CONTRIBUTORS

Musk invites Trump to his Twitter hellscape

Parmy Olson
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

“Twitter is ALIVE.”

That was Elon Musk’s most recent Twitter post at the time of writing, several hours after announcing he would reinstate former President Donald Trump to the site.

It’s a move that epitomizes the chaos Musk has wrought at his new social media company, as well as his inability to keep his word or stick to a plan.

On Oct. 27, for instance, he promised Twitter’s increasingly dubious advertisers that Twitter would not “become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences.”

Elon Musk. (Brendan Smialowski/La Nacion via ZUMA Press/TNS)

Twitter risks fraying as engineers exit over Elon Musk's ultimatum

Musk restores Trump's Twitter account after online poll

$44 billion can buy Twitter, but it can’t buy respect

The following day, Musk said he would form a “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints” to look at high-profile, banned accounts like Trump’s. "No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes,” he said.

That didn’t happen. Musk has said nothing since about a council and instead decided Trump’s fate with a Twitter poll, one which he likely suspected would go in favor of the twice-impeached former president who helped incite the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection. (Much of Musk’s loyal fan base is on the right of the political spectrum; the billionaire also recently said Americans should vote Republican.)

His poll got 15 million votes, of which 51.8% recommended reinstating Trump.

The former president’s account is now available to visit, and it is also inactive. Trump may be wondering what to do. He has a financial incentive to support his own social media platform, Truth Social, and has said he won’t come back on Twitter because it has “a lot of problems.”

But Trump is also not a man of his word. Truth Social is tiny and the lure of a bigger megaphone with a constant feedback loop is hard for those with large egos to resist.

If Trump does start tweeting, that could herald a further descent for the site. Roughly 75% of Twitter’s staff and most of its content moderators have left the company since Musk took over, either through layoffs or resignations, and there may be more to come on Monday, according to Bloomberg News.

That could spell initial glitches as a flood of visitors pour in to scroll through the latest news on Trump and the World Cup, which kicked off on Sunday. Twitter’s infrastructure engineers, whittled down to a skeleton crew, will be working overtime to ensure the site stays up.

More problematically, a second act of Trump tweets could spark a surge in offensive posts, similar to the growth in hate speech that occurred right after Musk took the reins.

How much does this fit in with Musk’s goals? It does seem he is creating a platform for unfettered free speech that is light on consequences for the worst behaved. But he also seems to be getting swept up in what Twitter’s algorithms do best: an addiction to getting more attention on Twitter.

Musk has been touting the site’s growing popularity since he took over, tweeting last week that Twitter usage had hit an “all-time-high,” then posting a graph showing an upward tick in daily users. “Recent trend is promising,” he said.

For Musk, all the extra activity on Twitter points to success. But it’s actually not going to help Twitter’s financially precarious situation with advertisers, many of whom have suspended ads on the platform because of concerns about spotty content moderation and toxic posts.

An analysis by GroupM, the world’s biggest ad buying agency, warned last week that Twitter — which derives 90% of its revenue from advertising — had become too “high risk.” It advised clients to stay away until the platform improved its content-moderation strategy, according to a GroupM document seen by Bloomberg Opinion.

Musk seems to have forgotten about the age-old mirage that disappoints many social media influencers, that online popularity doesn’t necessarily make money. The image board 4chan has tens of millions of visitors and spawned powerful online movements, but makes relatively little ad revenue. The reason: No brand wants to be associated with a website once dubbed the “a****** of the internet.”

Twitter is not quite the hellscape that 4chan is, but with so few people left to weed out the toxic posts that break its rules just as one of the site’s biggest rule-breakers comes back, it is heading in that rather unpleasant direction.

— Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she is author of “We Are Anonymous.”