Elon Musk’s Disastrous Weekend on Twitter
Things are only going to get worse.
On Sunday morning, Elon Musk, the world’s richest man and the new owner of Twitter, replied to a tweet from Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s tweet was a link to an L.A. Times report detailing the troubled, conspiracy-theory-laden online past of the man who invaded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home early Friday morning and attacked her husband. Musk suggested that “there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” and shared an outrageous link from a website known to traffic in fabrications. Musk, who at the time had owned Twitter for less than 72 hours, eventually deleted the tweet after a backlash. In response, some Twitter users got angry. Catturd2, a popular MAGA account reportedly enjoyed by at least one U.S. president, suggested that Musk had “cave[d]” to the liberal mob.
That is but a glimpse into the Twitter dealings of Elon Musk, the volatile posting billionaire. This weekend, Musk was also busy acting in his capacity as the chief executive of Twitter, where, according to Platformer, he has installed an advisory team that includes several Silicon Valley personalities and is mulling over how to execute an impending series of layoffs. Musk and his team have also reportedly floated various trial-balloon ideas, including asking Twitter’s power users and big accounts to pay for their blue-checkmark badges—a provocative move for a company that, just last week, was said to be hemorrhaging its most devoted posters.
This is all a disaster, and things will only get worse from here. According to conversations we’ve had with Twitter employees from different divisions of the company, staffers are packing their bags. They say the user experience may plunge into all-out bedlam over the coming days. Never an especially well-balanced environment to begin with, Twitter now faces a series of nightmare scenarios under Musk’s leadership that could further destabilize the platform, subjecting a greater number of people to more offensive content as fewer employees operate the safety valves. We’re about to see how bad things can really get.
“Even if you ideologically agree with him, unless you love being a replaceable cog who has to dance on command, this is not a workplace to be in,” a Twitter employee, who requested anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, told us yesterday. “As for users, you should already be seeing the influx of hate speech. Porn was already taking over, and it will get worse.”
This person also told us that “most of the company” expects to be fired this week without severance. “Everyone’s just internally panicking and lawyering up as best as possible,” they said. A second employee agreed: People are certain that they’re about to lose their jobs, and that extreme content will continue to grow on the platform.
These sources aren’t going out on a limb, exactly. Widespread layoffs, at least, are expected: The Washington Post reported today that 25 percent of the company will be terminated this week—though previous reports indicated that 50 to 75 percent might eventually be cut. Hate speech has swelled on the platform in recent days, according to an analysis by Bloomberg. (Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity, said on Saturday that much of this hate speech was coming from “inauthentic” accounts, which is cold comfort.) And internal documents obtained by Reuters a few days before Musk’s purchase show that pornography is one of the “highest-growing topics of interest among English-speaking heavy users” on Twitter—a major issue for advertisers. These are not the signs of a healthy platform.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment on the troubles facing its employees. Musk, for his part, has given little indication that things will get better anytime soon. He has been unequivocal on just one point: that, as Twitter’s figurehead, he is committed to preserving broad speech protections for even the platform’s most odious users.
Naturally, some people are reveling in this. Right-wing personalities such as Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jim Jordan are celebrating Musk for bringing “free speech” to Twitter. Lavern Spicer, a failed Republican candidate for Florida’s Twenty-Fourth Congressional District, tweeted in response to Musk’s takeover that she’s anticipating the “glorious moment” when “all the silenced and suppressed voices can come back to Twitter.” Later, in response to the author Frederick Joseph, who criticized Musk for spreading disinformation, Spicer wrote: “Have a seat boy. He owns this. You just an observer.” This is a good indication of where we are: The loudest voices in the room will celebrate open expression, only to tell everyone else to shut up and fall in line behind the big, strong man in charge.
It’s useful to keep in mind that Twitter is an amplification machine. It is built to allow people, with astonishingly little effort, to reach many other people. (This is why brands like it.) There are a million other ways to express yourself online: This has nothing to do with free speech, and Twitter is not obligated to protect your First Amendment rights. When Elon Musk and his fans talk about free speech on Twitter, they’re actually talking about loud speech. Who is allowed to use this technology to make their message very loud, to the exclusion of other messages? Musk seems willing to grant this power to racists, conspiracy theorists, and trolls. This isn’t great for reasonable people who want to have nuanced conversations on social media, but the joke has always been on them. Twitter isn’t that place, and it never will be.
Instead, it’s starting to feel more like a circus. No surprise, then, that one of Musk’s first moves after taking over was to fire the company’s head of policy—an individual who had publicly stated a commitment to both free speech and preventing abuse. On Friday, Musk tweeted that Twitter would be “forming a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints,” noting that “no major content decisions [would] happen before that council convenes.” Just three hours later, replying to a question about lifting a suspension on The Daily Wire’s Jordan Peterson, Musk signaled that maybe that wasn’t exactly right; he tweeted: “Anyone suspended for minor & dubious reasons will be freed from Twitter jail.” He says he wants a democratic council, yet he’s also setting policy by decree.
In his first hours as Twitter’s imperator, Musk has been like a man who woke up in the middle of the night in a new house, fumbling around in the dark and bumping into walls while grasping for a light switch. Musk—who is already writing letters to advertisers laden with executive-speak about brand safety—has also spent the weekend trying to fend off concerns that his acquisition of the platform has activated and energized trolls and neo-Nazis who are tweeting the N-word in celebration of his purchase. Although Musk wants famous users to think he’s not the problem, he’s also undermining this by posting content dredged from the far-right fever swamps. In the process, he’s finding out that it’s hard to have it both ways as a social-media CEO.
Perhaps most depressingly, this behavior is quite familiar. As Techdirt’s Mike Masnick has pointed out, we are all stuck “watching Musk speed run the content moderation learning curve” and making the same mistakes that social-media executives made with their platforms in their first years at the helm. Musk has charged himself with solving the central, seemingly intractable issue at the core of hundreds of years of debate about free speech. In the social-media era, no entity has managed to balance preserving both free speech and genuine open debate across the internet at scale. And those who have tried and failed or equivocated have often appeared more principled and reasoned than Musk. At the very least, most of them were not posting conspiracy theories.
But Musk hasn’t just given himself a nearly impossible task; he’s also created conditions for his new company’s failure. By acting incoherently as a leader and lording the prospect of mass terminations over his employees, he’s created a dysfunctional and chaotic work environment for the people who will ultimately execute his changes to the platform. Racists and trolls are activated and enthusiastic, while Twitter’s employees are terrified for their jobs. Musk started his weekend by saying he didn’t want Twitter to become a “free-for-all hellscape” and ended it by trolling The New York Times and insinuating that the paper publishes “false news.” Regardless of whether you agree with his shitposts and politics, it seems highly unlikely that this is the way we finally tackle the persistent issues challenging open discourse. And Twitter, even if it is somehow saved in the long run, is going to get worse before it gets better.