Elon Musk Might Make It Worse, but Twitter Was Already Bad

Many fear that Twitter under Elon Musk will fall to bigots and harassers. Maybe. But instead of arguing over who should be kicked off Twitter, we should ask what it’s designed to do to those who stay on it.

The real problem with Twitter isn’t which billionaires own it but the outrage its algorithms are designed to induce, transforming our thoughts and attention into a commodity. (Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

To hear the liberal chattering classes tell it over the past week, Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter isn’t just bad news — it’s apocalyptic.

“A Musk takeover could genuinely be a significant step towards the collapse of democracy,” began one tweet. Elizabeth Warren chimed in that the deal was “dangerous for our democracy.”

“We may see in retrospect that Twitter put the final nail in the coffin for the possibility of tackling climate change,” declared another tweet. Yet another lamented that logging on to Twitter pre-Musk felt like partying at a Berlin nightclub “at the twilight of Weimar Germany.”

To recap: democracy is dead, climate change is unstoppable, hell is empty, and all the devils are coming to Twitter because the richest man in the world bought it.

But the real devil’s bargain is the one we got when we migrated our public discourse to social media platforms. Speculation about what changes Musk might champion at Twitter provides cover for the real problem: algorithmically induced outrage, which transforms our thoughts and attention into a commodity.

Hell Is Other People Online

If all the “end is nigh” talk sounds a bit melodramatic, that’s a prime feature, not a bug, of the site that our Edgelord Emperor Elon now owns.

In recent years, various designers of social media platforms have admitted that their systems are addictive, and the algorithms that mediate our experience and decide what content we see exploit negative “triggers” in our brains. According to the academic study titled “Angry by Design,” the sites choose to distribute negative and emotional messages farther and faster.

As a result, Twitter runs mainly on fear, outrage, and hate clicks. That’s not exactly a revelatory statement. Knowing social media sucks is part of the ambient mood of the discourse. Still, vast swaths of the population can’t seem to get enough of raging both inside the machine and against it.

The numbers don’t lie. Our time spent consuming digital media increased during COVID lockdowns, and has yet to fully return to pre-2019 levels. It’s estimated that the time we look at screens has surpassed eight hours a day, approximately half of our waking life. The average American spends more than two hours a day on social media, which is more than many of us spend talking to people face-to-face. The distinction between an “online” and “offline” world is itself becoming meaningless.

That’s why I question one of the underlying assumptions liberals have espoused about free speech. They claim that Musk’s commitment to free speech on Twitter will translate into a rising tsunami of new hate speech, misinformation, and harassment flooding our news feeds. Their contention seems to be that bad speech flows from individuals who are wicked in the offline world, and their wickedness spreads online. Twitter must gatekeep them out in order to preserve the integrity of our public discourse. Musk doesn’t want to do that, so he could become responsible for a rising tide of fascism.

But what if that’s backward? Perhaps the hate-inducing digital architecture of social media is at least partially responsible for warping our thoughts and communication rather than vice versa.

In 2018, the New York Times published a damning story on Facebook’s specific role in fostering sectarian violence in Sri Lanka. The Council on Foreign Relations released a report about social media–driven hate percolating into actual violence, and it’s driven a rise of violence in American teens. This is evidence, perhaps, that the opposite of what liberals believe is true: rather than keeping bad people off digital platforms, perhaps we need to be keeping people off digital platforms so they don’t turn bad.

The truth is that Twitter was already architected to stoke anger, generate outrage, and increase political tribalism before Elon Musk bought it — because that keeps users online for longer, and every minute looking at a screen is monetizable. The problem, then, isn’t Musk’s commitment to free speech. It’s the profit motivation of the privately owned platforms that exist for public discourse.

The Billionaire Shuffle

Free speech isn’t free online. Not really. Twitter is a corporation worth billions, and the public is the customer and the product simultaneously — with or without Musk.

Just last week, Twitter was owned by a confederation of capitalists. Its biggest shareholder was the Vanguard Group, an investment firm with $7 trillion in assets, roughly twenty-five times bigger than Musk’s fortune. The second biggest was Kingdom Holding, a company controlled by billionaire Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Last year, a lawsuit revealed how Twitter was complicit in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on dissidents and critics of the regime.

Will shuffling different billionaires into leadership make much of a difference?

The answer is probably not, just like the Washington Post didn’t fundamentally change after Musk’s fellow tech billionaire Jeff Bezos bought it. But Silicon Valley has to be elated that it’s the only question we’re asking in this newsworthy moment. A few Big Tech firms, including social media companies, spent $70 million lobbying the federal government in 2021. In the face of an outrage cycle about free speech online, Washington’s talk about breaking up Facebook and Twitter’s very lucrative monopolies on the attention economy has been muted.

Tech firms benefit from the belief that the main problem with their products is that some people don’t use them correctly. This inevitably leads to a discussion about enlightened mods tasked with rewarding good speech and punishing bad speech.

Lost in all the noise about Musk is a deeper discussion about building democratic social media networks from the ground up, ones that could foster more positive or constructive human interaction, and actually nurture our better angels instead of our darkest demons. Better yet, we could talk about reclaiming the emptied-out public sphere of the physical world, where free speech is freer.

Instead, it’s as if the “hell site,” as it’s often nicknamed, is destined to remain the epicenter of human communication forever, and we’re capable of little more than bickering over who deserves to be kicked off the otherwise unquestioned platform. It seems Twitter users are collectively Prometheus bound, eternally sentenced to type away at our misery machines 280 characters at a time as the Twitter bird logo eats our liver every day.

And if you agree, please retweet this.