Is Musk demolishing Twitter as a de facto public square?

Instead of verifying identity, the blue check will verify payment

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Before Elon Musk purchased Twitter for $44 billion on October 7, the company undoubtedly had big problems. But instead of carefully nursing the wounded blue bird back to health, he wasted no time in having it plucked, trussed and garnished with foie gras. The world's richest man is now gobbling up what has been the main way experts, professionals, journalists, activists and others share information and ideas in public.

Twitter’s ousted executives were escorted out of the building by security. Mr Musk fired about half of its staff. Many employees were told that the next morning they would receive an email. If it came to their private account, they were sacked. If it came to their company account, they were reprieved. It's hard to imagine a more cruel, bizarre, and seemingly random, process.

Some sacked employees have already been asked to return, as many of Mr Musk’s proposed projects turn out to be already or nearly completed by fired engineers.

The lobby of the building that houses the Twitter office in New York, October  26. AP

Teams tasked with human rights, artificial intelligence ethics, accessibility, curation, public policy, and combating misinformation and disinformation were simply eliminated on the eve of the crucial November 8 US midterm elections.

Twitter has vitally functioned as a forum for information and ideas based on knowledge and expertise. Yet it never found a way to effectively avoid being also used to spread misinformation and disinformation.

Twitter's teams helping to protect the public from malicious deception are largely eliminated, and the most important guardrail, the blue check identity verification label, looks like it could turn into a serious public menace.

Mr Musk claims to be a champion of free speech, but his attitudes became all too clear a few days after his takeover. A right-wing fanatic driven by QAnon conspiracy delusions broke into the San Francisco home of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, at 2am with the intention of kidnapping and torturing her. Finding only her 82-year-old husband, Paul Pelosi, at home, the intruder attacked him with a hammer and fractured his skull.

Mr Musk's reaction to this appalling crime was to respond to a tweet by former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton by promoting and linking to a preposterous story that suggested Mr Pelosi was engaged in a drunken romantic encounter gone wrong with his assailant. The source was a notorious purveyor of absurd disinformation that once claimed Mrs Clinton had died and Democrats sent a body double of her to debate Donald Trump in 2016.

A presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in October 2016. Getty

Mr Musk eventually deleted his inexcusable tweet that promoted a particularly vile and indecent conspiracy theory, but it reveals much about his sense of propriety, his notion of what freedom of speech means in practice, and his apparent lack of basic human decency.

For whatever reason, by destroying the blue check identity verification system, Mr Musk appears to be demolishing Twitter as a de facto public square for journalists, intellectuals, activists and others with genuine knowledge to exchange information and ideas rapidly and efficiently. This is what has made Twitter so powerful and useful for reality-based constituencies in the West and human rights and pro-democracy activists in authoritarian countries, as well as a source of real-time information that is invaluable for the public during disasters, elections and so on.

That system rested on the blue checks that Twitter developed in 2009 to confirm the identity of users involved in government, journalism, sports and entertainment, activism and other publicly relevant content. It crucially allowed readers to know who was saying what. Many notable users don’t have blue checks, but their identities became well-established, and some important accounts relied on anonymity for various legitimate purposes, including avoiding repression.

Yet the blue checks crucially established real trustworthiness in an otherwise wild west of fake identities, dangerous misinformation and poisonous disinformation. Now instead of verifying identity, the blue check will verify payment. It could be a field day for disinformation-spreading trolls and bots, many that have reportedly just been reactivated. Meanwhile, the use of racist terms has skyrocketed on Twitter.

For $8 a month anyone can purchase a blue check for any account, under any identity. All that will be verified is that Mr Musk has received payment. He insists he won’t allow impersonations, but without verification, that is seemingly impossible.

Meanwhile, verified users who do not pay up face elimination of their verification. Mr Musk warns that payment resisters will find their postings downgraded and, he adds with a chuckle, you'll have to “scroll really far” to find them as those from paid up accounts are promoted aggressively by algorithms. His slogan is “power to the people'' but it’s really “stand and deliver”.

He's basically asking Iranian protesters, for instance, to cough up $8 for every account or find their tweets suppressed.

But why immediately target the one feature that made Twitter socially and politically valuable and intellectually vibrant, despite the bots and trolls? Perhaps this really is the only thing he could think of to make money.

But maybe he is trying to aid his other companies with two constituencies that have made their resentment of blue-check Twitter clear: the American right-wing and the Chinese government. This mystifying virtual vandalism makes some sense if Mr Musk hopes he will ultimately be rewarded by Twitter-hating political forces in the world's two most powerful countries and biggest markets by purchasing the closest thing to an international shared public space and essentially unravelling its processes and strengths.

His new policy will apparently allow anyone to pay $8 and establish an apparently credible account mimicking a vital public agency, government or police department, or major news source, and get to work spreading dangerous disinformation.

During a natural disaster, election, ongoing terrorist attack or any number of other scenarios, users will no longer be able to trust what they see on Twitter, because there will be no verification. It is hard to overstate the recklessness of this move, given how much people have come to rely on Twitter for crucial real-time information.

Mr Musk's motivations are not clear. But he is driving a gigantic bulldozer through the centre of what, for over a decade, has served as a de facto worldwide town square.

This is not just an instance of billionaires behaving badly. It has all the makings of a global tragedy.

Published: November 08, 2022, 4:00 AM