What do you buy the man who has everything? A social network seems like a safe bet, especially if the man in question has a planet-sized ego and an extremely superficial understanding of complex free speech issues. Appropos of nothing, as Kanye West finalises his bid for Parler, Elon Musk — the world’s richest man — finally has the keys to the Twitter kingdom.
The billionaire’s first order of business? Firing executives. Reports claimed that CEO Parag Agrawal was the first out the door. That’s perhaps unsurprising, given Musk had previously trolled him with a poop emoji, aptly demonstrating the dumb level of discourse that Voltaire would have been forced to fight for in 2022. He was joined by CFO Ned Segel and Head of Legal Policy, Trust and Safety Vijaya Gadde.
“The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence,” Musk tweeted ahead of the deal. A deal that, lest we forget, he tried extremely hard to back out of, before ultimately completing at the I-can’t-believe-he-paid-that-much price of NZ$75.6bn.
His plan for this largely seems to involve tackling spam bots, open-sourcing the algorithms and relaxing an already lax moderation policy that saw the service dubbed a “honeypot for assholes” by one former employee.
He’s already said that he intends to unban Donald Trump, and that presumably also applies to assorted lower-profile oddballs and extremists who have somehow gone out of their way to fall foul of the extremely patient moderation rules.
“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,” Musk said when he originally announced his intent to buy, back in April.
This all sounds good and high-minded in theory, but overlooks Twitter’s history of amplifying conspiracy theories, disinformation and hate speech. These all have an impact on the real world, even if the site itself is comparatively smallfry in traffic terms: it punches above its weight both figuratively and, sadly, occasionally literally.
Anybody who has spent more than a few moments on Twitter will know that it’s not exactly civil, and is full to the brim with those seeking confrontation for the dopamine-fueling currency of likes and retweets. The idea that it could be a beacon of intellectual cut and thrust seems grossly optimistic to most objective observers. Still, we have to hope that Musk has a plan beyond relaxing moderation policies and watching the fireworks.
If he’s wrong and free speech absolutism isn’t some brilliant panacea, the results will likely be catastrophic for humanity. But hey: at least his SpaceX work means he’ll likely have a fresh planet to start on if society collapses thanks to the mismanagement of his new toy.