Whatever Twitter contributes to freedom and democracy, Elon Musk — its biggest troll — is now the owner
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/04/2022 (220 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
So Elon Musk owns Twitter now, and isn’t that fantastic? We all love free speech, don’t we folks? We all love free speech. When a professional cave diver who led the rescue of 12 trapped Thai schoolboys tells the world’s richest man his crazy offer of help isn’t needed, we love when the world’s richest man falsely calls that cave diver a “pedo guy” to tens of millions of people, and a child rapist to a reporter. We love free speech.
On Monday, Musk struck a $44-billion (U.S.) deal to buy Twitter, where I and millions of other weirdos spend a fair amount of our online time. Twitter is both a niche drug addiction and one of the closest things to a global public communication network; it’s much smaller than Facebook or TikTok, but it can be dynamic. And it is now owned by a Bitcoin-pumping, COVID-skeptical, disinformation-curious, anti-media billionaire. It’s probably fine!
Musk is the head of Tesla, SpaceX and more, and tweets in the manner of a half-stoned teenage gamer who wishes he had real friends. His tweets have only been deemed stock manipulation and securities fraud, requiring ostensible oversight of his tweets, some of the time.
And some people seem worried, but not me, no, sir. I have been assured this is about free speech, which is defined as the protection against government incursion on speech, which … wait, if that is free speech, then that is not what this is about at all.
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” said Musk, who on Friday tweeted a picture of Bill Gates next to a bitmoji that resembled him and the caption, “in case u need to lose a boner fast.”
He did that because Gates had shorted Tesla stock. Hmm. With Musk’s extremely thin-skinned past — from “pedo guy” to personally cancelling a Tesla order for a blogger who gave a mildly critical review — maybe Musk is not the guy you want in charge of what should essentially be a difficult-to-manage public utility? Ah, well. If this isn’t about free speech, then this must be about democracy. We love democracy, don’t we, folks?
Well, not everyone. Remember the Ottawa convoy? The group powered by delusional extremists and conspiratorial theories whose stated purpose was to overthrow the Canadian government over vaccine mandates, and vaccination itself? The one deemed a national security threat by intelligence agencies, and which occupied and defaced Ottawa for three weeks until being cleared out by police?
Musk got on board. He tweeted, and deleted, a meme that compared Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Hitler, and wrote “If the government had the mandate of the people, there would be a significant counter-protest. There is not, therefore they do not.”
Hmm. That doesn’t seem like a strong take on democracy, per se. It seems, to be frank, like s—posting.
Well, this is vexing, isn’t it? It’s not that Musk is alone in outsized influence. Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are controlled by Mark Zuckerberg, giving one very amoral man control over public services used by about one out of every three people on the planet, and its deleterious effect on society can hardly even be quantified. TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, and in 2019 censored videos that mentioned Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or Falun Gong, a religious group. Google owns YouTube, and its radicalizing algorithm.
And now, Musk. Twitter is often awful but if you can’t imagine how Musk might make it worse you simply lack imagination, darling. Twitter’s biggest problems have been the spread of disinformation, hate speech and targeted abuse, which as The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel catalogued, the company has actually tried to address over the past few years. Donald Trump, for instance, was banned from the platform two days after he encouraged 15,000 people to storm the U.S. Capitol and try to overturn the federal election.
Will Musk’s version of free speech make the site even more friendly to its worst elements? Maybe. Will the man who compelled local Thai officials to say nice things about him when he offered useless help reshape the site to his own whims? Maybe. Will he get bored and forget where he put the keys to the site? He’s an addict, so unlikely. Will he monetize the huge trove of personal data associated with the site? If so, welcome to the club.
It’s probably not good. The world’s conservative movement is already sliding into an anti-media, scapegoating populist soup; given Musk’s own lack of understanding of free speech and content moderation and real-world actions, his influence seems likely to be malign. It’s sad, really. All that money, all that power, all those fanciful ideas — the weird idea that tunnels can solve traffic, self-driving cars that crash into private jets — and this is what he bought.
It’s hardly the end of the world, but it might be a small piece of the trip. Humanity is sleepwalking into its climate change future; the latest IPCC report stated that “with increasing global warming, losses and damages will increase and additional human and natural systems will reach adaptation limits.” Democracy is in genuine danger in a United States, where the lunatic tenets of QAnon are becoming mainstream politics. Honest journalism is under assault, housing is a nightmare, and the global pandemic, sadly, isn’t over. There are a lot of things to fix.
And the world’s richest man might only make one more piece of the global communications slightly worse, but if modern life is any indication, this will be dumber and worse than it appears. Elon Musk may be the world’s richest troll, above all. But some trolls rule the earth.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur