Elon Musk’s Twitter gamble puts more than his empire at risk – Martyn McLaughlin

Anyone who has followed the startling career trajectory of Elon Musk will know that he is a businessman who seems uniquely undaunted by risk. Both Tesla and SpaceX, the firms that have made him famous and unimaginably wealthy, have come perilously close to bankruptcy in recent years, but Mr Musk, an adherent of the ‘move fast and break things’ school, has emerged triumphant.

So far, at least. The billionaire’s acquisition of Twitter is an altogether different proposition, because simply put, it is not an ordinary business. It is, in Mr Musk’s words, the world’s “de facto public town square,” and how he chooses to manage it in the wake of his £38 billion takeover will have implications which reach far beyond the 51-year-old’s empire.

Edward Niedermeyer, who wrote a book about Mr Musk and Tesla, made a telling observation of his subject last week. “He’s like a guy who’s been at the casino all night long on a hot hand,” he explained. “He keeps rolling.” That strategy paid off when it came to Tesla and SpaceX, companies that required numerous technological iterations in order to find their feet.

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The challenges facing Twitter, however, are not technological, they are political, and Mr Musk has so far shown little more than a thinly veiled disdain for them. Less than a fortnight has passed since he completed his buyout of the company, and in that time, his actions have made it clear that Twitter’s status as a conduit for wonder, connection, and curiosity is under threat.

Many would argue that such qualities were under threat before Mr Musk became involved with Twitter, and I would not necessarily disagree with them. Under his tenure, however, the platform already looks to be a less pleasurable and safe place.

The first sign that the world’s richest man is enjoying his new toy came with his announcement, in typical scattergun fashion, that the blue tick badge, which allowed individuals of public interest to authenticate their account, will soon be available for anyone to buy. There are several reasons for the change, the most obvious being Mr Musk’s determination to ensure Twitter makes regular profits. Indeed, he needs it to; he financed nearly a third of the funding for his takeover from banks, and needs to pay around £890 million a year interest payments.

It is only natural that a businessman should wish to improve the balance sheet of his latest venture, and the fact that Mr Musk has successfully disrupted other industries means that no one should be surprised at his wish to move away from traditional advertising revenue models. But the dangers of this short-term, revenue boosting strategy should not be understated.

By monetising the verified feature, and turning it into little more than a status symbol, Mr Musk will be opening the floodgates to harmful actors intent on polluting the public discourse, while simultaneously eroding the platform of those who seek to combat the menace of disinformation. The most obvious danger is people, or bots, impersonating influential public figures, with paid-for verification status. On Monday, Mr Musk attempted to downplay such fears by announcing that any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation, without making it clear that they were parodies, would be permanently suspended.

Elon Musk has already announced several contentious new changes to Twitter since taking over the platform (Picture: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images)

Which sounds laudable in theory. It is a different matter in practice, especially in light of the sweeping cuts Mr Musk has already made to his latest acquisition. Having laid off around half of the firm’s workforce, including a sizable chunk of its trust and safety team, who are responsible for moderation, Mr Musk is creating the ideal conditions for hate and falsehoods to thrive.

It is worth remembering that as recently as August, Peiter Zatko, the former head of security at Twitter, blew the whistle on a series of grave security concerns at the company. He accused it of using an outdated server infrastructure with substandard protections, meaning that it was vulnerable to hostile nation state actors.

How serious is Mr Musk about addressing such apparent deficiencies? Even before he took over Twitter, the platform faced widespread problems in countering the endless flow of scammers and impersonators. Given the limitations of automated curation, the drastically reduced staffing strategy looks counterproductive.

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But that is far from the only threat posed by Mr Musk’s ownership of the platform. The central question is how far he is prepared to go to permit harmful or offensive discourse in the name of freedom of expression.

The self-professed “free speech absolutist” has said he is opposed to any kind of censorship “that goes far beyond the law”, and has previously expressed a desire to correct Twitter’s “strong left-wing bias”. Since taking control of the firm, he has floated proposals for a content moderation council tasked with redrawing policies around hate speech and harassment, but if that is to prove effective, it must embrace a fundamental understanding: content moderation does not restrict free speech; it encourages it by ensuring people feel free to speak.

It remains unclear to what extent, if any, this new council would have oversight over disinformation and misinformation policies. On that front, Mr Musk has already shown a casual disregard; just days after taking control of Twitter, he posted a message – later deleted – from his own account which shared a link to an unfounded anti-LGBT conspiracy theory.

Unless Mr Musk can resolve these issues, he risks losing Twitter’s most valuable asset – the users who create the content that drives its revenues. The company is already facing an uphill battle in that regard. Internal documents obtained by Reuters last month showed that the platform’s most prolific users have been in “absolute decline” since the start of the pandemic.

That is bad for Twitter’s bottom line, but it is even worse for public discourse. There is a chance Mr Musk can turn things around. There is an even greater chance he will make things a whole lot worse.

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