Think of Twitter as a city.
It’s large and dense and thrillingly cosmopolitan. Its streets and lanes are crowded with fascinating characters, crammed with treasures of knowledge and culture.
But like any big human agglomeration, Twitter attracts predators: crooks and fanatics and bullies, who deceive and abuse people for profit, power, or perverted fun.
The city has never been well policed. Maybe policing it effectively was never possible. But now the city has a new mayor—and it’s as if Oswald Cobblepot (a.k.a. the Penguin) has taken over Gotham.
Within hours of Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, the U.S. political system was shaken by a vicious crime. A man reportedly in the grip of QAnon-style delusions forced his way into the San Francisco home of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He allegedly hoped to kidnap the speaker, and interrogate and torture her. She was not at home, but her husband was. The intruder fractured Paul Pelosi’s skull with a hammer.
This awful incident should have united all Americans in condemnation. But that’s not what happened. Some prominent Republicans did speak out: former Vice President Mike Pence; Senator and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney; the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. But these three men are themselves targets of murderous pro-Trump hatred, almost as much as Speaker Pelosi herself.
Those Republicans who identify with Trump and his MAGA movement either kept silent, as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis did, or found ways to suggest that Paul Pelosi was no innocent victim, that he was somehow to blame for the attack.
Malicious theories began to circulate. And thanks to Twitter, they quickly migrated from the far-right QAnon fringe to the mainstream of the GOP. A member of the House, a likely subcommittee chair in the next Congress, shared them on a personal social-media account. Senator Ted Cruz winked at them. Ex-President Donald Trump has endorsed them.
And one person lent one of these malicious theories his huge (100-million-plus-followers) platform: the new mayor of Twittertown.
I happened to be an ocean and a continent away when I saw Musk’s now-infamous tweet about Paul Pelosi. He responded to a tweet from Hillary Clinton by sharing a link to a fake news story about Pelosi from a notoriously untrustworthy source—an outlet that had reported in 2016 that Clinton had died and that Democrats had replaced her on the campaign trail with a body double.
I don’t follow Musk, but I was immediately aware of the commotion he’d created with that tweet. I wonder if many people actually believed the story Musk had publicized. It seemed too far-fetched and dumb, but trolls don’t care about plausibility—they delight in causing shock and outrage and emotional distress. The story Musk amplified ticked all those boxes.
Until that point, I did not have a strong or clear view about Musk acquiring Twitter. There’s much to admire about him as an entrepreneur and innovator. Whatever I admired less about him did not seem like problems that I needed to concern myself with. Musk has misguided ideas about Ukraine and China? So, probably, do a good many other CEOs of big companies, even if they exercise better control over what they tweet.
But what was going on here was more than a misguided opinion. This was active disinformation. Like many others, I tweeted my disgust.
And then I logged off the platform for three days to think about what else, if anything, I needed to do.
I joined Twitter in 2009, and it rapidly became one of the most valuable tools in my writer’s inventory.
Twitter is a crucial conduit of up-to-the-minute information, a source of breaking news, an ever-running channel about events just over the horizon. Twitter is the way I follow the protests in Iran, the battles in Ukraine, the slowdown in the Chinese economy, and the food crises in Africa.
Twitter offers depth of information, as well as speed. It’s how I access everything from technical discussions about inflation to disputes over how history should be written. And it’s where I locate experts, and discover who is arguing with whom, over what.
I also came to use Twitter as a kind of notebook: a place to test ideas, or sometimes tell jokes. The enforced concision of Twitter can be good discipline for a writer.
And, as one of its more ambiguous gifts, Twitter offers a virtual community: often rancorous, but also surprisingly open and egalitarian. I’ve heard more original ideas from people I didn’t previously know in a single day on Twitter than in many a month of Washington conferences.
At the same time, Twitter has always had its ugly and dangerous aspects: mobocracy, groupthink, enforcement of conformity, intentional spread of disinformation. People suffer psychic harm under the torrents of mass insult that can abruptly proliferate on Twitter—and the people who hurl the abuse are twisted, too, by participation in these outrage rituals. Twitter also enables the rapid propagation of rumors and lies, as it did in the Pelosi case. The site can mislead readers about how, and what, others think.
As individuals, we can offset these hazards by managing our own accounts prudently: choosing carefully whom to follow in the first place, unfollowing people who misbehave or disinform, restricting direct messaging so it cannot be used for threats and harassment, setting notifications to avoid unwanted interactions.
But individuals cannot do everything themselves. They need some degree of institutional support. That has never been a Twitter excellence, and Musk is giving reason to fear that he will degrade the site further. Musk wants revenues from Twitter—that’s a reasonable expectation; the site is a business—but his first idea is a very bad one: to charge a fee for account verification. Musk seems to think of verification as a status marker, like a personalized license plate. It’s not. It’s a crucial tool against site abuse. Consider this:
A hurricane is on its way. Tweets begin to fly with information and misinformation. Which to believe? Right now, you can check the verified accounts of federal and state agencies, and know for certain that they are who they say they are. But what if some prankster can create an account that looks official, pay $20 a month or $8 a month or whatever the fee is to verify it, and then try to push rumors to deceive frightened people?
What kind of sicko would do such a thing? you wonder. Well, it happened during Hurricane Sandy: an account with a big following recklessly sowed panic—and to this day, that account remains active.
In the same way, what’s to stop other bad actors, state agents even, from creating false-flag accounts and verifying them, then using them for malign purposes? Get ready for verified fake accounts that insinuate Russian, Chinese, or Saudi propaganda; that sell fabricated celebrity sex tapes, quack medicine, and scammy investment schemes.
People are vulnerable to deceptions that flatter their prejudices. That may well be how Musk himself was deceived by the absurd story about Paul Pelosi: He wanted to believe it and disregarded the warning signs of its untrustworthiness. Now he has proposed selling to anyone who has a few bucks the site’s most important quality-control feature.
Over the years, I have felt that I could say about Twitter what Christopher Hitchens (quoting Winston Churchill) used to say about alcohol: “I’ve taken more out of it than it has taken out of me.” Yet my relationship with Twitter remains a complicated one, and it’s about to get more complicated. From Twitter’s point of view, all of us who post on the site are unpaid employees—content generators whose interactions produce revenues that make the site a business. We’re more than “users” because we’re also participants and co-creators. That makes us in some way responsible parties for whatever Twitter becomes. So if Musk adapts Twitter in ways that serve the interests of antidemocratic forces, that implicates those of us who post on his site. We could end up as collaborators in the subversion of our highest ideals of self-government, individual dignity, and truth.
Few of these bad consequences have occurred yet. Maybe no worse will occur. Maybe this introductory week will have jolted Musk out of his worst impulses—he was apparently chastened enough by the response to his reply to Clinton to delete it. He has built great companies in the past; maybe he will build Twitter into a greater company.
My conclusion, after my three-day spell of reflection, is that it’s too soon to decide. I’m returning to the site, if more warily than before. But it will not always be too soon to decide. I’m privately developing plans for how I’ll replace, if I must, the features of Twitter that I would miss: the rapid information flow, the depth of expertise, the experimentation with ideas not yet ready to submit to an editor. There will be no one single replacement for Twitter, but rather plural solutions for different needs.
I’m not ready to cut the cord yet. I’m still hoping for the best—but preparing for the worst. You might consider doing the same.