Elon Musk’s Twitter is a ‘$44 billion albatross’ a year later

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Late last October, Elon Musk officially closed a deal to acquire the platform then known as Twitter for $44 billion after months of legal proceedings and threats to back out of the purchase.

“The bird is freed,” Musk tweeted the night the deal was finalized, in an apparent reference to Twitter’s iconic bird logo and his plans to transform the site into a “platform for free speech around the globe.”

The mercurial billionaire’s takeover was met with varying levels of alarm as he quickly fired top executives, cut half of the company’s workforce and rolled out and walked back various policy changes.

One year later, experts described the platform now known as X as “unrecognizable” and “completely useless.” The fallout from Musk’s stewardship, they argue, was “much more serious” than they previously could have imagined.

Musk lives up to initial fears, expectations early on

When Musk initially offered to buy Twitter in April 2022, some pointed to his business prowess as the head of both Tesla and SpaceX as a potential benefit from a takeover.

However, Claire Wardle, the co-founder and co-director of Brown University’s Information Futures Lab, said she immediately had her doubts.

“There was a lot of people like, ‘Well, look what he did with Tesla … He’s a great businessman. Therefore, he’s going to be a great leader of Twitter,’” Wardle told The Hill. “And I think I was kind of surprised by that because the truth is, content moderation is really hard.”

“I just kept thinking, ‘I’m not quite sure this man, who has no experience in content moderation or thinking about how these platforms work within the context of democracies — it just seems a strange decision for him to be the leader,” she said.

Musk officially took control of Twitter on Oct. 27, assuring advertisers that the platform “obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor part of the university’s new Applied Social Media Lab, noted that the billionaire came to Twitter with “an extraordinarily naïve view” of free speech.

“The idea that there’s such a thing as a platform that ‘allows all speech’ is just crazy talk. There is no such platform,” Lessig said.

“There’s no publishing platform that has ever in the history of man embraced that and for good reason. It inspires and brings out the worst in culture,” he added.

Musk immediately fired several top executives, including chief executive Parag Agrawal, chief financial officer Ned Segal and chief legal officer Vijaya Gadde. Notably, Gadde was also in charge of trust and safety matters at the company.

Just days later, reports emerged that racist and antisemitic tweets were spreading rapidly on Twitter. Musk briefly launched his first attempt to turn the platform’s traditional verification system into a paid feature in early November before rolling it back as accounts impersonating public figures wreaked chaos.

Within weeks, he had reinstated the accounts of former President Trump, who had been banned in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot, and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who was barred for posting antisemitic messages.

Musk also rolled back Twitter’s policy barring COVID-19 misinformation, dismantled the company’s Trust and Safety Council and temporarily banned several journalists covering the billionaire’s feud with an account tracking his private jet.

One year later, X is ‘unrecognizable’

The platform, which Musk rebranded as X earlier this year, faced a deluge of misinformation and disinformation this month following the attacks by the Palestinian militant group Hamas on Israel and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza.

Old and unrelated photos and videos — and even video game footage — were misrepresented as current and genuine. A fake memo claimed that President Biden had sent $8 billion in military aid to Israel. Accounts posing as official news outlets spread false claims about the conflict.

The spread of misinformation and disinformation, which has similarly plagued other social media platforms, has been been a particular problem for X in the wake of Musk’s takeover.

A report released last month found that X had the highest ratio of misinformation and disinformation out of several major social media platforms.

Wardle noted that X’s blue checkmarks previously served as important “heuristics” and “mental shortcuts” to tell users whether they could trust information from accounts.

However, the checkmarks — which used to denote that an account from a government official, media organization or public figure had been verified — now indicate whether someone has paid for the platform’s subscription service.

“We knew that [removing them] was going to be a disaster,” Wardle said. “And then of course, we’ve seen over the last three weeks that it really is all the things that we feared.”

Jennifer Grygiel, an associate professor of communications at Syracuse University, said the transformation of the blue checkmark system has also “changed the usefulness and value” of the platform for journalists and news publishers. 

“When I think of the old Twitter … it was influential because it was the fastest kind of wire that we’d ever seen,” Grygiel told The Hill. “It felt like it was where public discourse happened because it was so fast. It felt conversational.”

Prior to the takeover last year, the platform had taken on a role as “the place that people would turn to in breaking news situations,” Wardle added.

“Every department of health, every emergency unit across the world … they saw Twitter as a way to communicate in real time, knowing that it was either gonna go directly to citizens or it was gonna get picked up by journalists, who would then report it,” she said.

Under Musk’s leadership, “that’s all changed,” Grygiel said. “Maybe he purchased Twitter, but it’s unrecognizable.”

Musk faces ‘myriad’ challenges but X remains standing

Musk’s $44 billion purchase of the social media company, which is currently worth an estimated $10 billion, has left him with a “myriad of financial and execution challenges,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a statement to The Hill. 

“This remains a $44 billion albatross for Musk to recoup his investments,” he added.

Without making changes to X’s content moderation policies and bringing back advertisers, Wardle said she “can’t see a future” for the platform.

“I don’t see a way out unless things fundamentally changed, and I don’t think he would be the sort of person that would want to fundamentally change those things,” she said.

However, despite Musk’s chaotic tenure at the company, there has not yet been a mass exodus from X, Grygiel noted. The various alternatives that have emerged, including Meta’s Threads, have largely failed to gain traction so far.

“It has a social function still, it still has a business function too,” they said. “So in the absence of alternatives, I think we still see big brands out there using this. Maybe there’s less advertising, but it’s still there.”

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