TWITTER might be an absolute hellscape – but at least it felt like our hellscape. For the eternally online, it has played the role of community hub and misinformation machine alike over the past decade. Maybe it was the shared suffering that made it feel like, in some way, it belonged to us all.

To give Twitter its due, the social media giant has improved a lot since the days when Donald Trump and Alex Jones ran freely through the algorithm to share conspiracies of voter fraud and crisis actors. Both were able for a long time – too long – to spread misinformation and incite violence on the platform before finally succumbing to bans in 2021 and 2018 respectively. And they were hardly the only ones whose grubby presence outlasted the targets of their abuse.

Fake news has been a defining characteristic of the social media age, the consequences of which have been, at times, fatal. And now that age is likely coming to an end, for better or worse. The early pioneers – Bebo, Livejournal, MySpace – are long buried. Facebook is a ghost town, a place where it’s as easy to buy a single Dorito crisp in a jar as it is to be manipulated into starting a right-wing coup against the US Government. And now Twitter is in the hands of an edgelord egomaniac who, for all intents and purposes, appears to have bought the platform as a $44 billion joke that’s gotten severely out of hand.

The National: Elon Musk

Since the acquisition, the tech billionaire has wasted no time in brutally gutting the platform’s workforce and moving to introduce fee-paying schemes for previously free-to-use services. Both are a worrying sign of things to come.

I don’t like bullies and I don’t like hypocrites. Elon Musk is both. His automotive and clean energy company Tesla has a history of violating labour laws and the rights of workers. In one example, the National Labour Relations Board in America found Musk had illegally threatened workers (on Twitter, ironically) at a plant in California who were considering unionising.

Between hollowing out the workforce, and canning initiatives such as the Ethical Artificial Intelligence team working to make Twitter’s algorithm fairer and more transparent, a return to the bad, old days of social media seems likely. A mass re-instatement of banned accounts will make it inevitable.

Bias in artificial intelligence is, and will remain, a global issue in all of our lives as technology advances. With AI being made in our own image, unsurprisingly, it came with all the unconscious oversights that burn through our own culture.

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Earlier this year, that manifested in virtual robots that were found to be automatically classifying people of colour as criminals and women solely as “homemakers”. While the unintended consequences of unmoderated social media came, at the beginning, from a place of relative ignorance over new technology, work is now being done to mitigate the same outcomes in future technology – just not future technology at the hands of Musk.

The anti-woke culture warrior has wrapped his acquisition of Twitter in the rhetoric of the reactionary right. He blames plummeting advertising revenue at Twitter on mysterious activist groups forcing brands to boycott his acquisition, over the simpler explanation that most companies don’t want to advertise alongside the kind of bigots promised their accounts back.

Like the resurgent global right, Musk frames opposition to his stated goals as fundamentally a free-speech issue. But as with every reactionary alt-right troll, the argument always comes down to “free speech for me, but not for thee”.

Advertisers are free to pull their revenue to avoid being tarred with whatever horrors are to be unleashed on the platform. In response, Musk has threatened to name and shame the companies that don’t want to give him money to appear on his platform. That’s the kind of entitlement you can expect from the richest man on the planet. It’s not a free speech issue. It’s a misinformation issue.

When blue tick verification was first introduced to Twitter, its entire function was to stop the spread of false news. With the mark, you knew that the person claiming to be a journalist or a celebrity was, in fact, who they said they were. And while that changed a little over time, fundamentally it held to its purpose. Not anymore.

Under Twitter’s new plans, check marks will now indicate solely who is paying a monthly fee to use the service, while those who don’t opt in will find their accounts, comments and content de-prioritised under the algorithm. The proposed Twitter of the future will show you comments from the kind of person who pays to be on your timeline before it ever shows you a response from a friend.

Musk claims this will bring “power to the people” while eliminating the current “lords and peasants system” – an astounding claim for a man who has more money than someone on a median UK wage could earn in nearly seven million years.

Fundamentally, it will lock out people facing the worst of the cost of living crisis from a communication platform that many have built community on. More than that, it limits the voices of disenfranchised minority groups who have found on Twitter a means to share their experiences when mainstream media outlets ignore them at best – or vilify them at worst.

Musk’s purchase of Twitter is another example of how the ultra-wealthy view the world. Solely as plaything to pick up and throw around for their own entertainment. And the consequences, as always, mean nothing to them.