To understand what Musk did to Twitter, we should not exaggerate the virtue of Twitter before Musk any more than we should exaggerate the health of our body politic before Trump. Even before Musk, Twitter had become a poisonous force in American culture, so toxic that I wrote about it last year could be irreparable. The venue swayed from rage to rage, and the constant drumming of anger and crisis was bad for the soul.
So yes, when Musk bought Twitter, it needed help. Instead, he made it worse. Much worse.
For all of Twitter’s many flaws, it was still by far the best social media app for keeping up with the latest news, especially if you knew which accounts to follow. It was also the best app to see the thoughts of journalists, politicians and intellectuals in real time, sometimes to our detriment. It wasn’t the An American town square — there are still many places where we talk to each other — but it was one of our town squares. Twitter mattered.
Then Musk bought it. He restored several banned accounts stripping thousands of journalists, politicians and others of the blue verification badges that confirmed their identities. Instead, he allowed anyone to buy a blue checkmark by subscribing to a premium service, Twitter Blue, which also boosted the visibility of some subscribers’ posts. He claimed he ended “lords and peasants system” and gave “power to the people.”
Instead, he created a new system of lords and peasants, in which the lords were Twitter Blue subscribers — often Musk fans and right-wing trolls — and the peasants were the journalists and politicians whose tweets previously gave the site its value. Twitter without these political and cultural leaders is little more than Gab or Parler, smaller competitors that are the almost exclusive domain of bigots and bullies.
Making comparisons to these niche right-wing sites even more inevitable, Musk began to publicly interact with and thus promote some of the most unpleasant and absurd accounts on Twitter, including, in particular, an anonymous right-wing troll who calls himself “Catturd”. The cumulative effect was to create an internet space that was miserable for the people who were responsible for much, if not most, of the traffic and attention to the site.