a 4chan-esque meme factory devoid of reason. Whether Musk wilfully encourages such associations is unclear, but it is also largely irrelevant, because extremists are happy that moderates are leaving Twitter, and that does not bode well for the userbase left behind.
I do not profess to know everything about Elon Musk, nor would I wish to. I’m no Musketeer, and I do not worship at the altar of Tesla or SpaceX. Nevertheless, the guy strikes me as vacuous and immature at best; unhinged and calculating at worst. It is unwise to allow any billionaire to monopolise an industry, but Musk seems especially volatile, and granting him unilateral power to rule Twitter – among the most influential platforms on earth – seems particularly dangerous. The macro damage his micro decisions could cause is very real.
Ultimately, though, Twitter is a private company. It is not a public utility – regardless of hyperbolic, idealistic claims to the contrary. Spawned as a capitalist enterprise, Twitter’s evolution into a thinktank of outsized importance was entirely organic, shaped by market demands and whims. Its independent prerogative for self-change is unquestionable, meaning Musk can alter the rules if he is so inclined, but users have an equal right to take their custom elsewhere. If your favourite restaurant changes its menu, you can find another establishment down the road. It may suck, especially if you have fond memories of the old joint, but such is the merciless churn of capitalism, and such is the beauty of free choice.
There will be things I commend in Musk’s Twitter blueprint, including unfiltered discussion, streamlined monetisation for content creators, and wider integration with external apps. However, if one must wade through troves of hate and misinformation to access those perks, do they even remain desirable? Are they worth the psychological trade-off? Probably not. Where Musk places those controversial red lines – between opinion and curated fake news, between dislike and hate speech, between critique and conspiracy – will determine Twitter’s fate. Unfortunately, Musk has consistently shown little discernment in such matters, even in the embryonic stages of his Twitter ownership. A rollercoaster is sure to unfurl, then, and a morbid fascination will likely take hold.
In that regard, I’m already befuddled by a logical inconsistency at the heart of Musk’s modus operandi. One of his stated reasons for purchasing the platform was to combat bots and unverified accounts. A rational person may expect more verification, then, not less. However, quite bafflingly, Musk’s first proposed change to Twitter involves placing verification behind a paywall. A blue check mark – the very symbol of online credibility – will soon cost $8 per month. Quite how that will yield more verified accounts, when scores of verified users refuse to entertain such a model, remains to be seen.
To that end, a Twitter exodus is clearly underway. Several celebrities have posted farewell tweets, while famed novelist Stephen King vowed to abandon the platform – and his 6.9 million followers – if Musk’s verification plans are enacted. ‘#RIPTwitter’ trended globally as Musk took charge, and advertisers appear reticent about their future commitments to the app. Still, the scope and magnitude of any digital evacuation is currently unclear. Anecdotally, I’m seeing plenty of people pivot to Substack and Mastodon as Twitter alternatives, but long-term withdrawal trends are difficult to anticipate.
As for me? Well, I’m not leaving Twitter. At least not until changes impinge my values or stifle my liberty. Twitter has been an important resource in my life and career. During my days as a freelance journalist, Twitter helped me build traffic, influence and connections with editors and readers alike. The success of Planet Prentonia, a Twitter-centric venture, accelerated my professional growth, and the platform has always held a special place in my heart as a result – even as my disdain for social media more generally has surged. Without Twitter, I would not have found an audience as a young, raw writer, and that is why major changes to its offering pique my curiosity.
Unlike self-professed tech gurus and internet talking heads, I cannot predict what the future holds for Twitter. There may be a point where I curtail my involvement, but hopefully, such drastic action will not be needed. Hopefully, Elon Musk has good intentions. Hopefully, pragmatism will prevail. Whatever happens – euphoric or macabre, genius or tragedy – I will be a fascinated observer, because this may be the defining experiment of our age, and the consequences will echo through history.