How Elon Musk’s Buffoonery Misleads His Critics

What I learned while binge-watching social media’s hottest melodrama

Old television with a Twitter logo on the screen
Getty / The Atlantic

If you’re captivated when people who draw out the worst in one another can’t bring themselves to decouple, forget about Ryan and Kelly on The Office, Gossip Girl’s Chuck and Blair, and most every pairing on Euphoria and start watching the latest season of Twitter.

Its new lead is the billionaire Elon Musk, the social-media platform’s owner and CEO. And although he’s enmeshed in several fraught relationships––with Twitter’s presumably beleaguered workforce and its understandably anxious advertisers, for starters––Musk’s entry into the love-hate relationship between Twitter and left-of-center journalists is easily the most captivating and dysfunctional plotline. Is it a love triangle? A toxic polycule? I want happy endings for all the participants. I want Musk to succeed in creating a thriving conversation space with a culture of free speech, and I want journalists to succeed in subjecting Musk-era Twitter to rigorous scrutiny.

But as I binge on this show, I find that—as when watching The White Lotus or Succession—I am not rooting for who is right, but against whoever is most exasperatingly wrong in any given spat. As episodes unfold, I can’t honestly defend all of anyone’s actions. In their ongoing zeal to advance competing culture-war narratives about Twitter as a platform, Musk and his media critics routinely succumb to excesses that undermine faith in them.

If Musk is prone to grandiosity, flippancy, and free-speech claims that run the gamut from incisive to oversimplified to flagrantly promoting a mercenary agenda, his critics are as prone to Manichean portrayals that tend toward panicked, catastrophizing hyperbole. In general, the tenor of many news outlets’ Twitter coverage does not suggest that an epistemically modest press corps is offering balanced accounts of changes at the social-media company. Rather, that coverage is unremittingly hostile toward Musk, who is held to double standards and treated, mere weeks after taking ownership of Twitter, as if his approach to running a company that was losing lots of money before he arrived has obviously failed.

Before he offered to buy Twitter, Musk had a plausible critique of the platform’s content-moderation policies. Stripped of his occasional exaggerations and misstatements, that critique went like this: In the United States, Twitter should give users the tools to follow, mute, or block whomever they like, and it should suppress the sorts of speech that almost all Americans regard as harmful, including terrorist recruitment, death threats, child porn, incitement to violence, libel, and severe harassment. But rather than stop there, Twitter was moderating content in speech-chilling ways. The company’s decisions stymied freewheeling democratic debate about COVID-19 precautions, policies and norms proposed by transgender-rights advocates, and other contested matters that are widely discussed around dinner tables and during elections. Before the 2020 election, the platform aggressively attempted to block a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop, an unprecedented step against a mainstream publication’s election coverage that’s all the more alarming because we now know that many of its claims proved to be authentic. And even as the platform catered to many of the academia-informed sensitivities of highly educated Democrats and progressives––going so far as to suspend the account of an Onion-like satire magazine, The Babylon Bee, when it offended them––it explicitly permitted and even amplified an enormous variety of content (hard-core pornography, blasphemy, videos of flag burning, brutal mockery of individuals’ personal appearance) that transgressed against many other groups’ sensitivities or sacred values.

In this telling, Twitter’s partisan and ideological asymmetries chilled democratically valuable speech, exacerbated polarization, contributed to populist backlash, fueled conspiratorial thinking, and helped spur the creation of far-right platforms. If so, a new Twitter owner could conceivably help American democracy by catering to free-speech preferences held by more Americans. This theory of the case dovetails with Musk’s apparent decision to release details of what he sees as bygone missteps at Twitter through the independent journalist Matt Taibbi, ostensibly strengthening the case that the platform’s old regime was heavy-handed and biased.

