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Opinion Twitter is a toy Elon Musk can’t wait to start playing with

SpaceX founder Elon Musk at a news conference after the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Crew Dragon spacecraft, lifted off on an uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on March 2, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Oh hi lol.” Thus spake one of the world’s most powerful men this week, after he gained more power still.

Elon Musk’s purchase of a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter probably shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Musk loves Twitter, or maybe until now he loved to hate it. Last month, the Tesla chief executive polled his more than 80 million followers, asking whether the company “rigorously adheres” to the principle of free speech — a subject about which he has repeatedly groused.

“The consequences of this poll will be important,” he intoned. “Please vote carefully.”

His tease, as it turned out, was something of a scam. Musk had already snagged a piece of the platform, two weeks before pretending to allow the proletariat any say. This was fitting — because scamminess might well be at the heart of the acquisition.

Musk fanboys have wondered whether their avatar would start a social media site of his own. The imagined attributes of this hypothetical invention: devotion above all to unimpeded expression, decentralization, a minimum of spam and propaganda.

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Sounds lovely! Also sounds impossible.

Adam Lashinsky: Why Elon Musk is buying up Twitter

Musk obviously plans to do something to Twitter. Otherwise he wouldn’t have joined its board — and he wouldn’t have promised, as he did on Tuesday, “significant improvements” ahead.

The problem is, the site Musk’s acolytes had been advocating before he decided to spend his way into Twitter could never really exist. For one, how can you ensure unimpeded expression while also ensuring an absence of spam and propaganda? Being too permissive with some people’s speech can end up threatening other people’s speech. Loosening today’s status quo would most likely entail handing back the mic to at least some of the hateful, harassing voices disciplined under current Twitter rules.

Megan McArdle

counterpointMusk is right to end Twitter’s fight against covid disinformation

And just as allowing bots to run amok could fill a platform with so much garbage that genuine conversation would become difficult to fish out, letting the loudest people drown out quieter ones wouldn’t really make everyone free.

Equally untenable is the idea many Musk-lovers embrace that a decentralized platform could ever be disinformation-free. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who in November abruptly resigned as chief executive, also wanted to turn the platform into an open protocol, which basically would have meant that users could pick and choose the algorithms dictating what appeared in their feeds. If you didn’t like mainstream news, for instance, you could decide to stop seeing it — and elect to see so-called alternative news, or just a bunch of videos of cute animals.

The argument for that kind of decentralization is simple: You prevent the big, bad platform police from setting opaque, possibly biased standards that dictate the daily lives of helpless plebeians, and instead allow those plebeians to choose their own Twitter adventure.

The argument against this, however, is also obvious: Centralization allows an authority to remove malign material using all the resources deepish-pocketed members of the Internet ecosystem can bring to bear, which keeps things safer. And besides, the people don’t always pick what’s best for them; inviting individuals to separate themselves further into political silos, or to hurl themselves down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, is just what the country doesn’t need.

Molly Roberts: Elon Musk breaks the billionaire mold — by acting like a big baby on the Internet

Many Silicon Valley investors seem to have learned a couple of lessons in the past five or so years: Dedicating a project to speech and speech alone invites lots of dangers in the door, and doing so doesn’t really pay.

So why would Musk get into this game? The answer might well be just that: because it’s a game.

Musk has basically hacked platform-building by platform-buying. Which is wise. “Muskbook” would undoubtedly have met much the same fate as Gab and Gettr and Parler, sad little lib-free spaces where trolls troll other trolls, able to read and respond only to echoes of their own voices. Even the richest guy on the planet couldn’t hope to compete off the bat with networking behemoths such as Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter — so he’s just becoming Twitter instead.

This lowers the stakes for Musk. Twitter, in short, isn’t something he has labored hard to build. The site, to him, is what it has always been — a toy.

Musk posts memes ranging in content from plain stupid to terribly offensive. He notoriously sent Tesla’s share price skyrocketing by joking that he had “funding” secured to take it private at … $420 a share. Now, the toy is his, and he clearly can’t wait to start playing. After all, if it breaks, he can always buy a new one.