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Other View: Elon Musk will change Twitter, and nothing will change

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Elon Musk pauses and looks down as he speaks during a press conference at SpaceX's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas on February 10, 2022.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS
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Our fellow Texan Elon Musk made a big purchase this week. You may have heard. Some billionaires buy yachts, jets or islands. Musk’s vanity purchases venture into uncharted territory: spaceships and social media companies. He paid $44 billion for Twitter.

This was not a savvy business deal. It wasn’t intended to be. The price was driven up by a poison pill maneuver and other circumstances. Vanity purchases are rarely good bargains.

And the upside is hard to see. According to the market research firm IBISWorld, revenue in the social media sector has grown 20% per year, on average, since 2017. But this year, that growth is expected to slow considerably.

Gradually, Americans are coming to grips with the corrosive effects of social media. Public opinion is turning more negative toward the sector. According to Pew research, 72% of U.S. adults say social media companies have too much power and influence in politics. And 64% say social media have mostly negative effects on the way things are going in the country. Only 10% of Americans believe social media is a force for good.

Twitter certainly deserves blame for some of its editorial decisions. And co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey deserves criticism for his absenteeism, splitting his time with his other company, Square. But those aren’t the sum of Twitter’s problems. This is an industry in the crosshairs.

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As Jonathan Haidt’s influential column in The Atlantic illustrated this month, companies like Twitter have contributed to the Babel-ification of America. Dialogue is harder to engage. Truth is harder to find. The people are scattering.

Musk fans, mostly conservatives and libertarians frustrated by Twitter’s editorial decisions, see him as a savior who will restore free speech to the platform. Indeed, Musk has said that is one of his goals.

But effectively combining free speech and social media is a moon shot even for Musk. What’s much more likely to happen is that the internet will ruin the billionaire’s new asset. As other companies have shown, to whatever extent a platform retreats from editorial control, internet users will fill the void with inane, offensive or even dangerous content. Remember Parler?

As Musk will soon find out, being in the publishing business isn’t easy, even for a brilliant billionaire inventor scientist businessman. Being in the business of airing people’s thoughts and statements comes with all kinds of complications that throwing around the phrase “free speech” doesn’t easily resolve.

What will happen is unpredictable. But if Musk thinks he can take Twitter back to the early days of a social media free-for-all, he may soon wish he was once more just another tweeter.

©2022 The Dallas Morning News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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