The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Elon Musk gets what’s wrong with Twitter. Does the media?

Elon Musk in Berlin on Dec. 1, 2020. (Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg)
3 min

The news that Elon Musk has bought a stake in Twitter and joined the company’s board is a very big deal.

“First movers” have a huge advantage in almost every area of life. Examples abound, but my favorite actually bounded: Dick Fosbury stunned the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and rev​​olutionized high jumping with his “Fosbury Flop” technique. In my own world of radio, I like to remind everyone that Rush Limbaugh built the mall and the rest of us are just tenants. No one would be syndicated across hundreds of channels if Limbaugh hadn’t provided “proof of concept” to radio station owners.

When Twitter arrived on the scene, it almost obliterated blogging overnight. It quickly became a preserve of journalists and then of “influencers,” and evolved from there into a deep-blue universe with some red comets circling through it.

While Twitter remains a great place for sports chatter and breaking news, most conservatives believe the platform has slid so far to the left on politics that it’s now branded in the same precarious place as most cable and network news: “left of left.” That’s fine for outlets if they want half of the country not to give them a chance. But it’s a disaster for audience and user growth.

Molly Roberts: Twitter is a toy Elon Musk can’t wait to start playing with

Twitter has evolved into a predominantly “woke” echo chamber ruled by content moderators who banned President Donald Trump but not, for example, Iran’s despot, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the blood of hundreds of innocents on his hands, including U.S. soldiers and Marines, who are the victims of his terrorists operating as the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Meanwhile, so many conservatives run afoul of Twitter’s “rules” that it’s hard to keep up. Most recently, center-right voices commenting on debates about gender have to wonder whether their banishment is near. Whatever one thinks about those issues, there is simply no “right” way to argue about them. But Twitter has decreed otherwise. The Federalist’s editor in chief, Mollie Hemingway, recently summarized the consensus on the right about social media generally and Twitter especially: “You can not possibly have been alive in the last five years and think that social media companies do anything other than amplify left-wing insanity and crush anything from the right that hurts the left.”

So the conservative view of Twitter is fixed. Could it change? Does Twitter want it to? Privately held companies don’t have to worry as much about alienating millions of potential users. It is up to their owners to be woke or not. But publicly traded companies have shareholders who want growth and profits. There are limits to the profit motive, of course, as companies dealing with Russia or making a buck off Uyghur slave labor have discovered.

But there is no “consensus” on many of the domestic hot-button issues of the day, and none can be enforced by the government thanks to the First Amendment. Musk’s arrival in Twitter’s boardroom promises a beach head for common sense about the diversity of opinion in America and how the company’s disdain for debate has about it the same odor of Vladimir Putin’s state-owned media.

Adam Lashinsky: Why Elon Musk is buying up Twitter

Musk has figured this out. He also figured out that his big stake in the company would instantly increase its value (and thus the value of his investment.) Users loved the “old Twitter.” The woke Twitter? Not so much. Executives at Twitter seeing the market’s reaction to Musk’s arrival must realize they have lost the thread. Users didn’t want a nanny state imposed from Twitter’s San Francisco’s headquarters. Investors certainly didn’t want the company to cocoon itself in the blue bubble.

Musk is at Twitter’s door with a wake-up call. Now, who will do the same for the rest of the country’s purveyors of news and opinion?