Trolls, Trump and Elon Musk: A Twitter tale foretold - opinion

The world’s richest person's most recent acquisition brings to the boil social media’s still-open question of liability and responsibility.

 Elon Musk Twitter account is seen through Twitter logo in this illustration taken, April 25, 2022. (photo credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS ILLUSTRATION)
Elon Musk Twitter account is seen through Twitter logo in this illustration taken, April 25, 2022.
(photo credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS ILLUSTRATION)

The acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk is a riveting moment in one of the grand stories of our times: technology’s disruption of the culture and economy. For a mere $44 billion, the enigmatic billionaire becomes a key figure in deciding whether social media is recast as a force for good, or at least, is prevented from destroying civilization.

The world’s richest person has been flirting with Twitter for some time. His move carries a sense of inevitability and brings to the boil social media’s still-open question of liability and responsibility. Musk argues that free speech is what animates him, as the bedrock of democracy. But there is no such thing: we are not free to shout “fire” in a crowded theater.

If Musk understands this, he does not betray it, yet the problem cannot be ignored. The question of how to handle the outrageous, the libelous and the incendiary is central to the success of his new toy. The answer probably lies in a combination of balance, nuance and compromise, which can be boring to the swashbuckling disruptor.

With so much hanging in the balance, I offer a survey of the issues on this ornate but wobbly table.

Elon Musk's twitter account is seen on a smartphone in front of the Twitter logo in this photo illustration taken, April 15, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)Elon Musk's twitter account is seen on a smartphone in front of the Twitter logo in this photo illustration taken, April 15, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)

A force for the good, the bad and the ugly.

Since its inception about two decades ago, social media has benefited tremendously from Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act, which protects it from liability for user-generated content it distributes. This has been adopted globally and sounded reasonable, but principles must be weighed against results.

Social media has done good by enabling high school chums to reconnect, hosting open and real-time debate on a global scale, and spawning a golden age of kitten images and cute baby portraits which add a version of good karma to the world.

On the other hand, we have experienced epic damage in the form of teen anorexia caused by the obsession with image, dopamine addition, and the devastation of the news media. Perhaps worst of all has been the abuse of social media by extremists and idiots spreading misinformation, lies, and fomenting conflict. 

We are living a paradoxical moment in which Twitter is front and center: anti-democrats and racists run riot; illiberal progressives exact mob justice against offenders of their precious sensibilities, which appears to have earned the particular ire of Musk. Moderates and liberals watch in horror. Civility is threatened with extinction.

Censorship seems wrong – but eliminating moderation would open the floodgates to every kind of horror, including almost certainly pedophilia. 

Critically, no one knows what to do about so-called “trolls” – which brings us to the No. 1 such exemplar, and perhaps the question of the day.

Will Donald Trump be re-platformed?

We live in an era of celebrity where grand narratives are reduced to the players on the stage. People want to know if Musk will let Trump back into Twitter.

To recap, Trump was “de-platformed” from Twitter – and also Facebook – after leaving even supporters with a troubling sense that he helped incite the January 6, 2021 mob invasion of Washington’s Capitol building in which several people were killed and American democracy was disgraced. That proved to be the final straw after years in which Trump had been crying fire unimpeded in the crowded theater of Twitter (here’s a handy list). 

Silencing Trump reduced the nonsense factor in the global discourse, but free speech it was not. Trump was not the only habitual liar on Twitter. Is nonsense to be illegal?  Who shall police it? Where to draw the line? These are difficult questions for which the answer is subjective. 

And it’s a lose-lose proposition for Musk. Keep Trump off and you look like a hypocrite; restore him and you outrage the left and possibly brand Twitter as a home for right-wing quackery. It is not actually clear whether reminding the world of Trump’s weirdness will help or hinder him in 2024. More critically for Twitter, it is not clear which option will lead to the flight of more users. 

How on earth did they fail to make money?

The question of lost users is critical to the great dilemma that has dogged Twitter: unlike Facebook and Instagram (LinkedIn, now part of Microsoft, is a mystery), it has proven unable to make money despite its hundreds of millions of users. 

Part of the problem has been insufficient growth of its base in recent years. But a more fundamental challenge is that many advertisers have shied away from attaching themselves to content so unpredictable and potentially incendiary. Twitter has run afoul of “brand safety” – a disaster.

Surely Musk will look at costs, which includes massive R&D that may be reducible. Perhaps Twitter needs no new features; its value proposition is clear and largely predicated on simplicity. Unlike the metaverse, Twitter is comprehensible and useful to all: a text message (maybe with visuals attached) to every other human.

Much has been made of possibly adding an edit function, but that would be problematic: imagine retweeting a tweet that is then altered. If Musk does one thing only, let him instead enhance filters and AI that resolve the brand safety concerns. That might convince people that he bought Twitter as a business, and not as the plaything of a megalomaniac.

And that is important in a way, for Musk has cemented his status as a poster child of the outrageous inequality, in riches and influence, wrought by 40 years of tech disruption, globalization and liberalization. It is fun for as long as it lasts, and nice for a handful of tycoons, but history teaches that these things can end in tears.

The writer, a technologist by education, was the top editor for the Associated Press in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and is managing partner of the communications firm Thunder11 as well as chief strategy officer of the Internet company Engageya. In the 1980s, he was among the first to develop and market multilingual word processors for personal computers.