26 April 2022

If you think Elon Musk will ruin Twitter, just wait till you see what it’s already like


The classic definition of the Yiddish word chutzpah is the child who kills his parents and then pleads for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan. But a new one emerged this morning.

The news that Elon Musk has struck a deal to buy Twitter has, predictably, led to a frenzy of comment. By number of users, Twitter is nowhere near the biggest of the social media platforms that has emerged in recent years. But it is by far the favoured site for journalists and media types (myself included). And there is, as we all know, nothing journalists like talking about more than other journalists and the media. So the takeover of Twitter is huge news – it led all BBC bulletins this morning, for example.

Overwhelmingly, from what I’ve read and heard, the reaction has been hostile. Not merely hostile – almost unhinged. On Twitter itself comments have ranged from attacking ‘crypto-fascist, Elon Musk’ to fears that the platform is now poised to become some kind of far-right message board. It is as if a Ming Vase was in the hands of a barbarian about to smash it on the floor.

Nothing, though, beats the interview given this morning on the Radio 4 Today programme by Vivian Schiller, former head of global news at Twitter and now a panjandrum at the Aspen Institute.

Ms Schiller told us that she has an ‘existential dread’ of what will happen to Twitter – and thus, given how important the site is, by extension to democracy itself. Elon Musk, you see, does not understand the subtleties and nuances of content moderation. And so when he begins to allow free speech, which he has made the fons et origo of his version of Twitter, the site is likely to start to include ‘threats to individuals, race or gender-based hate speech’.

I was driving when I heard Ms Schiller; it’s a wonder I didn’t crash. Because her list of what Twitter might become now that the devil himself has bought it is in reality a perfect summary of what Twitter is now. It is a cesspit of hatred – a sewer of racism, misogyny and hate speech, all of which is explicitly permitted by the content moderation which Ms Schiller is so keen to praise. Worse, it is those who take on the racists who are suspended and whose accounts are locked.

Ask any remotely prominent or merely self-identifying Jew on Twitter about ‘threats to individuals, race or gender based hate speech’. They will tell you exactly the same story – that their timeline is regularly infected with antisemitic abuse. And when they report it, nothing is done.

I long ago gave up reporting such abuse, when the content moderators told me that a tweet that suggested I should hang was within the rules. As of now, I have blocked or muted 4,874 accounts. Not all are for antisemitism but the vast majority are. Usually it’s something to do with me being a racist Zio, a kike, a paedo or some such witty variation on ‘Jew’.

The idea that Mr Musk is poised to ruin a glorious digital town hall meeting that enhances our democracy is not so much risible as an example of the supreme arrogance of those currently in charge of Twitter, who appear genuinely to believe that their word is God and that anyone who crosses them is the Devil.

How else to explain the mirror image of allowing – cherishing, even – this hate speech, which is the repeated banning of accounts such as @GnasherJew which highlight and expose racists. Again, ask any prominent figure who has used their account to do this and chances are they will have a story to tell of how they were suspended while the racist remained free to spout his or her hate.

I have no idea what Mr Musk’s stewardship of Twitter will bring. None of us do. But if he is able to set out some clear lines of what is not acceptable and stick to them, he will have done so much better than the current Twitter regime. As for him allowing everything to let rip and doing nothing to stop anyone – what do you think is happening now?

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Stephen Pollard is editor-at-large of the Jewish Chronicle.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.