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25 April 2022

Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover should alarm us all

Can we expect Donald Trump and “pedo guy” slurs to return?

By Chris Stokel-Walker

Rarely is business a psychodrama, but then Elon Musk isn’t an ordinary person. The South African billionaire’s purchase of Twitter, much mooted and at time of writing, due to be finally announced today (25 April), brings to an end weeks of breathless headlines, zigzagging tweets and plenty of social media commentary.

But while Musk’s pursuit of Twitter seems to have come to an end that he finds successful, the story is only just beginning for the platform’s hundreds of millions of users. Musk is an idiosyncratic entrepreneur with strong feelings about divisive issues. The new boss of Twitter has a devoted following of 83 million on the platform, and uses his profile as a public stage from which to pronounce his feelings on key issues of the day. And as his attempts to purchase the social network have come closer to a conclusion, those feelings have become more pronounced. They should concern us.

One of the key issues with Twitter that Musk raised in his first gambit to try and take over the site was its approach to free speech. For many, the site has become a much more civilised place since Twitter took a principled stance to ban Donald Trump after he was considered to have used the site to incite violence at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. Twitter also cracked down on the alt-right and conspiracy theories that once bedevilled the site. 

While Musk hasn’t shown his support for any of the above, he has questioned whether Twitter rigorously adheres to the principle of free speech — something he sees as “essential to a functioning democracy”. For his opponents, that’s a dog whistle that could see the triumphant return of Donald Trump in the interests of political plurality, and with it a return to hate-filled feeds.

Musk has tweeted that he’s concerned about the “de facto bias” in the Twitter algorithm affecting the tenor of public discourse — although Twitter’s own research shows that the platform’s bias favours the right wing. Besides that, Musk has used his massive Twitter profile to publicly shame and dunk on those with far less power than him — infamously, he called the cave diver Vernon Unsworth “pedo guy” for saying that a submarine Musk designed to try and rescue a trapped Thai youth football team was a publicity stunt. (Musk successfully fended off a lawsuit by Unsworth in 2019.) Musk has a generally hostile approach to the press, too. “Never believe the press,” he told one reporter this month.

The entrepreneur has also spent large parts of the pandemic either playing down or trying to diminish entirely the risk of coronavirus to his large audience. All of this is a concern for someone who now owns a massive public forum.

There are some things that Musk has proposed from his Twitter account that could benefit users, if implemented correctly. An edit button — allowing tweets to be altered after publication — has been given his approval, but could be a nightmare to implement. Open-sourcing Twitter’s algorithm so that people can see how it works would be welcomed, but could allow bad actors to game the system. 

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Whatever happens, the reality is that Twitter is now in the control of a man whose whims are often tweeted live and have the ability to move markets. It’s Elon’s world now — and we have to live in it.

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