On Thursday, Elon Musk completed his protracted and bumpy purchase of Twitter, a contentious business deal he himself had been working to terminate just a few months ago. Hours later, in the dark of Friday morning, an assailant broke into Nancy Pelosi’s house in San Francisco with the apparent intent of harming or killing her. The break-in ended with a hammer attack on Pelosi’s husband. The two events are linked together by chronological proximity. Reporting quickly made clear that the alleged attacker, David DePape, had imbibed a toxic stew of social media hate speech.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, “In the months before police accused him of attacking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Friday morning, David DePape had been drifting further into the world of far-right conspiracies, antisemitism and hate, according to a Times review of his online accounts.” In addition to absorbing long-standing malevolent fantasies like the idea that a Jewish cabal rules the world, DePape’s mind was a porous sponge receptive to all the screwball ideas that proliferate on the Internet, ranging from climate change denial to voting fraud theories to QAnon to Gamergate (a dispute over sexism in the video game industry that only the terminally online remember). Musk is taking over Twitter under the banner of free speech, with a promise to end the supposedly restrictive rules imposed by the site’s previous managers. The fear is that Musk will make one of the world’s leading social media sites even more of an agent of radicalization, a platform where lies and extremism will flourish. In the process, he’ll create even more David DePapes.
This fear was reinforced by an exchange Musk had on Sunday morning with onetime presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who had tweeted, “The Republican Party and its mouthpieces now regularly spread hate and deranged conspiracy theories. It is shocking, but not surprising, that violence is the result. As citizens, we must hold them accountable for their words and the actions that follow.” Musk responded with a tweet saying, “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” and linking to an article from a website, the Santa Monica Observer, that, as the Daily Beast reports, “alleged that Paul Pelosi, 82, was having a liaison with a male sex worker. While others have also hinted at this rumor—twisting themselves into pretzels to explain such details as the broken window and a 911 call—none of them have the reach or influence of Musk.”
The Santa Monica Observer is not, to be generous, a reliable source. In 2016, it published an article claiming that Hillary Clinton was dead and had been replaced by a body double in her debate with Donald Trump. Musk’s tweet was later deleted—although without explanation or apology.
There is every reason to worry about the fact that the world’s richest man (by some measures) is now controlling one of the world’s most influential social media sites and using it to promote far-right conspiracy theories. Democratic strategist Abhi Rahman describes Musk’s takeover as “an earthquake” and worries that if Donald Trump runs in 2024, Twitter will restore his account and allow him to “spread any lies he wants about the election, voting machines, etc.” Meanwhile, Trump himself is pleased, telling Fox News, “I am very happy that Twitter is now in sane hands.”
Musk’s Twitter gambit is both a political story and a business story. On the business end, Musk’s actions make little sense. Twitter’s main source of revenue is advertisers. Businesses are wary of Musk’s supposed free speech absolutism (even though it has an escape clause when it comes to workers: Musk has in the past illegally fired a union organizer). Most reputable brands won’t want to show up on a website where QAnon reigns supreme. Pizzagate might be good for the Republican Party, but it’s not good for Pizza Pizza. Wayfair might not want to advertise on a site that repeats the QAnon lie that the company is a clearing house for child trafficking.
Hence Musk finds himself trying to placate two different important constituencies with contrary agendas: Big Business, which wants him to keep Twitter mainstream, and right-wingers who will resent any attempt to moderate speech, seeing it as censorship. Musk has already tried to assuage corporate worries by writing a letter to advertisers saying, “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything an be said with no consequences!” That sounds reasonable, but if Musk holds to it, he’s going to alienate his main cheerleaders on the right.
Writing at The Verge, Nilay Patel laid out Musk’s dilemma:
you can write as many polite letters to advertisers as you want, but you cannot reasonably expect to collect any meaningful advertising revenue if you do not promise those advertisers “brand safety.” That means you have to ban racism, sexism, transphobia, and all kinds of other speech that is totally legal in the United States but reveals people to be total assholes. So you can make all the promises about “free speech” you want, but the dull reality is that you still have to ban a bunch of legal speech if you want to make money. And when you start doing that, your creepy new right-wing fanboys are going to viciously turn on you, just like they turn on every other social network that realizes the same essential truth.
But what if Musk isn’t interested in money—which he has more than enough of, in any case? What if he’s interested in political power? Essayist Richard Seymour, author of the fine polemic The Twittering Machine, suggests as much in a recent article in N+1. “Yet there are reasons, beyond well-funded narcissism, why Musk might want to own his favorite platform,” Seymour explains.
Twitter has always been far more culturally and politically salient than its commercial performance would suggest. Much of its cultural cachet derived from its early association with popular movements, from its roots in the successful activist app, TXTmob, to its role in putative “Twitter revolutions.” As a marketing platform, it has been used by celebrities, CEOs and PR agencies to extend their commercial reach. As a news platform, it has been used by activists and articulate opinion-formers like journalists and politicians to consolidate their audiences.
It’s easy to imagine the political intent behind purchasing Twitter: If Musk can use the platform to empower and reelect Trump, the plutocrat will emerge as a kingmaker in global politics. In that sense, Musk is performing the traditional role of a wealthy press owner—no different from Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post.
But there’s good reason to think Musk’s attempt to leverage Twitter into political power won’t work. A social media site isn’t like a newspaper or magazine. Social media doesn’t sell curated reporting and opinion; rather, it creates a space for a wide swath of people—only a small percentage of whom are professional writers—to provide free content. But the willingness of those people to provide free content won’t last long if they sense they are serving a narrow partisan or political agenda.
Musk’s problem is that his alliance with the right will hurt both his brand and Twitter. The power of Twitter comes from the fact that it’s a meeting place for people from many parts of the political spectrum. Musk’s ham-fisted use of Twitter to push an agenda will undermine its core appeal.
Right-wing alternatives to Twitter already exist: Parler, Gab, and even Trump’s Truth Social. These ventures tend to be failures because they are only echo chambers. As Alex Shephard noted in The New Republic, they don’t allow right-wingers the pleasure of trolling liberals, because liberals are nowhere to be found. If Musk turns Twitter into the new version of Gab or Truth Social, the site will quickly shrink and die.
Musk’s Twitter adventure makes little sense either as a commercial or a political venture. It’s hard to feel sorry for Musk. Like Charles Foster Kane, he can afford to lose a fortune every year and not go broke. But in buying Twitter, he’s purchased nothing but a headache for himself. With luck, he’ll lose a lot of money—and his political clout.