The Musk-skeptical counternarrative, in its strongest form, is also plausible. It begins with the insight that all content moderation at scale is hard, frequently forcing fraught choices among bad options. To improve on the performance of pre-Musk Twitter, which had strengths as well as weaknesses, would have been challenging for any new owner. But Musk’s takeover has been marked by self-defeating blunders from the start. Almost as soon as he made a binding offer to buy the company at a specific price per share, he tried to wriggle out of the deal, apparently concluding that he was overpaying. That misstep, though not especially relevant to the content-moderation debate, fed the perception that Musk’s analysis of Twitter is less diligently informed and circumspect than knee-jerk and impulsive.

Then, shortly after buying Twitter, Musk made a big show of allowing any user to pay $8 a month for a verification check mark without any functioning way to actually verify their identity. The outcome was predictable: “New check-mark-wielding accounts wasted no time in impersonating brands, such as Musk’s own car company, Tesla, and pharmaceuticals company Eli Lilly, even announcing that the insulin manufacturer would now offer insulin for free, sending the actual Eli Lilly’s stock prices into a free fall,” Vox reported. “A fake LeBron James requested a trade to another NBA team. An account impersonating former president George W. Bush tweeted, ‘I miss killing Iraqis.’” As advertisers expressed concerns about being impersonated, Twitter suspended the new service. The episode sowed additional doubts about Musk’s stewardship. How could he have failed to foresee the impersonation problem?

Musk also undermines himself with illogical, overwrought, and inaccurate rhetoric. For example, on Friday, Taibbi posted an attention-getting Twitter thread that marshaled internal Twitter documents to paint a picture of how powerful actors influenced content moderation at the company. “By 2020, requests from connected actors to delete tweets were routine,” Taibbi reported. “One executive would write to another: ‘More to review from the Biden team.’ The reply would come back: ‘Handled.’” In response, Musk wrote, “If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, what is?” But as many Musk critics quickly pointed out, the First Amendment restrains only government power. In 2020, Joe Biden was a private citizen running for the presidency.

But by zeroing in on Musk’s most obvious mistakes, stridently negative press coverage tends to breeze past Musk’s overall argument, including the parts with demonstrable or arguable merit.

Consider the episode last month when, after taking over at Twitter, Musk posted a poll on his feed asking, “Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam?” After a majority of respondents approved of an amnesty, Musk declared that he would implement one. The Washington Post then published a news article on the matter by Taylor Lorenz, who covers technology and online culture, often emphasizing real harms that social-media giants have propagated over the years.

Lorenz, a former Atlantic staff writer who has a sophisticated understanding of social media, covered half of the story with gusto. The article appropriately informed readers that technical challenges might make implementing a mass amnesty much harder than it sounds; that Twitter might find it difficult or impossible to identify banned accounts that had broken the law; that the term egregious spam is vague and subjective; and that Musk’s amnesty would definitionally restore accounts that had aggressively harassed others without breaking the law, among other potential downsides and ostensible problems.

But nowhere does the article catalog or even acknowledge the potential upsides of Musk’s proposed amnesty or help readers understand why so many Twitter users voted in favor of that approach. Perhaps an amnesty is the only way to reinstate all accounts unjustly suspended by the former moderation regime without the impossible burden of identifying them individually. (An activist quoted in Lorenz’s article asserts without evidence that “superspreaders of hate, abuse and harassment will be the only people to benefit from this latest decision.”) Perhaps an amnesty will increase trust in communities that perceived bias during the old regime. Perhaps many miscreants deserved a temporary suspension followed by a second chance rather than a permanent punishment. The sources quoted in the Post story are all on one side of the question, even though informed observers of Twitter are more divided. When I asked Lorenz for comment, she emphasized that her article was not an opinion piece expressing her own view of Musk’s proposed amnesty, but rather a reported story drawing on various sources with subject-matter expertise. No one with whom Lorenz spoke made the case that an amnesty was a good idea.

Even if Musk’s amnesty turns out to be a bad idea, as it may, Post headline writers framed the story melodramatically: “‘Opening the gates of hell’: Musk says he will revive banned accounts.” This is an alarmist way to characterize the reinstatement of noncriminal accounts on a platform where anyone subject to a ban could always open a new account in a few minutes.

