Elon Musk must be stopped! If Twitter is to be a true "town square," it's time to socialize it

Profit motive fuels the worst parts of Twitter — the trolling, the racism, Trump's account. What if it didn't?

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 21, 2022 5:30AM (EST)

Elon Musk attends Heidi Klum's 21st Annual Halloween Party at Sake No Hana at Moxy Lower East Side on October 31, 2022 in New York City. (Gotham/FilmMagic/Getty Images)
Elon Musk attends Heidi Klum's 21st Annual Halloween Party at Sake No Hana at Moxy Lower East Side on October 31, 2022 in New York City. (Gotham/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

At this point, the conspiracy theory that Elon Musk bought Twitter to destroy it is starting to feel a teeny bit persuasive. The billionaire troll originally bought the social media company on a whim with a bid that was literally a '90s-era joke about marijuana and has proceeded to run it into the ground. He continued his fantastically inept reign Thursday by demanding employees sign a pledge to "be extremely hardcore," which "will mean working long hours at high intensity." This was after Musk fired half the company, which suggests that his new demands could be less about "exceptional performance" and more about getting the remaining employees to pick up the slack left behind.

Unsurprisingly, a bunch of employees turned in their notices. The bleeding out was so bad Twitter closed its office buildings and disabled work badges until the company could assess the damage. Thursday night, the social media network itself exploded in a very Twitter-iffic bout of hysterics, as users imagined the platform could be shut down entirely within hours.

That didn't happen. As I write this, people are still tweeting as freely as ever before. Worse, Musk doubled down on his trollish theory of how to run Twitter by dramatically reinstating Donald Trump's account. As with his original purchase of the site, inspired in no small part by Musk's anger over Twitter banning transphobic accounts, Musk's driving impulse appears to be a childish desire to trigger the liberals. 

Still, it's likely that if Musk continues along this path, Twitter is probably not long for this world. Like Friendster or MySpace before it, it will become increasingly desolate and unusable as its users drift away. Years from now, the shell of its former self will be formally put to bed. Former Twitter-heads will read the news coverage and be mildly surprised that "Twitter" was still around long after they had forgotten about it. 

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

Of course, there is one way Twitter could be saved: By actually making it the "digital town square" Musk says he wants it to be. Which is to say the government should buy and run Twitter, just as government owns and operates actual town squares. Yes, I'm talking about a "socialist" takeover of Twitter, just like we have "socialist" libraries, schools and museums.

A nationalized Twitter would solve the current dilemma: the contradictory goals of running a network that protects free speech while also being socially responsible and profitable. Take away the profit motive and so much of what makes Twitter a deleterious force in society would disappear. 

Here are five major ways a nationalized Twitter would be better for users, for society, and for people's basic mental health. 

1. Disempowering trolls, misinformers and racists. The most compelling counterargument to Twitter nationalization is the concern that the first amendment makes it much harder for a government-run entity to ban people for bigotry. And it's true that private companies have more leverage to ban people. Still, I think a government-run Twitter would end up having less racism, disinformation and overall trolling. 

The notion that Twitter is good at banning people for misbehavior has been way overstated, and that's even before Musk took over. Far more important is this: Twitter and its algorithm have long promoted and pushed ugly language, giving the site's trolls and goblins a much wider audience than they would if the company's thumb wasn't on the scale. For instance, Twitter let Trump have his account, despite his constant misinformation and bigotry, only banning him after he used it to help incite the January 6 insurrection. The anti-LGBTQ hate account Libs of Tik Tok has 1.5 million followers, even though it only exists to stir up violent hatred against marginalized people. 

Take away the profit motive and so much of what makes Twitter a deleterious force in society would disappear. 

That's because, to quote tech journalist Kara Swisher, "Enragement equals engagement." Racists and trolls attract attention because people like to argue with them and retweet them for dunking purposes. The algorithm then pushes the gross tweets further, because all that negative attention means people are spending more time on the platform and therefore making the company more money. Advertisers may not like users saying the N-word. But people who know how to trigger the liberals while not quite crossing the line into overt slurs — think Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., or professional trolls like Glenn Greenwald — make the site money. Misinformation also gets a boost, because arguing with it boosts engagement numbers. 

Without that profit motive, there's no need to have an algorithm at all. People can just follow who they like in real-time. (The Tweetdeck service already does this, for an idea of how that looks.) So while there would be racists and fascists saying their thing, they would be lost in the shuffle rather than boosted into folks' timelines. Without attention, much if not most of that attention-seeking nastiness would dry up. 

