Elon Musk, Twitter and the billionaire vanity project
Anchor Staff Writer
Elon Musk never wanted to own Twitter. From his unnecessarily massive $44 billion buyout offer to his dramatically publicized attempts to terminate the deal, the buyer’s remorse was more than clear. However, his attempts to pull out of said acquisition fell apart in the American court system, and after a legal tug-of-war with Twitter’s board, Musk now holds power and sway over the social media titan.
Musk, to his credit, has gone to great lengths to develop a cult of personality around his daring business expenditures and firebrand personality. In this regard, many in his fanbase cheered the purchase, celebrating the removal of Twitter’s reins from the grips of elitists; an ironic observation, considering Musk’s influence and $210 billion net worth. In his short tenure as CEO, however, Musk has shown a child-like eagerness to burn the internet’s town square to the ground.
There’s no denying Twitter’s importance to the internet and its public discourse. It has altered the dynamics of celebrity culture, corporate and government outreach, the spread of activism and the proliferation of information. Of course, the digital Roman Forum is not without flaw. It has abided by requests for censorship by governments, failed to control wildly spread vitriol and as Twitter rapidly spreads information around the globe, so it does for misinformation. The question as of now is whether these trends will take a turn towards a needed reform. From what can be seen from Musk’s first actions as CEO, it’s not a longshot to answer a resounding “no.”
Ushering in Musk’s incumbency as CEO of Twitter was the spread of dangerous misinformation from the tech mogul himself. After the brutal assault of Paul Pelosi, husband to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Musk published a link on his Twitter account to a story by a fake news website called the Santa-Monica Observer. The story, which was swiftly spread across right-wing social media circles, pushed the false narrative that the attacker was a prostitute that Paul Pelosi had a drunken dispute with. Despite Musk’s quick deletion of the tweet, his massive online following accelerated the dissemination of the false story, with the lie being later amplified by noted conservative figures such as Dinesh D’Souza and Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA.)
One would assume that this move by Musk is a beginner’s misstep. Since this, Musk has decided to cement his series of opening botches with his first executive decisions as CEO. In his first week as CEO, Musk announced a widely panned intention to charge a monthly fee to own a verified account. The account verification process of Twitter allows users to see which accounts of notable public figures, such as celebrities and politicians, are legitimate profiles and not bots or impersonators. By putting this function behind a paywall, innumerable public figures will lose their verification badge, thus making impersonation of these accounts and subsequent spread of misinformation a much easier process.
Along with this, Musk announced his intention to begin layoffs at Twitter, with estimates claiming that he intends to let go of half of the company’s workforce. This follows Musk dissolving Twitter’s board in its entirety, leaving himself as sole director of the company. The move by Musk comes in the shadow of financial pains Twitter has been embroiled in over the last years, but has severe implications for the upkeep of the company’s operations.
Twitter is a website of over 237 million daily active users, which has made preventing the spread of misinformation a challenging task for the company. The staff cuts may generate profit over time, but at the expense of insulating users from moderation that would protect them from misinformation, as well as spam and harassment.
Musk has held the position of owner and CEO for almost two weeks, and as such, the company’s greater direction is still up to interpretation. In spite of this, it’s easy at a glance to say his vanity project is already spiraling out of control. Twitter employees, dismayed and bewildered at the sudden changes, have shared their woes on their company’s Slack board and away from management’s eyes in encrypted Signal and Blind chats; one Twitter worker summarized the sweeping changes saying that, "It's worse than everything you're reading. Much worse."
Indeed, like most world-scale issues, we can only stand and watch as the billionaires in power play their cards. As for Musk, he’s attempted to assuage feelings of dread with assurances such as confirming the establishment of a content moderation council and promising Twitter won’t become a “free-for-all hellscape.” So far, his governing of has been just that. As advertisers flee, celebrities quit the website and Twitter staff prepare for their unjust ends, all that remains to be seen is his action’s broad effects on worldwide discourse. From Musk’s opening act, it’s clear that the impact will be unparalleled.