When Elon Musk reached an agreement to buy Twitter for forty-four billion dollars, the news created no shortage of excitement. In the days following the announcement, major media outlets rushed out multiple different takes on the acquisition, from business explainers to cultural analyses to heated op-eds. Political figures released statements of support or condemnation. Television talking heads vented and cheered. For a while, CNN posted live updates about the deal on its homepage.
Perhaps predictably, reactions were split. Mainstream publications and left-leaning commentators tended to be upset by the idea of the world’s richest man taking over the social-media service. The Times, for example, published an op-ed by Greg Bensinger, a member of the paper’s editorial board, titled “Twitter Under Elon Musk Will Be a Scary Place.” Meanwhile, Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, tweeted, “This deal is dangerous for our democracy.” Those leaning to the right, by contrast, seemed pleased. Ben Shapiro, who has long complained about what he sees as Twitter’s anti-conservative bias, gloated that Musk, among other moves, should set up a “truth and reconciliation commission” and “fire a LOT of people.” All sides of the political spectrum seemed unified that this acquisition was an event of seismic importance.
From a strict economic perspective, this reaction is overblown. Twitter is one of the least successful of the major social-media companies, with revenues last year that were more than twenty times less than what was earned by Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta. And, though Twitter’s forty-four-billion-dollar price tag is substantial for a buyout of a public company, it’s not exceptional in the broader context of corporate mergers and acquisitions. (I don’t recall CNN posting live updates last summer, for instance, when Square, now called Block, announced it was buying the fintech company Afterpay for twenty-nine billion dollars.) The real source of the fascination with Twitter, of course, is cultural. “Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said, in the official press release announcing the sale. Much of the recent news coverage agrees. The Times noted the service’s “outsized role in shaping narratives around the world.” The Washington Post emphasized that “politicians, companies and activists often rely on the platform to set the news agenda more broadly.” Reuters called Twitter “one of the world’s most influential public squares.”
Given this town-square framing, the fervor surrounding Twitter’s sale makes sense. If this platform really is where the contours of our collective culture are determined, then the details about how it operates really matter. In his Times op-ed, Bensinger laments that “loosening content moderation, as Mr. Musk appears poised to do, won’t make Twitter a better place” but will instead “make it far more toxic.” Many on the left share this belief—that it’s only through the intervention of progressive constraints that the denizens of this digital commons can be prevented from devolving into a hateful rabble. Meanwhile, many on the right, echoing Shapiro’s call for mass firings at the company, are convinced that Twitter’s moderation policies are designed to artificially shift the discourse on the platform toward leftist activist priorities. Everyone involved wants the rules of the town square to support their team’s vision of how the world works, and no one wants to give ground to the other side. Given these stakes, it’s no wonder that people care so much about who controls the company.
But is the understanding of Twitter as a town square correct? In an article appearing in the current issue of The Atlantic, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers an alternative take on the service’s cultural role. Haidt identifies 2009 as a critical turning point in the development of Twitter, as this was the year that it introduced the Retweet button. A message originally meant for your direct followers could now, under the right conditions, disseminate exponentially through the network. These viral dynamics were further turbocharged when Twitter subsequently moved away from sorting time lines in strict reverse chronological order, and began deploying algorithms that prioritized engagement, which can lead to popular tweets spreading faster.
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“If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would ‘go viral’ and make you ‘internet famous’ for a few days,” Haidt writes. “If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments.” This created an atmosphere around Twitter that was both intoxicating and terrifying. The resulting viral incentives shifted online behavior away from honest expression and toward “dishonesty and mob dynamics”—a transformation likely accelerated by the cultural shock waves generated by the election of Donald Trump. The original users of the platform, attracted by the optimistic appeal of sharing and discovery, began to flee, leaving behind a more radicalized band of keyboard warriors. For evidence of this shift, Haidt points to the “Hidden Tribes” study of American political attitudes and core beliefs, which was conducted by the nonprofit organization More in Common in 2017 and 2018. The survey partitioned respondents into seven “tribes” defined by shared beliefs and behavior. The group farthest to the left, the “progressive activists,” contained only eight per cent of the population, and the group furthest to the right, “devoted conservatives,” contained only six per cent. Combined, however, these two political extremes were much more likely to share political content on social media than the less partisan groups. As Haidt emphasizes, these two groups are also the whitest and richest of those studied, meaning that Twitter’s increasingly heated wrangling is not just far from a considered democratic debate but has truly become a spectacle driven by a narrow and unrepresentative group of élites.
It might be tempting for the rest of us to leave the hyperbolic partisans sparring on Twitter to their diversions and move on with our lives. The problem with this platform at the moment, though, is that too many people in positions of power remain hypnotized by its stylized violence. Academic and business leaders will enact wild shifts in policy or practices at the slightest hint that these digital combatants are aiming weapons of virality in their direction. Politicians, for their part, seem to increasingly craft their behavior, and sometimes even legislation, to please not their constituents but the platform’s radicalized tastemakers. During the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, for example, a photographer for the Los Angeles Times claimed to have seen Ted Cruz check his Twitter mentions following his heated questioning of the nominee. Journalists also feel the impact of these pressures. For those who spend so much of their lives gathering and sharing news online, it’s simply human nature to begin considering stories through the lens of what celebrations or condemnations they might generate on the Internet. The journalist Bari Weiss thought Twitter had so much influence on the Times that, in her 2020 resignation letter, she quipped that it had become the paper’s “ultimate editor.”