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

2. More jokes, less sanctimony. In the early days of Twitter, it was genuinely a fun place to be. People tried to entertain themselves and each other with jokes. Over time, however, it became clear that while people like jokes, they don't engage with them. What gets people going — besides trolling — is sanctimony. I've been on the service since 2007, and one thing has become depressingly clear: People get way more RTs, replies and likes if they take a hectoring, moralistic tone. Especially if they are dunking on someone else for having a "wrong" opinion, or even for being a little too gleeful about having a happy marriage

Jokes can take time and energy to understand. Face-stomping and chest-beating are primitive emotions that garner a lot more reactions. Also, sanctimony — like bigotry — causes engagement through argument. Either way, it's making everyone into assholes and bores, and advertisers get more of our eyeball time. Take away the profit motive and algorithm, however, and you've changed the calculus away from quantity back to quality — more people tweeting to be funny and fewer seeking engagement through moral superiority preening.  

3. Simplifying the verification system. The "blue check" verification system started as a way to reassure users that a person behind a Twitter account is who they say they are. Quickly, however, the process of verifying your identity became so onerous that only users who had employers willing to do the hard work for them were able to get the marks. Soon, only public figures like journalists, celebrities, politicians and academics got the checkmarks. That in turn led to accusations of elitism. Musk's solution — making the blue check something you could buy — backfired spectacularly, as people lined up in droves to create fake or parody accounts that looked "verified." 

Sanctimony — like bigotry — causes engagement through argument.

Clearly, verification is a mess. But if the government owned Twitter, it could be simple. The government, after all, already verifies your identity through documents like Social Security numbers or passports. If people want to be verified, all they would need to do is tie their online identity to one of these already documented ones. There would be some need for tweaks on the margins, such as figuring out how to handle people who use a different name publicly than the one they use on documents. But overall, it would be a way to make the blue check system fairer and more accessible, without giving up the original purpose of verifying people's identities. 

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

4. Gutting fraud. The government is generally more restrained from policing language choice than a private company is, but there's one place that's not true at all: Dealing with fraud. On that front, the federal government is the 800-pound gorilla, equipped with powers through agencies like the Federal Trade Commission to penalize people who try to make money through false advertising. 

Right now, Twitter is rife with people peddling snake oil, crypto scams and other fraudulent businesses. Sometimes they get banned, but often they sneak right back on. With federal government powers, however, those people can be run off altogether or slapped with massive fines. The government could even — if they wanted — ban all use of the platform for trade. Lawyers would have to figure out the enforcement mechanisms, but ultimately, a federally run social media network would be more able to shut down the flourishing fraud market than Twitter currently has. 

5. Cutting off the "influencers." There's a whole subcategory of people who aren't exactly frauds, but whose business model is parasitic: "Influencers." Like trolls and sanctimonious poseurs, influencers goose Twitter's algorithm by appealing to base instincts. Except, instead of rage or egotism, they go for lust and envy. Some are fairly harmless, like people who post thirst traps to separate the horny from their money. Others are more sinister, such as influencers who use heavily photoshopped images of "perfect" bodies to make others feel bad about themselves, and therefore more likely to buy supplements or fad diet programs. 

Right now, Twitter is rife with people peddling snake oil, crypto scams and other fraudulent businesses.

But without the algorithm trying to trick your brain into lingering on the site, such people would lose the boost they currently get on Twitter. They wouldn't go away, of course. They'd still have Instagram, TikTok and every other social media network that exploits our animalistic impulses in order to get at our wallets. But Twitter would stop being quite so useful for them. 

Look, there's no doubt that Twitter would be a bit more boring, if it was changed so it's no longer about making money. But so what? Without the need to sell ads, Twitter would be freer to provide what people claim they want from it: Information, community and intellectual discourse. Imagine a Twitter where people were actually talking to each other a bit more, and talking less about Matt Yglesias's latest provocations. There'd be no need to try to figure out alternatives like Mastodon to make that happen. It would be the same software and the same accounts — just owned by Uncle Sam and not Elon Musk. 

Twitter, like all social media companies, makes more money if its users are addicted. Unfortunately, the cocaine button we rats are pressing all day is one that dispenses outrage, conflict and self-righteousness. It's hurting people's mental health and ability to handle ambiguity and nuance. Would it really be such a bad thing if Twitter were a little more boring? Would it be so terrible if people spent less time on Twitter and more time actually reading the news, reading books, or even — heaven forbid! — getting out of the house to touch some grass? There's a lot of good on Twitter, but it's being drowned out by the toxicity. Take the money out of it, and let's make it something that is a lot more beneficial to society and the people in it. 

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.

MORE FROM Amanda Marcotte

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Elon Musk Twitter