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Elon Musk says he wants Twitter to support democracy. So why is he acting like a tyrant?

Elon Musk is exactly why billionaires can’t be trusted to run civic spaces.
Photo Illustration: Elon Musk wearing an emoji crown
MSNBC / Getty Images

Twitter CEO Elon Musk has presented his ownership of the company as a defense of free speech and democracy. Yet every day it grows clearer that Musk sees Twitter as a personal kingdom over which he wishes to wield absolute power.

According to a report from the Silicon Valley-focused newsletter Platformer, Musk reacted very poorly to what he perceived as a crisis on Super Bowl night: President Joe Biden’s tweets were getting a lot more reach than his own tweets. Musk’s cousin, who works at Twitter, told Twitter engineers that figuring out why Musk’s tweets weren’t as visible as he liked was considered a matter of “high urgency.” Some 80 people were reportedly pulled onto the pressing project.

Musk’s ultra-boosted tweets represent a clear conflict of interest.

By the next day, Musk’s tweets weren’t just more visible; they were flooding everybody’s feeds. According to Platformer, the algorithm was tweaked so that all of Musk’s tweets bypassed the conventional filters that ensure customized content for users and boosted “by a factor of 1,000 — a constant score that ensured his tweets rank higher than anyone else’s in the feed.” Musk initially appeared to openly acknowledge this by tweeting out a meme indicating that he was force-feeding his tweets to everyone on Twitter. But then days later Musk denied that his tweets were boosted.

This whole episode came on the heels of Musk’s reportedly firing a top engineer after the engineer suggested that some of Musk’s decline in engagement may have been the function of general decline in interest in him.

There are a number of “maybe this is a tyranny” red flags in these reports. Musk’s attempts to boost his tweets above everybody else’s, and his apparent concern about being outshined by anybody else, are at odds with his purported commitment to make Twitter a freer public square. Insisting that the platform owner gets a special megaphone that everyone has to listen to is a bald power play, not something that a steward of an important civil space would do.

Musk’s policy might have made sense as a temporary measure if he were using his boosted posts solely to explain Twitter’s quickly evolving policies during an experimental phase for the platform. But he’s not. Instead, he regularly tweets memes that seem funny mostly to 12-year-old boys, and talks up his other companies, like SpaceX and Tesla. This suggests that Musk is indulging in attention-seeking behavior and is exploiting his ownership of the company to create buzz and enhance profit for his other ventures. Musk’s ultra-boosted tweets represent a clear conflict of interest: If he wants to facilitate Twitter as a digital public square, he can’t also structure it around a personal desire for psychological affirmation and maximizing personal profit.

Musk also appears to be behaving tyrannically as a manager. We can’t be sure that Musk reportedly firing someone after they said something he may have found bruising is the reason they were let go. But that possibility is certainly plausible given previous reporting indicating Musk has fired people because they criticized him, and has used threats to fire people en masse unless they declared allegiance to his unilateral vision. (Musk has laid off or fired around 80% of Twitter’s staff.) This matters because it means Musk is more likely to surround himself with yes-men willing to indulge his self-serving and ad hoc policies.

Moreover, all this reporting underscores another trait of tyrannical rule: arbitrariness. Musk appears to zig and zag through new policies — some of which have involved censoring journalists — apparently based on his mood or as soon as an idea strikes him as interesting or personally important. But unpredictability and arbitrary policy shifts aren’t good for creating an environment of free speech. If a social media platform is governed whimsically, it diminishes public trust in the space. The democratic ideals that Musk claims to value should instead inspire him to embrace transparency and deliberate, evidence-based policymaking.

As I wrote before Musk took over Twitter, his bid for the company illustrated how dangerous it is that vital civic spaces can be seized and trounced on by billionaires. Every day we’re seeing why.