Who does Elon Musk think he is? His behavior on Twitter was terrible.
If Musk is to be the new arbiter of free speech, accountability and responsibility on Twitter, his first move as the new owner should be to ban himself from the platform.
Like everything else in today’s era of total partisan absolutism, the news that billionaire tech magnate Elon Musk bought Twitter landed like a giant sledgehammer, cleaving the country in two. Depending on one’s politics, the sound made by the hostile takeover was either the death knell of truth and civility or the symphonic rhapsody of free speech for all.
On one side, actress Jameela Jamil was representative of the opposition, tweeting one final dystopian thought before vowing to quit the social media outlet: “I fear this free speech bid is going to help this hell platform reach its final form of totally lawless hate, bigotry and misogyny. Best of luck.”
Meanwhile, over on the right, Tucker Carlson was in the throes of post-coital bliss: “Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is the single biggest political development since Donald Trump’s election more than five years ago. It’s the most threatening challenge to the corrupt and incompetent leadership of this country.”
Now, it should be said at the outset that most Americans are not on Twitter, don’t care about Twitter, and will not be affected by Musk’s purchase of Twitter.
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Even on Twitter, influence is wielded by a minority of highly active users. According to a 2021 survey, 25% of Twitter users in the U.S. produce around 97% of all tweets.
But the far right and far left would still have you believe the new owner of this social media site will be directly responsible for the fate of free speech in America.
Dispatching with the melodrama of both positions, it’s important to point out that there’s a lot we don’t know yet. For starters, who will be the site’s new CEO? Who will Musk appoint to its board? Will he allow Trump back on after his 2021 permanent suspension? (Trump, who’s promoting his own platform, suggests he doesn’t want to get back on Twitter.)
With the answers to those and other questions still unknown, the hyperventilating in both directions seems wholly premature.
What we do know is that Musk views his takeover of Twitter as nothing short of “extremely important to the future of civilization.” But just because he believes that doesn’t mean we have to.
Musk is not unique in his inflated sense of self and inability to see his own flaws. He’s firmly in the category of solutionists, successful, ego-driven billionaires who believe they can solve any problem — even the most complex — by merely gracing it with their presence.
To them, success in one arena — and lots of money, of course — means they are somehow uniquely qualified to, say, run a news company, be the president of the United States, or determine the fate of free speech for millions of people.
But businessman-turned-mayor Mike Bloomberg couldn’t solve obesity by trying to ban Big Gulps. Neither Tom Steyer nor Howard Schultz could turn their business acumen into winning presidential campaigns. Trump approached running the country like running one of his failed companies, and nearly broke democracy in the process.
Musk’s ambitions for Twitter and free speech are not at all indicative of what he’ll actually be able to do.
We can, however, judge him by his actions on the very platform he now wholly owns. And Elon Musk was absolutely terrible on Twitter.
Revisiting just a few of his worst episodes, there was the time he used Twitter to threaten labor organizers at Tesla. The National Labor Relations Board ordered Musk to delete the tweet and reinstate a fired employee who was a union supporter.
There was the time he was sued by Vernon Unsworth, a member of a group that rescued a Thai boys’ soccer team trapped in a cave in 2018. Musk called him a “pedo guy” on Twitter. Unsworth unsuccessfully sued for defamation; Musk’s defense was, “People say a lot of things on Twitter that aren’t true.”
There was the degrading and sexist joke he made on the platform that he was starting a new university — Texas Institute of Technology & Science, or TITS. It was not a great look for a tech boss in an industry rife with sexism and misogyny.
He used the platform to mock fears over COVID-19.
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And he used Twitter to make false statements about his own company. One of those false tweets resulted in a $40 million settlement with the SEC, Musk and Tesla paying a $40 million penalty, and Musk stepping down as chairman.
All of that makes it clear that if Musk is to be the new arbiter of free speech, accountability and responsibility on Twitter, his first move as the new owner should be to ban himself from the platform.
He couldn’t govern his own behavior on the platform. There’s absolutely no reason to trust him to govern yours.
S.E.Cuppis the host of “S.E.CuppUnfiltered” on CNN. Follow her on Twitter @secupp