When it comes to Twitter, I always said of the platform; “Twitter is where civility goes to die.” I have yet to find anyone who disagrees with that assertion.
It now appears that the platform itself will die as well. Hear me out here. Its impending demise is obviously one part Elon Musk, however, it’s also many other parts that Elon Musk now has a say over. To be clear, Twitter itself could live on for years as a website and app people can visit and use. What will die were the intentions of well-minded people trying to make Twitter into something it could never be; a place for open, honest, intelligent, and rational discussion or debate. If Twitter were a horse, Musk just shot it in the leg with a rather large gun.
So, in that vein let’s start with Musk and why the vast majority of us will leave the site for hopefully greener pastures.
At this point, almost everyone knows that he bought Twitter for $44 billion. However, what many don’t know is that some interesting things were going on with this sale both before and after the tumultuous purchase. Prior to the sale, this rather large transaction almost ended up in court due to disputes. Musk’s chief complaint was that Twitter wasn’t being transparent with how many bots were on the platform. Bots, among other things, are automated pieces of computer code that had a rather large hand in generating all the disinformation that users digest regularly on the site. Many of these bots, and we’re talking millions of fake Twitter accounts being run by them, are owned and operated covertly by foreign intelligence agencies. Russia, China, Iran, and other countries have been discovered sewing disinformation into the feeds of millions of Twitter users. Whether it’s false information about some aspect of a US election, the desire to create doubt in democracy in Hong Kong, and more, bots are at the center of it all and pushing out the information their masters want the world to consume.
So, when Musk started publicly speaking about transparency regarding the population of Twitter, this was considered good news at the time by the cybersecurity community. If we could really get a peek at just how many bots there are doing whatever they’re doing, we could truly understand how the site performs (in terms of information flow) for real users. If we could understand the bot traffic and the algorithms that promote or demote content in general to real users, we had a serious chance of combating the avalanche of fake news that is helping to create the two realities we find ourselves in today.
Now that Musk owns Twitter, it’s honestly in his best interest NOT to tell us anything regarding bots, and here’s why. Investors and advertisers are nervous due to the shake-ups that Musk has planned or executed. On top of this, users have been leaving (but not yet a mass exodus) and looking for other platforms to adopt. To stem the tide, Musk wrote an open letter to the advertisers (aka the companies that generate the actual money for Twitter) saying how he wants to bring balance to social media and have Twitter be a fair and open town hall.
That’s well and good but he’s going to turn off a ton of people with this, even though everyone agrees that’s a great premise, in theory. A few points on this specifically:
- You can’t have a town hall, meaning rational discourse, if the extremists are the loudest in the room and algorithms are prioritizing their traffic. Studies have shown that anger and extremism generate the most traffic so it’s in the company’s best interests to have their artificial intelligence prioritize those posts. Facebook was caught doing this and if we had a look into Twitter’s AI, few doubt we’d see something different.
- At least here in the US, we are politically polarized so if Musk is expecting healthy and polite debate like an actual town hall meeting then that’s a pipe dream at the moment. The perfect example of this is the horrific Paul Pelosi attack. Almost immediately multiple conspiracy theories were started about this attack. Musk himself, that day, tweeted demonstrably false information regarding this attack and despite these conspiracy theories being debunked by the FBI’s written Miranda interview with the suspect, they live on today in no small part because much of Musk’s 100 million-plus followers are not going to take the time to fact check these allegations. If Musk is seen as a trusted source because of who he is then he’s breaking with his statements of wanting rational discourse. The rest of the community will then see him more as the Instigator in Chief than anything else.
- Musk fancies himself a free speech absolutist. While few really think this is true and he really will let Twitter devolve into a horrendous platform like Gab (a social media haven for neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other upstanding members of the asinine white extremist community), then the calm and rational users will leave and all that’s left are the ones looking for a fight of some kind. I sign up for all new social media platforms when I hear about them and within days of signing up for Gab I was invited to a neo-Nazi rally in upstate New York and I immediately closed my account there. Does anyone want those invites regularly on Twitter? I’m all for free speech but the consequence of absolutism is division. Musk will find that out quickly if he goes that route.
On top of this, Musk has also killed the board of directors, the current CEO and CFO are now gone and he says he’ll be the sole Director and the “Twitter Complaint Hotline Operator” as well. What happens when he gets bored with Twitter and moves on to something else? He is already losing top talent because twitter employees are quitting over what they see as the hard work they’ve done in content moderation being blown away and allowing life-banned people like former President Trump back on the platform, which is expected soon. Everyone can agree that Trump is a polarizing figure whether you love him or hate him.
Outside of the talent that quit of their own volition, thousands of employees were just terminated in what can only be called a “purge.” Yes, CEOs are always looking to streamline efficiency though how could Twitter execs (what’s left of them) review almost 4,000 resumes and performance statistics to make informed decisions in such a short period? The lawsuits by terminated employees have already begun.
The final nail in the coffin, though, is the charging of an $8 fee to keep the blue checkmark verification on accounts. This is tantamount to overcharging the people that bring you business. For example, if Brad Pitt were to suddenly start using a product I sold while telling the world he loved it and tons of his fans were now my customers, I’d be buying that guy a super nice thank you gift of some type and not sending him a bill. If those celebrities leave and move to, god forbid TikTok, then Twitter will be a ghost town of extremists yelling at other extremists.
On top of that, offering a Blue Checkmark for sale is a cybersecurity nightmare. What’s stopping the deep pockets of a foreign government from simply buying a ton of verified accounts and then pumping out whatever they wanted under those accounts? One thing the Blue Checkmark does on Twitter is creating trust that whomever you are seeing is whom they say they are. It ensures that the message from a well-known person actually is a well-known person and not some fake account. Depending on the vetting process this could let the plethora of bots be trusted by the general population. If that happens the disinformation will be so pervasive, we may never have a chance to recover.
So yes, I think Twitter is going to die here. It may take a while but if Musk keeps on the course he’s going, Twitter won’t be just where civility goes to die. It will be where accurate information and rational discourse go to die as well.
An expert in cybersecurity and network infrastructure, Nick Espinosa has consulted with clients ranging from small business owners up to Fortune 100 level companies for decades. Since the age of 7, he’s been on a first-name basis with technology, building computers and programming in multiple languages. Nick founded Windy City Networks, Inc at 19 which was acquired in 2013. In 2015 Security Fanatics, a Cybersecurity/Cyberwarfare outfit dedicated to designing custom Cyberdefense strategies for medium to enterprise corporations was launched.
Nick is a regular columnist, a member of the Forbes Technology Council, and on the Board of Advisors for both Roosevelt University & Center for Cyber and Information Security as well as the College of Arts and Sciences. He’s also the Official Spokesperson of the COVID-19 Cyber Threat Coalition, Strategic Advisor to humanID, award-winning co-author of a bestselling book, TEDx Speaker, and President of The Foundation.