Trying to work out Elon Musk’s grand Twitter strategy is pointless – he doesn’t have one | Science & Tech News

Elon Musk arrived at Twitter promising to bring free speech back to social media.

He said he was a “free speech absolutist” fighting the “woke mind virus” of political correctness.

Such was his commitment to free expression, he declared, he wouldn’t even ban an account which tracked his private plane.

Seasoned observers of social media wondered how this absolutism could possibly work in practice, when online forums without any moderation quickly become too unpleasant to use, and indeed Musk appeared to moderate his views slightly, saying that low quality tweets would be demoted by Twitter’s algorithm.

These adjustments can be defended as tweaks to Musk’s overall vision.

What happened next cannot.

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First, Musk suspended the account tracking his plane.

Then he went one step further, suspending the accounts of a number of technology journalists who had reported on the story.

Musk said he acted to protect his family’s safety, citing the risk posed by sharing his real-time location, after his car was apparently followed by a threatening individual on Wednesday night.

But the account tracking his plane was collating publicly-available data and the journalists were reporting on the story, not sharing “assassination coordinates”, as Musk claimed.

Now Musk has gone further, deleting audio-sharing feature Twitter Spaces from the app entirely, after some banned journalists managed to find their way into a space to criticise him. Anyone who planned to use a Twitter Space today will have to make other plans.

Musk is entirely within his rights to make these decisions. He bought Twitter, albeit reluctantly, at a vastly inflated price. It is his toy and he can play with it any way he wants.

But how can he square this latest move with his commitment of free speech? A commitment so passionate that over the last two weeks he has been leaking the personal chat logs of former Twitter employees to right-wing journalists, in order to expose a supposed plot to suppress free speech on the platform.

Drew Harwell posted on Mastodon about his ban from Twitter
@ElonJet has found a new home on Mastodon
Some of the banned journalists and the @ElonJet account are posting on Mastodon instead

What’s behind Musk’s erratic reign?

There are numerous theories.

One suggests that too much time on Twitter has poisoned Musk’s brain, making him susceptible to culture war provocateurs and right-wing activists.

Another blames the Silicon Valley set around Musk, which has grown intensely sensitive about criticism of technology. In both these groups, hatred of the media is so all-pervasive that banning journalists for journalism might seem justified, even sensible.

Some theories provide a business rationale for Musk’s behaviour.

Perhaps, the argument goes, he’s borrowing from the playbook of former president Donald Trump, who used outrageous claims and attacks on the media as a tool to draw attention to his project.

Maybe he’s trying to turn Twitter into the social media equivalent of Fox News, a digital replacement for America’s favourite right-wing television station.

It’s impossible to know for sure, and, in truth, there seems little point in trying to figure out why, because it increasingly seems as if there is no grand strategy here at all.

Musk has no regard for who gets hurt

Under Elon Musk, Twitter is ruled by whim.

Whatever he says goes – and what he says depends on his feelings in that moment, no matter how capricious and arbitrary they might seem to everyone else.

No one who’s followed Musk’s career will be surprised by this development. He has become one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his generation by backing his own instinct, with no regard for who gets hurt.

But unlike cars and rockets, social networking is built on trust. Can the same approach work when it’s playing out in a public forum, involving some of Twitter’s most prominent and productive users?

What if Musk decided to ban a whole publication? Or a politician during an election? What would happen then?

Only one thing’s for certain when it comes to Elon Musk

Musk seems to be intent on proving perhaps the greatest argument against social media: that its vast scale concentrates power in too few hands, with worrying consequences for the health of democratic politics.

Knowing this, the founders of social media companies have always trod carefully around this topic, hiding behind swathes of self-made laws and bureaucratic processes. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg even created a pseudo Supreme Court to give him cover for contentious decisions at Facebook and Instagram.

Musk doesn’t do anything carefully, an approach that has brought him great rewards. But at his other companies, the risks were largely contained. Now he’s following his whims while playing with politics and media around the world.

Can it possibly continue?

We are about to find out – because if there’s one thing that’s for sure, it’s that Musk won’t change.