Technology

Just weeks after his takeover, Elon Musk is already transforming Twitter in ways that will likely hasten the platform’s slide into a cesspit overrun by trolls. By Elmo Keep.

Elon Musk and the fate of Twitter

New Twitter owner Elon Musk.
New Twitter owner Elon Musk.
Credit: STR / NurPhoto

A person concerned with the fate of Twitter under its new owner, Elon Musk, should probably do what the kids have long been recommending, and go outside and touch some grass.

Twitter, the short messaging service founded in 2006, has allowed anyone to shout their idiot opinions about anything into the gaping maw of the internet – 140 or more characters at a time – ever since, like a comment section that never, ever ends. Musk, the world’s richest person on paper, spent almost a quarter of his speculative worth ($US44 billion) buying Twitter, and no one is quite sure, from an investment perspective, why. For kicks? To deliberately make it unusable? To advance his long-running, right-leaning devotion to the thoroughly American ideal of “free speech”, which in his interpretation means bringing back anyone who’s ever been banned from the platform for contravening its terms of use by posting hate speech or disinformation.

Presumably he has a tax arrangement that will bring any abject failure of Twitter under his stewardship to function as a write-off for him, leaving him functionally no worse off in the billionaires club. Ah! The consequence-free playgrounds of the rich and stupid!

A clue emerged this past week when Musk endorsed the Republican Party officially on Twitter’s behalf – the first time a social network has gone from neutral provider of space for bad takes for hate clicks to explicitly supporting a political party – much in the mould of ye olde newspapers publishing their election endorsements. The question of whether or not this matters, or should be something for anyone to worry about, can be answered by looking a little closer at what Twitter actually is and who uses it.

Which is very few people, in the scheme of things. There are far, far more people in the world with no access to Twitter, or knowledge of it, than there are users.

Like all things on the once-good internet, Twitter was originally gentle and fun, a mix of weird jokes, cute pictures of animals and videos of chipmunks turning quickly to face a camera. It has been weaponised over time for harassment and hate speech – something its previous owners were loath to do anything about, because a very large investment of resources would be needed to properly stamp out that content. It was easier to say Twitter was just a “platform”, no more responsible for what users said on it than the phone company is responsible for prank callers. Like all online communities that grow too big to control and stay profitable at the same time, its algorithm is easily manipulated into making niche opinions seem hugely influential.

This is most alarmingly illustrated in the case of the anti-vaccination misinformation that spread across social media throughout Covid’s initial grip on society. These beliefs – that vaccines contained tracking chips, made women infertile or killed people – were not widespread among the community until they permeated the internet and seeped into mainstream media coverage.

A data-scraping study at McGill University found that almost all Covid misinformation across the internet originated with just “a dozen misguided influencers”, who cracked the sheer-force-of-numbers echo chambers of Twitter and Facebook. The same was true of the QAnon conspiracy theories, which originated with just a handful of deeply misanthropic internet losers who were extremely skilled at gaming the attention-economics of online communities – especially of Twitter. That led to the deaths of five people in riots at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021.

Twitter’s true influence has long been enormously skewed by the fact that its most active users are the media class. Journalists, publicists, brands, influencers and assorted public figures, all of whom traffic in attention. Its initial rise in the mid-2010s coincided with the terrible time in which online media became obsessed with clicks, thus publishing stories in volume, not quality. This led to Adderall-addled digital journalists trawling Twitter for something, anything, that could be turned into a few hundred words that some lost reader might happen upon, so they might meet their quota of stories to post per day to keep their tenuous employment. This was catastrophic for journalism and wonderful for Twitter, which had already convinced its users to spend most of their day there, providing it with endless free content and a user base to sell ads. The media then fed on this content in a kind of unhinged ouroboros, desperate to tap its rivers of attention.

Which brings us back to Elon Musk, the new Twitter chief executive. What Musk continues to excel at is garnering the attention of the press. While a demonstrable idiot in almost every other way, he is a genius at dangling a prank in front of a tired or gullible journalist and generating headlines for things as stupid as promising to land a man on Mars by 2024; for launching a car into space that will outlast almost every other object that has been hurled into orbit; or for “predicting” that Covid would last only a couple of months. He’s also famous for breaking up unions, for terrible working conditions at his various factories, and for building his fortune on inherited wealth and billions in subsidies from various US state governments. His smarts and work ethic are highly questionable. He was fired from PayPal, for instance, before the company had ever really succeeded.

Confusing wealth for intelligence is not a new disease. Musk is worried that a “super intelligent” AI will destroy the universe by turning all matter into paperclips on the orders of a human being. He’s worried that declining birthrates will spell our doom, so he has fathered 10 children. He thinks demanding an 80-hour week from his employees is both humanly reasonable and smart business. He thinks that a tunnel that can allow only a single lane of cars to travel underground will solve the problem of freeways. These are the ill-thought notions of a crackpot.

That Musk has taken over Twitter is the best thing that could have happened to it. Under his watch it might finally become such an unnavigable cesspit that even the most attention-starved users will stop logging on. If his mission is to destroy it for his own amusement, let him.

But the best thing that could happen to Twitter beyond even this would be to ignore it. It exists only as far as attention is paid to it. No person living in the regions is getting their news from Twitter; they’re listening to local radio and reading what’s left of local newspapers. They care about what affects them directly, not that latest meltdown some spoiled rich person is having at an airline over the internet. And if you’re a journalist, you should write for those outlets, not follow the whims of the idle rich who have no qualification for the massive sphere of influence that they have purchased at society’s expense.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "A bird in his hand".

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