Last month, Musk also decided to allow former President Donald Trump back on the platform. A subsequent article by Jelani Cobb, the dean of Columbia University’s journalism school, is a reminder that many of Musk’s critics are as guilty as the billionaire is of frustrating lapses in circumspection and precision. Writing in The New Yorker about why he was leaving Twitter, Cobb argued that, for him, Musk’s “reinstatement of Donald Trump’s account made remaining completely untenable.” He added, “The implication was clear: if promoting the January 6, 2021, insurrection—which left at least seven people dead and more than a hundred police officers injured—doesn’t warrant suspension to Musk, then nothing else on the platform likely could.”

But the implication that Musk views “nothing” as disqualifying is false. Days before Cobb’s piece was published, Musk had announced that the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones would not be restored to the platform. More recently, Twitter has suspended Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, for anti-Semitic tweets that Musk characterized as an incitement to violence. And there has never been any doubt that Musk would, for example, continue to regard posting child pornography as disqualifying.

More broadly, Cobb casts Musk not as someone who is answering hard content-moderation questions differently from the old Twitter regime, or differently from how most journalists covering him would regard as ideal, but as someone whose approach is so plainly inferior and anomalously indefensible as to warrant canceling one’s account. I am as horrified as anyone by Trump’s role in January 6, 2021, but high-profile journalists, including Cobb, have shared the platform for years with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, the Chinese Communist Party and its various officials, the Taliban, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Cobb declined my request for comment.)

My point isn’t that foreign tyrants or deplorable American politicians should or shouldn’t be on Twitter. Reasonable people disagree. But reporters and commentators undermine their own credibility by treating Musk as an extreme outlier in his willingness to allow some of Earth’s most harmful figures to have accounts, and by presuming that more rather than less speech suppression on the platform is the obviously superior way to undermine bad people. In service of the narrative that the old Twitter regime was moral and responsible while the new Twitter regime is not, many journalists have overlooked relevant context, failed to engage obvious counterarguments, and revealed their own double standards. In doing so, they invite Musk’s fans to ignore even legitimate criticisms of him.

In a recent podcast episode, the public intellectual Sam Harris explained at great length why he’d recently deactivated his Twitter account despite the million-plus followers that he’d amassed there and his earnest desire to engage with people and viewpoints as diverse as the platform offers. In his estimation, “my engagement with Twitter was making me a worse person.” And his explanation as to why doubles as one of the most incisive critiques of the platform that I’ve seen.

“It was showing me the worst of other people in a way that I began to feel was actually distorting my perception of humanity,” Harris said. “So Twitter for me became like a malignant form of telepathy where I got to hear the most irrational, contemptuous, sneering thoughts of other people … But the problem wasn’t all the hate being directed at me. The problem was the hate I was beginning to feel … Twitter was giving me a very dark view of other people. And the fact that I believed—and still believe—that it’s a distorted view wasn’t enough to inoculate me against this change in my attitude.”

Twitter’s architecture and algorithms have that same distorting effect on many users across the ideological spectrum. And it seems to me that the dysfunctional relationship between Twitter’s new owner and so many of the journalists who cover him is exacerbated by the fact that all involved are (or used to be) heavy Twitter users acting based on interactions that take place on the platform, where the least defensible statements and claims on all sides are relentlessly amplified in a never-ending cycle that predictably fuels disdain and negative polarization.

The best scripted dramas give us enough insight into its least sympathetic characters to prevent them from seeming like cartoon villains. Perhaps one day the best social-media sites will do the same. (Wouldn’t it be nice if Musk saw himself in Harris’s description and tweaked the code to spare everyone?) Meanwhile the challenge for those of us observing Musk and his critics is to benefit from the best of their insights about the platform and reach judgments about content moderation based on the merits, rather than reacting against their least defensible or most annoying claims.