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21 November

Donald Trump is back on Twitter. Let freedom reign

Every day Elon Musk dismantles the site free speech gets a bit worse for the activists who really need it.

By James Ball

Elon Musk is rapidly running out of things to break at Twitter – and soon he will get bored. First he fired its directors, then he laid off half of its 7,500 staff. Last week he let another 1,200 or so walk out of the door, and the last few senior managers remaining publicly broke ways with him.

The databases are falling apart, and the service is fraying at the edges. So far, so good – it’s certainly triggering the libs. But by Friday, Musk was left putting on a show by making a few dozen of his remaining engineers sit with him until 1.30am doing a “code review”, in which they drew a basic diagram of how Twitter’s systems worked on a whiteboard, and pretended to their new CEO that this was useful or necessary work.

Clearly not satisfied with this as a new chapter in the chaotic life of Twitter 2.0, Musk hit the big red button and started a poll of his followers: should he reinstate Donald Trump’s Twitter account. One day and 15 million votes later – and with the cursed 52/48 ratio in play once more – the votes were in. “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” tweeted Musk. Trump was back.

Except… he isn’t, really. Trump’s account is certainly back, with no explanation of why a decision that was reached agonisingly slowly and with public reasoning was reversed so suddenly. But Trump himself claims he’s not returning any time soon. He’s got an exclusive deal with Truth Social, which he founded, on new posts, so presumably actively returning to Twitter would cost Musk money.

What’s left then, is the return of Trump’s old tweets. Trump’s account had been found to have broken Twitter’s rules in serious ways on numerous occasions, so when he was no longer the head of state for the world’s most powerful democracy the platform’s rules were applied to him.

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Twitter, though, is no longer a service run by rules – it is openly and blatantly a service run entirely by the whims of Elon Musk, who doesn’t let his total incomprehension of the site he now owns stop him. At one point Musk gleefully posted that more than 130 million people had seen his poll, clearly confusing impressions (which might include one person seeing something 100 times) with unique visitors.

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Musk has casually tossed aside any last assurances that someone trusting Twitter with their brand or their adverts might cling to. There is no stability and no certainty. He can pretend not to care about it, but Musk took on serious debt to buy Twitter, and it needs to find an extra $1bn a year to survive. Twitter barely managed $200m a year profit when it sold more than $4bn of adverts last year.

As Musk fiddles with account reinstatement, Twitter burns. Last week its two-factor login security broke, while over the weekend its copyright protection systems failed, allowing users to post full movies to the site.

Some wonder whether Musk’s commitment to free speech is sincere or not, but this the wrong question. When a teenager, told off for swearing in class, angrily googles the First Amendment, they are sincere – but they are not serious.

Musk is certainly not serious, whether or not he’s sincere. Persecuted activists across the world rely on Twitter to get their messages to a watching world. Yet Musk’s second-largest investor in Twitter is the Saudi prince Al Waleed bin Talal, whose Kingdom Holding Company is part-owned by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. This is the regime that in 2018 lured Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government and a Washington Post columnist, into a Saudi embassy and – while his fiancé waited outside – murdered and dismembered him, on the direct orders, according to US intelligence, of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Bin Talal himself has never been accused of involvement in the killing, and has been seen as a rival to the crown prince, but nevertheless Musk is using Saudi money to dismember a global information service that is vital to activists – including those facing consequences as dire as Khashoggi.

His plan for $8 a month subscriptions cannot guarantee them anonymity, or privacy, or safety. His new Twitter offers them nothing. Every day he dismantles Twitter he makes free speech a little worse for those who desperately need it.

But hey, you can read Donald Trump’s old tweets again. Let freedom reign.

[See also: The chaos at Elon Musk’s Twitter is a parable of US power in the age of Big Tech]

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