It’s not often you watch a billionaire get humiliated in public, much less on a daily basis. But that’s what keeps happening to Elon Musk, the world’s (for now) richest man and the new owner of Twitter. After being forced to close on a deal he almost certainly didn’t want, Musk is now in the process of turning his $44-billion investment into the biggest albatross in business history, one that he keeps making bigger every time he opens his digital mouth. Free speech, as Musk seems determined to demonstrate, can be very expensive.
After describing himself as a “free speech absolutist” and declaring “comedy is now legal” on his platform, Musk decided to kick a bunch of people off that platform — including comedian Kathy Griffin — for supposedly violating Twitter’s rules around impersonating others. Said people, who also include comedians Sarah Silverman and Valerie Bertinelli, had changed their usernames in order to make a point about the flaws in Musk’s new policy on identity verification, but Musk wasn’t laughing.
As the BBC reported, “A number of accounts that changed their name to Elon Musk and mocked the billionaire have already been suspended or placed behind a warning sign.” That new policy even tripped up Daniel Radcliffe, whose profile had been changed to look like “Weird Al” Yankovic in order to promote his upcoming biopic of the musician. So much for comedy being legal again.
But while it’s amusing to watch Musk repeatedly step on his own digital rakes, his inconsistent application of free speech principles is a deadly serious problem. He has already threatened advertisers, who have been fleeing the site since his takeover, with a “thermonuclear name & shame” if they continue to leave. Nobody is obligated to advertise on his platform, of course, but their free speech rights don’t seem to matter very much to Musk.
Neither does the role that journalists play in contributing to a healthy public discourse. If anything, he sees the outsized influence of journalists on Twitter as a flaw — one that helps explain his decision to charge users $8 a month for the much ballyhooed blue check. “Widespread verification will democratize journalism & empower the voice of the people,” Musk tweeted. This was music to the ears of Rebel Media founder Ezra Levant, who tweeted: “The democratization of journalism outrages the elites because it takes away their monopoly. That blue checkmark was their ‘proof’ that they're better than you.”
I’ve yet to encounter a journalist who actually feels this way, much less one who will pay Musk’s $8-per-month toll in order to keep their checkmark. But those checkmarks serve as a useful (if incomplete) bulwark against bad-faith actors, and by diluting their value, Musk will open the door wide for anyone who wants to use his platform to spread and profit from misinformation. Ironically, as tech reporter Casey Newton noted, the stated plan to charge users $8 per month for verified status and reduce the ads they see by half might actually cost Twitter money.
It’s the cost to democracy and civil society that should really worry people, though. As Glenn Gerstell, a national security expert and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told NatSec Daily, “I’m sure that the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin (a Russian oligarch who admitted to interfering in U.S. elections on Monday and vowed to continue doing so) are delighted to know that for just $7.99 a month, you can sow discord and set Americans against each other.”
On some level, Musk understands that turning his platform into an informational free-for-all would be bad for business. As he said, “Twitter needs to become by far the most accurate source of information about the world. That’s our mission.” But for some reason, that mission includes an operating assumption that journalists are an enemy rather than an ally. As he tweeted at Kyle Grantham, a former journalist and current digital media manager with New Castle County in Delaware, “You represent the problem: journalists who think they are the only source of legitimate information. That’s the big lie.”
This isn’t Musk’s first foray into Trumpist thinking about the mainstream media. As he said back in 2018, “The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them.” He even traded in Trump’s favourite insult for the media after he was called out for sharing a link to the Santa Monica Observer, a site known for publishing false news. “This is fake,” he wrote. “I did *not* tweet out a link to The New York Times!”
Musk’s digital fanboys might find that funny, but it’s no laughing matter for anyone who cares about the rise of disinformation and its impact on democracy. As the CEO of Tesla and a high-profile Twitter user, Musk’s hostility towards the media is just one of his many quirks. But as the owner and CEO of a company that serves as the de-facto digital commons for billions of people around the world, it presents a very real threat — one that seems to grow bigger with each passing day.
Opinion: It’s not often you watch a billionaire get humiliated in public, much less on a daily basis. But that’s what keeps happening to Elon Musk, writes columnist @maxfawcett for @NatObserver.
There’s a decent chance Musk will simply get bored with Twitter before he’s able to fully break it. There’s also the possibility he’ll learn from his early mistakes and put some actual adults in charge rather than relying on the sycophants that have been helping him steer it into the ditch so far. If he can actually turn Twitter into that “most accurate source of information about the world,” that might be an even bigger accomplishment than making electric vehicles into objects of desire. But given his recent behaviour, his long-standing antipathy towards the media and his apparent belief that journalism is just about having an opinion and an internet connection rather than a long-term relationship with the truth, I wouldn’t bet too heavily on that happening.