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Twitter: The End of an Era

Staff writer Connor Williams takes a sceptical look at Elon Musk’s supposedly good intentions and lofty language in his recent take-over of Twitter

“Just setting up my twttr”.

The first ever tweet, posted by Twitter’s co-founder Jack Dorsey on March 21, 2006. The polite and mundane message that got the ball rolling on what was to become a giant of the social media world. From the start, Twitter has been a platform for the people. An egalitarian virtual world where anyone could share a thought, a feeling, or a piece of breaking news. The place where the public has just as much say as celebrities, politicians and even the legendary Paddington Bear.

While Facebook was born a telephone directory and Instagram a never ending photo album, Twitter was born a “town square”, as Elon Musk has recently described it. The irony is that Musk’s recent acquisition of the company may prevent Twitter from being just that. Twitter’s future is as unpredictable as its new owner. Whether or not “the bird is freed” remains to be seen; while Twitter seems to be headed downhill at a rapid and increasing pace, it may yet escape crashing and burning. But it is undeniable that the social media platform has reached the end of an era.

Musk’s $44 Billion deal was closed on October 27 and Twitter has already started to go through drastic changes. Around 50% of workers have been laid off, including the dissolution of the entire Board of Directors, and these grass root changes may come at the cost of institutional company knowledge. This fundamental restructuring has brought into question the stability of Twitter’s future. Such measures were taken in hopes of cost cutting, since the site currently operates on a reported $4 million daily loss. But now it seems that Musk has taken a company that has struggled significantly over the course of 2022, slashed it, and in short order made the situation even worse. In a recording heard by The New York Times, Musk stated “There’s a massive negative cash flow, and bankruptcy is not out of the question.”

The uncertainty around Twitter’s future has created cause for concern amongst its main source of income: advertisers. Both General Motors and Volkswagen have halted their campaigns on Twitter since the new management. Twitter’s successful business model of the 2010s is facing a different world, one that it must adapt to. If not, the blue bird’s life is at stake.

Not only is the financial stability of the company at risk but Twitter users themselves may be in trouble. Elon Musk is a provocative, erratic character. He has been compared to Marvel Comic’s playboy billionaire character Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man (who nearly destroyed the planet in an attempt to improve it, but I’m sure that doesn’t mean anything). His unpredictability is worrying for users as Twitter is currently going through a process of rewriting security rules. In a recent tweet, he asked users to “please note that Twitter will do lots of dumb things in coming months”.

In a haphazard attempt to reduce the amount of bots, trolls and bullies on Twitter (as well as raise some more revenue), Musk released a new scheme asking users to pay $8 per month in order to gain a characteristic blue ‘verification’ tick. This has made Twitter a utopia for scammers. It is now relatively easy for anyone to create a fake account and pay a subscription to be someone they are not. A fake Eli Lily account (an American pharmaceutical company) recently tweeted that insulin would be given away for free, resulting in a substantial stock market drop for the firm. It’s easy to see how disinformation may thrive in this new media environment. Actions like these will push Twitter further into an unsafe space for users and the worst may still be yet to come.

Twitter has never been a squeaky clean platform, free from keyboard warriors and trolls. Nor has it maintained a perfect balance between what is considered free speech and what is offensive. But its executive board structure meant that at least more than one person was deciding what was, and was not, allowed to be said on the platform. A concern with Twitter’s privatisation is that what is considered a global platform will now be controlled by a single, independent actor. A new era for Twitter has begun, one where our voices can be curtailed by one man: Elon Musk.

Musk has claimed to be an advocate for free speech for several years, you need only look through his own Twitter feed to see that he is unafraid to speak his mind. In fact, one of the main issues that he is looking to address is Twitter’s supposed left-leaning bias. An argument amplified by Donald Trump’s ban early last year after the January 6 US Capitol riots.

In response to this, Musk decided that Trump would be reinstated based on the results of a poll posted on his feed. This comes after a string of other accounts, who were previously deemed in violation of Twitter’s terms of use, were also unbanned. But this is not opening dialogue and safe parameters for free speech – it is an act of recklessness perpetrated on a whim. Not only is the format easily rigged (due to the bot problem) and the respondents self-selecting, but the outcome of this unscientific and unregulated poll could have a devastating impact on the state of democracy in the US. If Trump is allowed to return to Twitter, then why shouldn’t every other account spreading misinformation and inciting violence be allowed back on as well?

Musk has positioned himself a champion of public voice, but his actions are not worthy of his self-proclaimed accolade. In fact, you don’t need to look far for examples of him not being the freedom fighter that he portrays himself as. Just last year, his automotive company Tesla asked reporters to sign non-disclosure agreements and ‘sign-off’ reviews with the company, while customers were asked to guarantee that they would not post unsympathetically on social media about new software.

Musk seems to think he alone can drive forward free speech on Twitter, but this is bound to come with his inherent biases. It seems impossible for one man to determine what the boundaries for free speech should look like. He recently endorsed the Republican Party in the US Midterm Elections; surely this is evidence that there will be a trickledown influence on Twitter of Elon Musk’s moral and political views? While some may think that Musk will take a balanced stance (as he believes he is doing), no single person, or tight-knit group of people, can ever appropriately determine what is fair and balanced free speech over an entire global platform. We all have our own opinions and biases. The pursuit of balance is an endeavour best undertaken collaboratively, thoughtfully and using proper procedure, not through Saturday night Twitter polls and a desire to wipe out his predecessors’ decisions.

Is Musk the undoing of the Twitter? Will the blue bird rise a phoenix? That remains to be seen, but the platform is definitively entering a new phase: one that promises public voice as it is taken into a private hemisphere. “Let that sink in”.

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