Elon Musk Is No Aberration

The proud new owner of the internet’s dumpster fire isn’t to blame for its issues—yet.

An illustration of a shattered Twitter bird
The Atlantic

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Did you hear about the miracle Cuban coronavirus cure that we never got because of capitalism? If not, you probably aren’t on Twitter, where this fictitious remedy went, well, viral. “Cuba: We have an antiviral with demonstrably high success rates in treating patients with COVID-19,” wrote a small-time Communist influencer on the platform in March 2020. “China: Our studies show this Cuban drug has incredibly high success rates. US: If only WE could find a treatment, someone in the PRIVATE SECTOR needs to find a PATENTABLE treatment.”

The false claim received more than 56,000 retweets and 252,000 likes. As of this writing, it is still up on the social-media site. Meanwhile, in the real world, Cubans protested in the streets over vaccine scarcity, while China continues its draconian zero-COVID lockdown policy.

In the virtual world of Twitter, this was not an isolated incident. According to popular posts made by users of the site, the Merriam-Webster-dictionary definition of anti-vaxxer was changed in 2021 to include those who oppose vaccine mandates. (It wasn’t; it had been that way for years.) In a parody of performative progressivism, President Joe Biden inaugurated a line of environmentally friendly bombs. (He didn’t; the story was from 2008.) And the United Kingdom banned Fox News. (It didn’t; the channel decided to stop broadcasting there, because of a lack of viewers.) Simply put, Twitter has been a fire hose of ideologically motivated misinformation for years.

And yet, in the days since Elon Musk took control of the site, users have taken to blaming this problem and the platform’s other long-standing issues on him. When a doctored video of former President Barack Obama being mocked at a Wisconsin rally went viral, the writer James Surowiecki rightly lamented, “Account posts totally fake video of Obama, presenting it as real, and it’s retweeted and replied to by thousands of people who think it’s real.” But he prefaced this observation with the words “New Twitter,” as though this didn’t routinely happen on the Old Twitter. “Is this what we are to expect on Twitter moving forward: zero content moderation or fact checking?” asked one Democratic political consultant, seemingly without irony. (In fact, Twitter’s nascent crowdsourced fact-checking system, Birdwatch, quickly labeled the video in question as misleading, though as usual, this did not stop it from spreading.)

Others have suggested that Musk’s reign has introduced a new era of bigotry on the platform, thanks to allegedly lax moderation policies. “Hours into Twitter’s Elon Musk era, the company has apparently undone its ban on the term ‘groomer’ as a slur against LGBTQ+ people,” wrote The Advocate, when the term had never been banned in the first place. “Ye’s Twitter account appears to be no longer suspended as Elon Musk takes the helm of the company,” reported Bloomberg. But the rapper’s account had never been suspended; it was merely locked following his recent anti-Semitic outburst, which the corrected article now notes. As both Musk and Yoel Roth, Twitter’s longtime safety chief, have said, the site’s content policies have not changed.

I note all of this not to exculpate Twitter but to indict it. Because as it turns out, whether viral misinformation or rampant bigotry, most of Twitter’s pathologies that people are pinning on Musk predate his ownership. I know this from personal experience. During the 2016 presidential-election campaign, I was inundated with anti-Semitic invective on Twitter over my critical commentary on Donald Trump’s candidacy. An Anti-Defamation League study found that I received the second-most abuse of Jewish commentators on the site during that cycle. Twitter subsequently vowed to clean up its act, but though some strides were made, most anti-Semitic bigotry remained. After the election, I built a bot that exposed neo-Nazi accounts impersonating Jews and other minorities on the platform. In 2017, Twitter banned the bot and left the Nazis. In 2019, an account impersonated me and Photoshopped a swastika onto a photograph of a baby, claiming that it was my son. When I reported this content, Twitter said it did not violate their terms of service, and backtracked only after embarrassing media coverage.

And that’s just the obvious stuff. When the bigotry moves beyond swastikas and slurs to conspiratorial anti-Semitism—the sort made infamous most recently by Ye—Twitter, like most social-media companies, has never really tried to fix it. The same is true of other bigotries; once hate is cloaked in coded language and euphemisms, it typically goes unchallenged.

I don’t recount these stories for sympathy. I take my targeting by bigots as an indicator that my work is upsetting the right people. But my experience demonstrates that what is happening on Twitter now is not new, and that scapegoating Musk for the site’s issues sidesteps the real reasons for its fundamental brokenness.

Twitter’s problems run far deeper than a problematic owner. To begin with, it’s structurally designed to impede complex discussion by forcing users to reduce all topics to 280-character sound bites. This can be a fun way to react to Game of Thrones, but it is not a good way to litigate economic policy or geopolitical conflicts. The constricted format impedes free-flowing conversation while privileging performative sloganeering. This is why Donald Trump, who seemingly never had a complex thought in his life, loved Twitter. Why our intellectual elite has decided to yoke the public discourse to a site whose most successful users are people like Trump is less understandable.

The platform’s structure also encourages fabrication. With so many voices talking at once, it’s hard for any individual to go viral. But there is one dependable way to cut through the noise: Say something no one else is saying. In theory, this should reward funny or novel thinking. But in practice, it rewards dishonesty, because it’s a lot easier to come up with something genuinely new if you just make it up. The internet prizes originality, but hoaxes are by definition “original” because the person spreading them simply invented them. Claiming that the communists cured the coronavirus is a big advantage in the social-media game. And because there are no social consequences for sharing concocted content on Twitter, such material proliferates. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.

More recently, Twitter has attempted to address its misinformation miasma with Birdwatch. It’s a noble endeavor staffed by well-meaning volunteer fact-checkers. But trying to market facts to partisan Twitter users and clout-chasing content mills is like trying to sell Yankees hats at a Red Sox game: It fundamentally misunderstands what the audience is looking for. Most political users don’t utilize Twitter to form opinions and find information; they use it to advertise their opinions and get validation for them. Similarly, most accounts churning out crowd-pleasing content prize virality over veracity. That’s why no matter how many times Twitter labels content as misleading, it continues to be posted and shared with enthusiasm, like all the hoaxes at the top of this piece.

The situation is similarly dire when it comes to policing prejudice on the platform. Like many social-media sites, Twitter has outsourced much of its moderation to underpaid and overworked individuals in foreign countries, many of whom lack cultural competency to recognize all but the most blatant forms of bigotry. Even if society could collectively agree on what constitutes acceptable online speech, it’s unlikely that this slapdash system could possibly regulate it.

Taken together, the entire edifice of Twitter regularly privileges inflammatory interaction at the expense of thoughtful discussion. This doesn’t mean that the site cannot be used for positive purposes; it is every day! Rather, it means that using Twitter constructively rather than destructively often requires fighting the nature of the platform itself.

Which brings us back to Musk. Seen in this context, he is less Twitter’s problem than its product. In the days following his takeover, he tweeted—and, to his credit, later deleted—a conspiracy theory about the recent attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This might seem like a bizarre thing for the world’s richest man to be spending his time doing on Twitter. But in sharing dubious content that confirmed his contrarian priors and flattered his preconceived politics, Musk was not some sort of Twitter aberration but its avatar. He was doing precisely what the platform propels us all to do.

In other words, Elon Musk didn’t break Twitter; he embodies it.