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Elon Musk sees Twitter as a political weapon

Beneath the chaos, there's method to his Twitter madness.
Photo illustration: Elon Musk encircled by red colored Twitter logos.
Elon Musk's political affiliations are becoming more explicit over time.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Twitter CEO Elon Musk over the weekend reactivated Donald Trump’s previously banned Twitter account, triggering big questions about how the move might reshape Trump's 2024 appeal and how it could affect extremist activity on the platform. But one thing it immediately clarified is the kind of political actor Musk is evolving into and how he envisions Twitter's future.

When Musk first expressed interest in buying Twitter, there were many theories on what motivated him. In light of the fact that he already owned two other influential companies focused on engineering solutions, it was unclear if he was looking to sincerely improve a site he viewed as a video game, or seeking to accumulate social power and boost his businesses' bottom line, or if he was simply an excessively bored, excessively rich man having a laugh. These explanations may still illuminate part of why he acted the way he did. But it's now impossible to ignore the emerging reality that Musk values owning Twitter as a powerful weapon for right-wing activism.

It's now impossible to ignore the reality that Musk values owning Twitter as a powerful weapon for right-wing activism.

On Friday Musk sent out a 24-hour "poll" to his followers on whether they wanted Trump's account to be reinstated. After a narrow majority of users who responded to the poll in his tweet responded affirmatively, he reactivated Trump's account, and tweeted, “The people have spoken. Trump will be reinstated. Vox populi, Vox dei," using the Latin for “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”

It's important to not only observe the outcome of Trump's reactivation, but also how Musk framed it. Remember, in the wake of Jan. 6, Twitter had decided to permanently ban Trump because it believed “the risk of further incitement of violence,” in violation of its policies, was too high. Musk didn't address this criterion of incitement to violence in his public comments about reinstating Trump. Nor was the reinstatement a stand against all permanent bans in the name of free speech — just a couple weeks prior, Musk promised to permanently ban impersonators on Twitter without warning. (Notably, the impersonator ban popped up only after people began impersonating Musk en masse.)

What Musk did was sweep the question of violence under the rug by framing this as a matter of democracy through a "poll." Of course, no scientific survey or referendum can be administered through a spontaneous tweet to one's own followers. Only a small fraction of Twitter's user base voted, and most very well may not have known about its existence. Musk also knew that because of his rapidly growing right-wing fan base — and the slow trickle of liberal-leaning users off of Twitter altogether — it was probable that his poll would get traction on the right and skew toward a “yes” response. So when he said "the people have spoken," what he really meant was "my legions of right-wing fans have swarmed this online poll that I lobbed to them to deliver me a false mandate."

In his presentation of his faux referendum as a win for "the people," Musk appears to be trying on right-wing populism for size. And it's only the latest sign that he views Twitter as a platform for advancing his political agenda as he develops increasingly pronounced far-right views.

Musk's brief tenure at Twitter so far has been marked by extreme chaos: mass firings, ad hoc policies that are often suspended or inconsistently applied, and contradictory messaging about what Twitter does and doesn't stand for. But his behavior looks more intelligible if it is understood as crafting a political project.

Consider Musk's botched rollout of Twitter Blue, which he initially pitched as a way for Twitter to build revenue by charging users $8 a month to unlock, among other things, a blue verification badge typically reserved for public figures like government officials, journalists and celebrities. Musk's schemes instantly ran into extremely predictable problems, with impersonations and disinformation agents running wild, in one major case causing an impersonated company to lose huge amounts of money. Twitter Blue was a mess and the new subscription plan was quickly suspended. Notably, Musk's idea for Twitter Blue — which he says he will revive in the future in revised form — is highly questionable as a plan for helping Twitter build sustainable revenue.

There is, however, one obvious value proposition for insisting on changing the verification system: diluting the power of left-leaning media, and boosting right-wing disinformation networks. Musk has described the idea of expanding access to blue check verification badges as "the great leveler" and as a way to disrupt the power of professional journalists. The idea is that by making blue verification badges far more widely available, centrist and liberal-leaning media, which tends to be increasingly skeptical of Musk and many of the political issues he's increasingly committed to, will have less influence in their ability to set narratives. (The blue badges confer a certain degree of authority and credibility in online discourse because they've historically been given to professionals who will endure costs for sharing false information.) In the process, Musk is not only aiming to defang criticism of his work and his political project, but also obliterating one of the most sophisticated and least intrusive ways to mitigate the spread of disinformation online.

There are also other signs that Musk is trying to make Twitter a home for the right. Just days after taking over Twitter, Musk formally endorsed congressional Republicans for the midterm elections, hoping to help whip up excitement and support for the red wave that never came.

This was a striking move for the new executive of a social media company promising to champion freedom of speech. Of course Musk is permitted to express his views, but his instant partisan intervention also raised questions of whether he'd exploit his power over Twitter's algorithms and policies to favor political movements that he sympathizes with or finds more personally profitable.

Another interesting phenomenon is that Musk is constantly publicly interacting with and seeming to seek the approval of far-right commentators, often from fairly niche parts of American conservative discourse. If Musk is as focused on "humanity" as he says he is, wouldn't he be more interested in listening to people across the political spectrum? If he was really interested in improving one of the most influential digital public squares in the anglophone world, wouldn't he probably less attentive to authoritarian political scenes?

In reality there is no evidence that Musk views Twitter through the lens of enriching society as a whole, or building a civic space that's designed to meet the needs of a vast and complex global society online. Rather, he seems increasingly to view his fans and right-wing thinkers as his base, and he wants to cater to them and amplify their power. (Sound familiar?)

Musk's game is becoming increasingly obvious, and the interests he has in playing this game are also obvious. As the richest man on Earth and a proudly exploitative executive, he has a direct interest in amplifying the power of the right. He shares the Republican Party's hostility to unions, higher tax rates on corporations and the ultra-wealthy, and regulations on businesses. He also seems to find the left's growing focus on anti-bigotry off-putting, and he doesn't like challenges to his authority.

As my colleague Chris Hayes put it: "Nothing in the world is less surprising and easier to understand than a right-wing billionaire purchasing a media entity and immediately trying to use it to pursue his ideological agenda and class interests." Sounds about right.