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Killing Twitter

Elon Musk claims that he bought the social-media platform to “help humanity” by investing in a public good: the world’s digital town square. But he fails to see that it’s the people, not the pavement, that make the town square, and that his “free-speech absolutism” is replacing townspeople with tourists and trolls.

CAMBRIDGE – In April 2022, the world’s richest person, Elon Musk, asked, “Is Twitter dying?” Five days later, he launched an apparently whimsical bid to buy the social-media platform. It took months of legal wrangling to complete the deal, but on October 27, Musk honored his $44 billion offer, acquiring a new toy: free speech.

Financially, Musk’s acquisition of Twitter was an odd move. Despite its user base of some 200 million – including politicians, journalists, and celebrities – Twitter has not turned a profit in eight of the last ten years. And not only did Musk sink a substantial chunk of his personal wealth into the purchase; he also borrowed $13 billion from a consortium of lenders – loans that will cost $9 billion in interest payments over the next 7-8 years.

According to Musk, money was never the point. He is seeking to “help humanity,” by investing in a public good: the world’s digital town square. In fact, Musk has now gained considerable influence over that square. By taking Twitter private, its CEO – or Chief Twit, as Musk has called himself – has ensured that he can do as he pleases, with no shareholders to whom he must answer.