In the first days after his acquisition of Twitter on Oct. 27, Elon Musk rattled the platform's users and advertisers with a series of tweets associating himself with far-right memes.
These included a grotesque conspiracy claim about the violent assault on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband, Paul, and an accusation that "activist groups" had pressured advertisers into abandoning Twitter.
He invited former President Donald Trump, who had been banned from Twitter for his support of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, back onto the platform.
Although Musk deleted some of his more incendiary tweets, including his apparent endorsement of the conspiracy theory regarding the attack on Paul Pelosi, they have become the most commonly cited indicators of his and the platform's rightward swing.
Yet Musk's more recent tweeting is even more disturbing. He has openly and approvingly engaged with some of the most extremist far-right figures on the internet, including overt advocates for misogyny and white supremacy.
He has explicitly bought into the right-wing Republican attack on "wokeness," a fabricated complaint that is the GOP's way of demonizing diversity and inclusiveness.
Musk's latest tweets embody the least inviting features of Twitter as a social media platform: petulance, truculence, a paranoid view of progressive or liberal policies and a tendency to magnify the most extreme viewpoints and try to make them appear mainstream.
Before his takeover, Twitter staff struggled to curb these manifestations, with uneven success. Banning or suspending accounts for hateful tweets and for the use of antisemitic, racist and Nazi verbiage and imagery was part of that process.
By decimating Twitter's traffic-moderating team and granting a "general amnesty" to previously suspended accounts, as he announced would be done starting this week, Musk risks making the site less useful and inviting to the vast majority of users.
Musk has continued to maintain that his goal is to facilitate "free speech" on the platform — in effect, to energize the marketplace of ideas, the sunlight that traditionally been seen as a disinfectant against falsehood and corruption in American society, as Louis D. Brandeis put it in 1913.
In practice, however, Musk hasn't paid more than lip service to the concept. On Sunday, for example, he tweeted a call for "people of different political or other views to engage in civil debate on Twitter."
Only an hour before, however, Musk had attacked former Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who is Jewish, using an old antisemitic slur that depicts Jews as string pullers wielding secret influence over society and as tools of the Israeli government. "Vindman is both puppet & puppeteer," Musk tweeted. "Question is who pulls his strings...?"
In recent days, Musk has "increasingly been promoting far-right theories and white supremacist content," observed Josh Marshall on his Talking Points Memo website, where he helpfully compiled some of the most glaring examples.
The subtext of much of Musk's tweeting may be undetectable at first glance by the average reader, so it helps to provide perspective.
On Thanksgiving Day, he implicitly assented to a white supremacist's praise for Twitter "reportedly nuking pedo accounts" and thereby "eliminating much of Antifa Twitter." That tweet equated pedophilia with antifa, the decentralized movement targeting fascism.
Musk responded, "Removing child exploitation is priority #1" and asked the tweeter to notify him "if you see anything that Twitter needs to address."
The original message came from Paul Ray Ramsey, who tweets under the handle @ramzpaul. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, Ramsey is a white nationalist who has labeled women's suffrage a "cancer" and questioned the historical truth of the Holocaust.
The previous day, Musk implicitly endorsed a tweet by hacker Kim Dotcom accusing the Biden administration of advancing an immigration policy that was a Democratic Party "voter farming strategy" — that is, growing the party's voting base to "preserve power" by legalizing immigrants.
Musk responded, "Behavior follows the incentives for political power." "Kim Dotcom" is the pseudonym of German-born Kim Schmitz, an accused internet pirate who has been in New Zealand fighting extradition to the U.S. for years.
In response to a tweet depicting "Woke Propoganda" (sic) as a Trojan Horse led by "Woke teachers" to attack "Kid's brain" (sic), Musk tweeted back, "Exactly."
Musk appears to have fully bought in to the right-wing view that as a public company, Twitter had systematically suppressed conservatives and promoted progressive accounts.
"It has been really bad," he tweeted on Nov. 23. "Far left San Francisco/Berkeley views have been propagated to the world via Twitter. I'm sure this comes as no surprise to anyone watching closely. Twitter is moving rapidly to establish an even playing field. No more thumb on the scale!"
