Go home Twitter, you’re drunk.
By Matthew Ford
Go home Twitter, you’re drunk.
That would be my advice to the platform, if it were an actual person.
And yet the troubles at Twitter really can be put down to just one person, and that’s the new CEO Elon Musk.
Ever since he was forced, by court action, to follow through on buying the social media platform for $44 billion in October, it has been one car crash after another.
Twitter’s worrying downward spiral began just days after Musk’s acquisition, when he tweeted a conspiracy theory about the violent attack on US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s husband. Without any basis in fact, the article Musk tweeted claimed Mr Pelosi was in a drunken dispute with a male prostitute. That was untrue and Musk later deleted the Tweet.
But from that moment, advertisers on Twitter began to take notice.
Musk’s next move was to demand any employee resigns who didn’t agree to be ‘extremely hardcore’, which seemed to involve working outrageously long hours at high intensity. So much so, it was alleged that Twitter office rooms had been converted into hotel style rooms for employees to sleep in.
This led to an investigation being opened by city officials in San Francisco, where the company is based. In a classic case of whataboutism, Musk’s response was to accuse them of having the wrong priorities when they could be tackling fentanyl deaths amongst children.
Meanwhile in Europe, where Twitter employees have significantly enhanced workers’ rights compared to their US counterparts, senior Irish executive Sinéad McSweeney was reinstated to her job after taking Twitter to court. Ms Sweeney had been locked out of her Twitter IT system and her office after not responding to Mr Musk’s ‘hardcore’ email. Twitter claimed by not responding she had accepted an exit package. It seems Mr Musk was unaware of the legal protections offered to EU citizens to prevent such malicious firing.
Lords & peasants
Musk’s next major controversy came when he allowed users to pay for a blue tick next to their account, which was previously used to show an account was authentic. Musk claimed this would end the ‘lords & peasants system’ of those who were verified.
The initial price for Twitter Blue was meant to be $20 a month, but in Musk style that was reduced to $8 after a Twitter debate with the author Stephen King.
The results were both hilarious and troubling. Users quickly realised that for the bargain price of just $8 they could pretend to be anyone, and Twitter turned into a real-life version of Among Us.
Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co had to issue an apology after a blue ticked imposter account went viral, claiming that insulin would now be free. The Pope, George W Bush, Tony Blair, Nintendo, Lockheed Martin, Pepsi and many others also fell victim to viral tweets impersonating them.
But beyond the parody were real concerns about vulnerable users who could fall victim to imposters who appeared to be verified by Twitter.
Again, advertisers took note and many paused their ad spend on the platform.
Far right in, journalists out
Of further concern was Twitter’s worrying direction of travel. The free speech “absolutist” announced an amnesty for many suspended Twitter accounts, including neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, former US President Donald Trump and rapper Kanye West, who is embroiled in controversy for antisemitic statements, including his professed love for Hitler.
At the same time Musk was firing many of his content moderators, leading to a reported surge of hate speech on the platform, causing many advertisers to suspend their ads.
But while controversial figures of the far right were back on the platform, nine actual journalists were having their accounts suspended. This was for reporting on Twitter suspending a 20-year old’s account that tweeted public information on the location of Musk’s private jet. The Twitter head had previously stated he would not ban the @elenjet account, before doing exactly that, plus the journalists who reported on the ban. The juxtaposition between how the far right and journalists were being treated could not have been starker.
The journalists’ suspensions prompted condemnation by both the UN and the EU for its effect on a free press. The EU is currently now moving to begin enforcing its content law and its Digital Services Act from summer 2023, which could see a heavyweight showdown between the European Union and Musk, if he continues down this path.
T&Cs may not apply
More recently, Musk announced a change to Twitter’s terms & conditions to suspend any account that tweeted links to content on rival social media platforms, but notably not TikTok, the video sharing giant based in China. Musk has previously courted controversy for human rights issues with his business interests in China, as well as taking a seemingly pro-Beijing line on the future of Taiwan. Were his other businesses interest now affecting the terms and conditions of US-based Twitter?
Despite later (again) rowing back on the linking to other platforms issue, the aftermath of this latest controversy was Musk tweeting a poll asking if he should step down as Twitter CEO. Musk was promptly rejected by the users of the very platform that he owns.
Musk has since tweeted that he will stand down, once he has found a replacement.
What happens until then is anyone’s guess. For a time, many users were convinced that Twitter would simply go offline at any moment, with an end of the world vibe on the platform. Many advertisers, whose dollars Twitter relies on, are still voting with their wallets by suspending their advertising campaigns. And many users are voting with their feet by heading to other platforms, with millions opening accounts with Twitter rival Mastodon.
No end to the hypocrisy
In Musk’s latest moment of hypocrisy, he announced that future voting on policy polls, such as the one to remove him as CEO, will be restricted to Twitter Blue users. This new ‘lords & peasants system’ will see all those unable to pay the monthly fee for Twitter Blue disenfranchised from future voting.
So are we now seeing the last days of Twitter? That seems unlikely. For all of it, and Musk’s, faults it does remain the world’s digital town square (barring those authoritarian countries where it’s banned). Twitter is the only place where every user can engage with other users, wherever they are, without needing to formally ‘friend’, ‘connect’ or even follow them.
But what we are thankfully seeing, are the last days of Elon Musk as CEO.