If Elon Musk really wants to buy Twitter and take it private in the name of “free speech,” he’s welcome to it. It just might be the push the rest of us need to close the app and get back to our real lives.
As with everything Musk shouts through his favorite megaphone, however, it is hard to tell whether he’s being serious, playful or manipulative — or all of those things simultaneously. Last week, he announced he had purchased enough Twitter stock to become the company’s biggest shareholder. Then he was going to join Twitter’s board, and just as quickly, he wasn’t. Now, Musk says he wants the whole enchilada because of the site’s “potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe.”
It’s as though Musk is hoping to annoy Twitter management into giving up its efforts to keep the service from becoming a cesspool of toxic disinformation and vicious personal attacks. I confess I initially thought Twitter was one of the dumbest ideas I’d ever heard. Blurting out whatever’s on your mind, but doing so in no more than 140 characters? Surely that had to be a colossal waste of time. When social media savants here at The Post strongly urged me to set up an account, I dutifully did so — but mostly ignored the little tweety bird icon on my phone.
Then, in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear accident happened. Like many people around the world, I wanted almost minute-by-minute updates on efforts to contain the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. The only place I found I could satisfy my news-junkie cravings was on Twitter, where I could read tweets from Japanese authorities, reporters covering the story, nuclear physicists — and I was hooked. I recognized that Twitter was an incredibly useful way to follow breaking news.
The more time I spent on the site, the more I saw that Twitter was also a community, or rather a set of communities. In my case, it’s a kind of watering hole for me and my fellow journalists, who gather like elands and wildebeests — and where newsmakers, like crocodiles and lions, come to prey on us in hopes of garnering a favorable headline or pushing back on a critical one.
It is also a place where unscrupulous politicians, motormouth tycoons and others can spin and tell lies directly to the site’s more than 200 million daily users. Such puffery and falsehoods are then given even wider dissemination by journalists, even those in the debunking business. Musk is one of the greatest masters of using Twitter to emit a reality distortion field. Another is former president Donald Trump, who used Twitter to demean and belittle his Republican primary opponents in 2016, to lie about Hillary Clinton in the general election, and to reward friends and punish enemies throughout his term in office.
Trump’s decision to govern by Twitter made the service impossible to quit — at least until Jan. 6, 2021, when his followers, inspired by his lies about the supposedly “stolen” election Trump lost to President Biden, stormed the Capitol. Then, at long last, Twitter invoked its rules prohibiting harassment and glorification of violence and banned Trump for life.
Some on the cultural and political right list this decision, along with Meta’s temporary ban of Trump from Facebook, at the top of their indictment of social media for allegedly squelching conservative voices. Musk, if not a conventional conservative, is clearly inclined to a more libertarian approach to Twitter, not least because he seems to enjoy the ability to be as chaotic as possible on as large a stage as he can find.
At the moment, Twitter is a publicly traded company whose directors have fiduciary responsibility to shareholders and are subject to scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission. If Musk buys the company and takes it private, Twitter will be under the sole control of one man who has proved himself brilliant but also mercurial, combative and prone to feuds. You can judge which situation is more likely to foster a vibrant public square.
I don’t miss Trump on Twitter. I don’t miss the covid-19 misinformation, the “big lie” about the election, the pro-Russian propaganda. If Musk were to bring all of that back, I’d be happy to leave.
And what to do with all the hours I now waste on Twitter? Maybe take walks and listen to actual tweets. From actual birds.
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