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13 April 2023

If Elon Musk thinks running Twitter has been painful, he should try using it

The billionaire’s woe-is-me interview with the BBC is fooling no one.

By Chris Stokel-Walker

It’s hard to know what to make of Elon Musk’s bravura interview with the BBC on Tuesday night (11 April), after the enigmatic entrepreneur invited the corporation’s Silicon Valley correspondent to Twitter’s offices.

The BBC is presenting it as a fillip (though it’s worth noting that in the last week, which marks a year since Musk first announced he had taken a stake in Twitter, Musk has been engaging more with reporters). Musk, meanwhile, is using it as a way to make light of the staid old ways of journalism.

We learned little: Musk waved away criticism of hate speech on Twitter by asking the BBC to identify a single example of it, which didn’t happen. He ducked questions about when he’d walk away as CEO, something he promised months ago, with a joke about his dog. He confirmed reports that Twitter’s 8,000 staff when he took over has been hollowed out to 1,500 or so. He repeated that he didn’t really want to take over the platform, but was forced into a shotgun marriage by the threat of losing a costly court case.

We also learned, unsurprisingly, that Musk’s ownership of the company hasn’t been a cakewalk. The “pain level has been extremely high”, he said. “This hasn’t been some sort of party.”

Nor has it been for Twitter’s users.

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According to an academic analysis published last weekend, hate speech quadrupled on the platform immediately after Musk’s takeover. Those peddling abuse felt they could write what they wanted thanks to a self-avowed “free speech absolutist” taking over. Even as the clamour of the acquisition quelled, hate settled at a new baseline – about twice as high as it was in the pre-Musk era.

At the same time, the experience of using the platform has deteriorated. It’s no longer possible to identify who is a verified, factual source of information after Musk removed Twitter’s blue check marks from official accounts, and allowed others to purchase the same status. A recent shift to remove the distinction between the two has made things worse, as has Musk’s removal of check marks from the New York Times’s account. There is fear that we are about to wade into a morass of misinformation, as one of the key filters people could use to trust sources of information disappears.

The site has frequently failed or malfunctioned. People were prevented from tweeting at crucial moments due to technical errors, including Turks and Syrians in the aftermath of an earthquake earlier this year as they appealed to be saved (though access to the platform was also temporarily restricted in Turkey). Supposedly private missives sent to a select number of users through Twitter Circles have ended up being broadcast to the general userbase. Meanwhile, Musk himself is now leaking direct messages from a conversation with a journalist (though he has since deleted those screenshots).

It’s a grand decline for a platform Musk just one year ago called the “de facto public town square”. Yes, running a business is hard. But Twitter is hundreds of millions of people more than Elon Musk alone. And it’s all of us who have been affected by his decisions in the past year.

[See also: We should stop posting on social media]

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