Chief Twit Musk makes disastrous start

by Parmy Olson

Elon Musk has wasted no time in showing the world that Twitter Inc.’s new sheriff is in town — or rather its “chief twit” is. That was his new Twitter bio last week when he walked into the company’s San Francisco headquarters holding a sink, a gag prop for a tweet. He then made plans to radically change the company’s blue-badge verification policy and also tweeted (and deleted) a vile conspiracy theory about Nancy Pelosi’s husband that augurs a chaotic approach to content on the site. And according to a filing on Monday, Elon Musk is now the sole director of Twitter after the removal of the entire board.

So far, so Musk.

His breakneck pace of activity is probably giving whiplash to staff at Twitter, who are used to a slow, consensus-based approach to change. In just the last three days, he has scoped out radical reforms, including deep job cuts, while also signaling a chaotic and confused approach to improving “free speech.”

First, the good. According to reports in The Verge and Platformer, Musk wants to take away the blue badges of verified users if they don’t pay for the site’s new subscription service Twitter Blue for as much as $20 a month.

That has caused consternation among blue-badge holders, but it isn’t a bad idea.

On Twitter, getting verified has been free and led to an estimated 300,000 blue-badged accounts, including my own. If half of us pay the fee, either ourselves or by expensing it to an employer, that’s about $9 million in revenue per quarter, or $36 million annually for Twitter. Small fry for a social media giant, but it could be the start of a growing business if Musk can build on his verified customer base and offer more.

That is the extent of the good. Much more disturbing has been Musk’s shoot-from-the hip approach to overseeing content. Last week, he told advertisers he was buying Twitter because human civilization needed a town square, “where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner.”

But his personal definition of “debate” is hardly healthy. On Sunday, he promoted a lurid, baseless conspiracy theory about the recent violent attack on Paul Pelosi. “There might be more to this story than meets the eye,” Musk said, in response to a tweet from Hillary Clinton. A few hours later, his tweet from a website (which has previously claimed that Clinton was dead and using a body double on the campaign trail) had been deleted.

Tweeting outrageous accusations, as Musk has done before, is a profound abuse of free speech, all the more unsettling as he takes the reins of Twitter’s policies for content moderation. Musk is jumping in at a moment when governments around the world, from the E.U. to Brazil to India, are preparing far stricter rules about online content.

Musk’s absolutist approach to “free speech” flatly contradicts his promises to follow the “laws of the land,” like the EU’s upcoming Digital Services Act, which will make it illegal for large internet platforms to let disinformation — like the kind he posted himself — go viral.

Other tweets being directed at Musk are far more concerning. Commentators in China are now lobbying the billionaire to remove the label “Chinese state-affiliated media” that Twitter has given them.

There are reportedly hundreds of Chinese state media accounts broadcasting propaganda each day. What happens when many of them start asking Musk to remove their labels so they aren’t so easily identified? What happens if the government of China — one of Tesla’s biggest sources of vehicle production and sales — suggests it might rein in Musk’s expansion of Tesla manufacturing in the country if Twitter doesn’t comply?

Musk seems underprepared for the international policy firestorm coming his way, and loath to listen to those outside his bubble of supporters. He quickly fired Twitter’s CEO, chief financial officer and general counsel, leaving teams across the company bereft of leadership and emptying the room of expertise.

He has meanwhile sought ideas through Twitter polls and Twitter users. Musk showed interest in an idea from startup founder Amjad Masad, for instance, about creating a marketplace for recommendation algorithms. “Social media companies have given themselves the impossible task of pleasing everyone,” Masad told me, adding that social media sites should follow market principles by letting people choose what kind of content they see.

That’s a clever but potentially dangerous approach, since social media’s history shows humans often gravitate toward anger, toxicity and conflict, i.e., content that’s most engaging.

Musk’s main policy solution so far is to borrow an idea from Facebook, saying Friday that Twitter would get a “content moderation council” to decide on bringing back major accounts (which will likely include an assessment about Donald Trump’s). Facebook has for years had a 20-member, quasi-independent “Oversight Board” to judge difficult moderation decisions, such as what to do about Trump after his Jan. 6 posts.

Musk will soon learn that Twitter’s most valuable service is content moderation itself. Were it not for thoughtful curation, the site would become the “free-for-all hellscape” that he has promised advertisers he’d avoid. Coordinating that is now one of the most challenging jobs in technology, requiring a deep understanding of law and ethics. Musk at least, has shown some humility in the face of that task: “Failure in pursuing this goal, despite our best efforts, is a very real possibility,” he told advertisers. That may have been his most reasonable statement yet.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes.