Elon Musk's threat to take over Twitter: Trolls — not "cancel culture" — are ruining discourse

Greedy social media networks already let the trolls have too much power — yet Musk thinks it's not enough

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published April 14, 2022 12:58PM (EDT)

Elon Musk (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Elon Musk (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

There's still a war going on between trollish billionaire Elon Musk and his favorite trolling platform, Twitter.

Even though little has been done to stop Musk's childish antics on the site, he quite clearly feels that, overall, Twitter is not friendly enough to COVID-19 denialists, neo-Nazis, and other assorted scum, even as such communities thrive on Twitter. (Though the company did finally ban Donald Trump.) Unfortunately, Musk has nearly unlimited funds to accomplish his dream of making the already insufferable social media network even more unbearably thick with right-wing trolls.   

Musk first bought a large enough share of Twitter stock to get himself a spot on the Twitter board. But that didn't work out as he'd hoped. Reading between the lines of the public communications, Musk quickly felt hamstrung by the responsibility of considering the best interests of the company. After all, he bought 9.2% of the company to serve the trolls, not the company's other shareholders, much less the network's non-troll users. So, on Thursday morning, Musk announced what is very much looking like a hostile takeover of Twitter, offering to buy all its shares at a significant mark-up over the current stock price, for an amount that would total over $40 billion. He also threatened to unload his stock and tank the company's valuation if his offer isn't accepted. 

RELATED: Elon Musk ignites Twitter with controversial meme mocking Ukraine 

As tech journalist Kara Swisher pointed out on Twitter, even the buyout number Musk put on the table was a troll. He offered $54.20 a share, unsubtly embedding a marijuana joke into the number. The whole thing is a reminder that it's not "cancel culture" that is ruining American discourse, but the unholy marriage of unregulated capitalism to the culture of right-wing trolling.

More and more, social media dominates the political conversations in this country. So, unfortunately, there's a huge financial incentivize for social media companies to let some of the most dominant voices in their space be obnoxious right-wing trolls. Trolls drive up engagement and interaction. And that may improve the bottom line for the company, but it comes at the cost of destroying the quality of American discourse and, frankly, making everyone much stupider in the process. 

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The way this works is well-documented.

Trolls drive up engagement and interaction.

Right wing trolls say bigoted, anti-science, or just plain stupid things. This attracts reshares from liberals who want to express their outrage or gloat about how, unlike Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., they know the difference between the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Seeing liberals all worked up over the troll delights the right-wingers, who take any reaction as evidence that the liberals were "owned." It also attracts attention from right wing-curious young men, who may not be fully on board with GOP ideology, but who also hate that Becky the cheerleader didn't date them in high school and so are happy to see her (or women like her) getting annoyed over the latest provocation. People fight about it in mentions. They then reshare it to either denounce it or celebrate how others are denouncing it. The clicks and engagement — and therefore profits — go up and up. 

RELATED: Republicans take trolling to "trigger the libs" to the next level

This is why the top ten Facebook posts on any given day are dominated by right-wing trolls who compete with each other to say the vilest things. It's why famous trolls like Musk himself — and Trump before he got banned — have eye-poppingly huge follower numbers. It's why Joe Rogan attracts so many listeners. Yes, just the hope of "triggering the liberals" is enough to make millions put themselves through Rogan's boring and lengthy podcast. 

You need some amount of what is disparagingly called "cancel culture" for free speech to thrive. 

It also incentivizes a race to the bottom, because, in the trolling economy, the prize goes to those who say the most outrageous things. That's how we've reached a point where Republicans routinely accuse anyone who disagrees with them of being a pedophile. It's the social media equivalent of spitting in someone's face: So gross it's bound to get a reaction. And a reaction is all that matters. One doesn't need to be clever or interesting to get reactions, just shameless and mean. 

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Musk's own Twitter account, where he pulls stunts like shaming people for supporting the Ukrainian resistance, is proof enough that trolls already have too much power on social media. But clearly, he thinks it's not enough, putting out a statement declaring "free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy." This, itself, was a troll because everyone understands that when people like Musk talk about "free speech," they mean "let the trolls run wild."

In reality, however, you need some amount of what is disparagingly called "cancel culture" for free speech to thrive. 

It's a delicate balancing act, as the current social media behemoths have learned. Trolling is profitable, but only to a point. If trolling gets so out of control that normal people start to feel there's no value in using the service, they'll give up on it. It's already hurting Facebook's ability to maintain younger users who see the service as mainly existing for right-wing grandpa. And without liberals to troll, the trolls themselves often move onto greener pastures. 

RELATED: Right-wing Twitter imitations don't work — and Trump desperately wants back on real social media  

It's why all the Twitter knock-offs catering to people banned from Twitter, from Donald Trump's Truth Social to Gab and Parler, barely attract any users. No one wants to be on a service that's utterly dominated by trolls — not even the trolls. The hope of having interactions with smart and decent people is what keeps a social media network alive, even if users end up spending more time than they intended dunking on some dumb thing Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex. said or yelling about Trump tweeting "covfefe.

And therein lies a potential silver lining in Musk's efforts to buy Twitter out. 

If he succeeds and unleashes the trolls (who are already on way too long a leash!), Musk may end up destroying the service by disrupting the troll-to-normal-people balance. Right now, Twitter survives because it's not entirely a garbage dump. Indeed, Democrats tend to use the service more than Republicans, even if much of their engagement is reacting to right-wing provocations. But if that changes and the amount of sewage people have to swim through in order to talk to other decent human beings gets unmanageable, they'll probably start leaving. Considering how much Twitter already flattens discourse and rewards dumb or bad behavior, it may not be a bad thing if the non-troll users give up on it entirely. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Cancel Culture Commentary Elon Musk Social Media Trolling Twitter