Two days later, he tweeted that "the woke mind virus has thoroughly penetrated entertainment and is pushing civilization towards suicide. There needs to be a counter-narrative."
What might account for Musk's overt swerve to the far right is unclear. Marshall compiled some of the prevailing conjectures, his upbringing in apartheid-era South Africa and his connections with rightist Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel among them.
The underlying theme of those guesses is that Musk hasn't moved right, but for some reason feels empowered today to express long-held opinions more openly.
It's also conceivable that Musk craves validation and has found a nice warm, moist spot among extremists who have come to view him as their hero. As John P. Moore of Cornell's medical school told me a few weeks ago, if you get embraced by fringe people and "have that psychological need for some kind of affirmation from people you're interacting with, it must be very seductive."
Whatever the explanation, Musk's actions are unlikely to be anything but disastrous for Twitter.
His mercurial temperament, especially his apparent embrace of right-wing tropes and overt racists and antisemites, has predictably unnerved the advertisers on whom Twitter must depend for revenue to stay alive. It's a rare consumer company that would risk its ads appearing on Twitter anywhere near racist, misogynistic or antisemitic content today.
At least 50 of Twitter's top advertisers in the pre-Musk period have stopped or withdrawn their ads from Twitter, according to a survey by the progressive organization Media Matters for America. Most have withdrawn silently, but some have either publicly announced the suspension of their campaigns or been reliably reported to have done so, including Ford, Jeep, Chipotle and Merck.
Musk initially tried to placate skittish advertisers by assuring them that he would not allow Twitter to become a "free-for-all hellscape" on his watch, and pledged to establish an independent review council to make judgments about bans or suspensions of troublesome accounts.
He has since reneged, reportedly calling corporate executives to berate them for their recalcitrance and personally admitting formerly banned tweeters back onto the platform, including Trump and right-wing Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.
In a Nov. 22 tweet, Musk asserted that he abandoned his promise to create the moderation council because "a large coalition of political/social activist groups agreed not to try to kill Twitter by starving us of advertising revenue if I agreed to this condition. They broke the deal."
There's no evidence of any such agreement, and civil rights leaders who met with Musk around the time he announced the council say they would never agree to anything of the kind.
Twitter is still the world's leading platform for the up-to-the-minute transmission of news breaking on the ground. Its value for that purpose has been on display in recent days, through the communication of protests across China over the regime's draconian anti-COVID lockdowns.
If Twitter collapses because of Musk's management style, his policies and his overt trafficking with producers of toxic content and commentary, something very useful will be lost and almost impossible to replace, at least in the near term.
So far, Musk hasn't shown any awareness of the damage caused by his behavior to the platform he spent $44 billion — including more than $33 billion of his personal fortune — to acquire. That's a problem, because the only way to bring advertisers back into the fold and protect Twitter's role in public discourse is for Musk to disappear — to appoint a chief executive with credibility in the social media field with users and advertisers, and to stop tweeting himself.
If that were to happen today or tomorrow, the restoration of Twitter to trustworthiness could begin immediately.
But Musk already has made it impossible for that recovery to happen quickly. And the signs are pointing to his becoming even more arrogant and more intemperate in his behavior. Just in the last day or two he has tweeted an image of Pepe the Frog, a meme the Anti-Defamation League identifies as having racist and antisemitic connotations.
He has also picked a fight with Apple, which he says has threatened to "withhold" Twitter from its iPhone and iPad App store, though he says the big company "won't tell us why." He tweeted that Apple has mostly dropped its advertising on Twitter and asked, "Do they hate free speech in America?" He followed up with a tweet directed at Apple's CEO: "What's going on here, @tim_cook?"
(Actually, the reason Apple might be concerned about Twitter is obvious: Apple carefully screens apps it offers users to ensure they're clean and hate-free. Musk's policies may not guarantee those qualities.)
Put it all together, and things are likely to get worse before they get better, on Twitter ... if they ever do get better.
(Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.)
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