The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Users can leave before Twitter degenerates further

A sign at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on Friday. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

The debate among social media users, analysts and pundits is no longer about just how malevolent Twitter under Elon Musk’s ownership will become but whether it will rival New Coke in the annals of corporate pratfalls.

On Friday, Musk laid off half the company, reinforcing fears that Twitter’s standards would unravel, enforcement would decline, and Twitter would come to resemble a toxic waste dump of election denial, conspiracies, hate speech and pro-Russian propaganda. “The mass layoffs Friday gutted teams devoted to combating election misinformation, adding context to misleading tweets and communicating with journalists, public officials and campaign staff,” The Post reported.

The results may be disastrous. When he cut the curation team, The Post said, Musk slashed the jobs of employees assigned “to counter election-related falsehoods, such as claims that vote-by-mail ballots would be discarded, and provide credible information in cases where losing candidates have falsely claimed victory.”

Before that announcement, there was a sliver of optimism that Musk might be shamed (and forced by European regulators) to crack down on hate speech. Earlier in the week, Musk held a Zoom meeting with anti-hate groups. The result was a first for Musk — a public pledge “to combat hate & harassment & enforce [Twitter’s] election integrity policies.”

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However, the Anti-Defamation League, one of the prominent members of the group seeking to get Twitter to police hate speech, knew better than to take Musk’s promise at face value. On the same day Musk announced the layoffs, ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt announced that “we are joining dozens of other groups to ask advertisers to pause Twitter spending because we are profoundly concerned about antisemitism and hate on the platform.”

Now, in light of the massive personnel cuts, Musk’s pledges appear worthless. Unless he has the staff dedicated to enforcing the platform’s professed standards, racism, antisemitism and violent rhetoric could swamp the system.

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Meanwhile, Musk set himself up as an object of ridicule when word leaked of his plan to charge $20 to those with blue checks for verified accounts. When author Stephen King suggested that maybe Musk should pay him, Musk wisecracked, asking if King would settle for paying $8. He then pleaded that he had to find some way to pay the bills, an odd admission that shelling out $44 billion for a company, loading it up with debt and then laying off hundreds of employees might not be a successful business model. Those without a blue check will be given lower priority in users’ Twitter feed. The result is likely to be a boom in fake or copycat accounts, creating confusion between prominent public figures and their antagonists. Then on Sunday, Twitter reversed course and announced the blue check money-grab would roll out after the midterm elections.

Musk acts like a poker player on a losing streak, becoming ever more frantic and unpredictable as he panics over the thought of massive losses. Racing to recoup the excessive sum he paid for the company, he risks the ire of advertisers, European regulators and its own users. We have come to the point when Twitter’s descent into the social media sewer appears inevitable. But Twitter users need not wait around to find out just how ghastly the platform may become.

The question is whether those with a large following in the hundreds of thousands and millions should participate in Twitter at all. Authors, athletes, celebrities and the like are under pressure to self-promote and engage with their audience, but they may well choose to rely on other platforms, ranging from Substack to TikTok. Some journalists are exploring Mastodon, another social media platform.

Musk’s responsibility for possibly injecting even more disinformation, venom and hatred into the political system is profound. But Musk could not set off a tsunami of hate, disinformation, incitement, propaganda and destructive conspiracies without advertisers and users — or traditional media outlets’ coverage of tweets from public figures. The advertisers, the media outlets that promote their own material, and celebrities have become, in effect, agents of Twitter, herding more and more people to a site for others to exploit.

A strike by Twitter users may be in order. The key is to pick a date for a Twitter walkout/logoff. Let Twitter traffic plummet; let advertisers see how unreliable the platform is for generating the audience they want to reach. Perhaps Musk would get the hint that he needs the users more than they need him.

And if a day without Twitter feels liberating, a week or a month without Twitter might seem suddenly alluring. A break from “doom scrolling” may remind us how destructive Twitter has become — shortening tempers and attention spans, distorting our understanding of the electorate and convincing millions to seize upon discrete events as signs of a political apocalypse.

Maybe Musk is bent on wrecking Twitter, but that, ironically, may prove to be a positive, if accidental, contribution to national decorum and sanity. A world without Twitter sounds awfully attractive.