Elon Musk has filled the void vacated by Donald Trump on Twitter, mirroring the former president’s behavior on the platform through his promotion of misinformation, attacks on news organizations, and desire to rule by tweet.
Take Musk’s last 24 hours on the platform for example: The billionaire gave credence to a fringe conspiracy theory about the brutal attack on Paul Pelosi. Then, when media outlets reported on his irresponsible behavior, Musk assailed them. He trolled The New York Times in one tweet and chastised The Guardian as a “far left wing propaganda machine” in another.
All the while, Musk has showed a desire to rule Twitter as an institution by tweet. Like Trump, Musk has eschewed the traditional, more formal style of corporate governance used by his predecessors. In fact, he’s blown that model up. Twitter has yet to issue one formal press release (that I’m aware of) since Musk took over, but the platform has made plenty of news.
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Instead of communicating through conventional means, Musk has chosen to make significant news through seemingly off-the-cuff tweets — just like Trump. For example, Musk disclosed that “the whole verification process is being revamped” in a random reply message to a photographer. Normally, such an announcement would be rolled out in a highly choreographed manner.
The worry about Musk’s behavior, however, is not about how he announces changes to the platform. It’s about the recklessness in the way he operates.
Twitter is an important communications platform that plays an outsized role in our information environment — and it is one that the billionaire now unilaterally controls. As the steward of the platform, Musk has an implicit responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t become, as he put it, a “hellscape.”
But since he ascended to “Chief Twit,” Musk’s actions have suggested he simply does not care about it.
In fact, not only has Musk himself contaminated the information environment he now reigns over, but he is apparently working to dismantle the little infrastructure erected to help users sift through the daily chaos. Recent news reports, including from CNN, indicate that he plans to strip public figures and institutions of their blue verified badges if they do not pay.
Charging for verified badges might appear at first glance as a business story. But the move will have significant ramifications on the information landscape. Most notably, it will make it much more difficult for users to distinguish from authentic and inauthentic accounts.
Perhaps, however, that is the point.
The right has for years lashed out at “blue checks,” whom in their eyes represent elitist gatekeepers who control the conversation, even though many conservatives also don blue badges. Taking away those free blue checks, and the air of authority they give upon the profile they are appended to, will certainly delight some conservatives.
Musk’s authorized biographer, Walter Isaacson, tweeted in 2018 that “the best thing” one could do to “save social networks, the internet, civil discourse, democracy, email, and reduce hacking would be authenticating users.”
Now, nearly five years after his tweet, Musk is moving to do the opposite for users who refuse to pay. It says a lot about how he is running Twitter.