Jelani Cobb, a staff writer for The New Yorker, wrote that he abandoned Twitter after Elon Musk took over. I have been on Twitter for at least ten years, and I am as upset as Cobb. Unfortunately there is no social media platform comparable to Twitter. Its competitors—Mastodon and the Post—each have less than a million followers. Twitter has 250 million. I rely on Twitter to spread my blog posts to about 150,000 followers, who retweet them to their followers. I registered at Post, which says it will be a site for civility. I tried to register for Mastodon, but it’s segmented in a way that made no sense to me.

I don’t know what I will do in the future. But if Twitter becomes a haven for racists, anti-Semites, and conspiracy mongers, I have to go. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Musk has restored the accounts of a flock of QAnon folk, theofascists, and white supremacists. Their comments appeared alongside the ads of major corporations, which may well abandon Twitter.

Musk likes to say that he is restoring free speech by restoring the accounts of Nazis and other haters. He sees Twitter as the nation’s or the world’s town square. But it’s ludicrous to imagine that the richest man in the world owns the town square and freely silences his own critics.

Apparently, he is purging left wing accounts from Twitter and inviting rightwingers to help identify Antifa and “pedo” accounts, according to The Intercept.

I read the other day that some rightwing group had compiled a list of 5,000 Antifa accounts and asked Musk to suspend them. I couldn’t read the whole list, but I saw Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Gavin Newsom on it, as well as others who have nothing to do with Antifa. I was reminded of Senator Joe McCarthy’s list of Communists in the government, which he kept in his breast pocket. The number kept changing.

Among other Musk-directed changes, Twitter will no longer block publication of misinformation about COVID-19. Musk has invited the anti-maskers, the anti-vaxxers, and the peddlers of Ivermectin back to Twitter.

When I read Elon Musk’s personal Twitter feed, I get alarmed. He posted a meme of a cartoon frog (Pepe the Frog) that the alt right has used to make anti-Semitic and racist allusions, according to the Anti-Defamation League. He tweeted a picture of his night table, which held a gun and four empty cans of Coca-Cola. In the background was another gun, apparently an antique. He has a lot of children. What if one picked up his pistol and fired it, thinking it was a toy. His next Tweet was an apology for not putting the cokes on coasters. His Tweets skewer anything he perceives as liberal or left.

Cobb wrote that Twitter was important in spreading news, that it played a unique role in disseminating the George Floyd video, which set off widespread demonstrations. In the past, Twitter has been a valuable platform for information.

Cobb wrote:

The singular virtue of the fiasco over which Musk has presided is the possibility that the outcome will sever, at least temporarily, the American conflation of wealth with intellect. Market valuation is not proof of genius. Ahead of the forty-four-billion-dollar deal that gave Musk private control of Twitter, he proclaimed that he would “unlock” the site’s potential if given the chance. His admirers hailed his interest with glee. Musk has been marketed as a kind of can-do avatar, a magical mix of Marvel comics and Ayn Rand, despite serial evidence to the contrary, like the allegations of abusive treatment of Tesla workers.

Mike Tyson famously observed that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The facile idea was that, as Kara Swisher pointed out on her podcast, Musk was potentially the one person who could solve Twitter’s long-term profitability problem. Such praise paved the way for the current state of affairs, where many, including Musk himself, believe Twitter’s collapse might be imminent. (Swisher, to her credit, later pointed out where Musk went astray, taking particular note of his tweet, which she deemed homophobic, regarding the assault on Paul Pelosi.)

My decision to leave yielded a tide of farewells but also two other types of responses. The first was low-grade trolling that had the effect of validating my decision to depart. But the second was more nuanced and complicated, an argument that leaving offered a concession to the abusive, reactionary elements whose presence has become increasingly prominent since Musk took over. One person paraphrased the writer Sarah Kendzior, urging users to “never cede ground in an information war.” Those arguments are increasingly frail, though. If there is, in fact, an information war raging on Twitter, Musk is a profiteer. Twitter is what it always was: a money-making venture—just more nakedly so. And it now subsidizes a billionaire who understands free speech to be synonymous with the right to abuse others. (While claiming to champion free speech, Musk has selectively granted it, suspending accounts that are critical of him and firing employees who dissented from his view of how the company should be run.) The tech industry’s gimmick to monetize our attention has been astoundingly successful even if Twitter has habitually struggled to be profitable. In the end, Musk’s leadership of the company appears to be a cynical form of trolling—creating a welcoming environment for some of the platform’s worst actors while simultaneously hailing his new order for its inclusivity.

To the extent that people remain active on Twitter, they preserve the fragile viability of Musk’s gambit. The illusory sense of community that still lingers on the platform is one of Musk’s most significant assets. No matter which side prevails, the true victor in any war is the person selling weapons to both sides. It seems likely that this experiment will conclude with bankruptcy and Twitter falling into the hands of creditors who will have their own ideas of what it should be and whom it should serve. But at least in the interim it’s worth keeping in mind that some battles are simply not worth fighting, some battles must be fought, but none are worth fighting on terms set by those who win by having the conflict drag on endlessly. ♦