Since its inception, Twitter has functioned as a bridge—a platform that affords its users a sense of connection in the vast and lonely digital realm.

The nature of that connection has changed over Twitter’s 16-year course of existence. In the early days, the platform primarily operated as a social network among friends; now, it’s more often deployed as a way to scream at strangers.

Regardless, it’s still a bridge. And where there’s a bridge, there’s a troll. 

Twitter, in its immensity, has thousands of trolls. Few are as influential, brazen, or revered, as Elon Musk, who holds the titles both of ‘the world’s richest man’ and ‘Twitter’s king troll.’

And now, Musk is set to buy the bridge he lurks around.

In a segment that aired this week on WAMU talk show 1A, three experts break down Twitter’s acceptance of a $44 billion acquisition offer from Musk. They discuss how the platform might change when the self-described “free speech absolutist” takes the reins.

Musk’s tendency to troll is visible in the deal itself, says media researcher Joan Donovan—in buying the company at $54.20 a share, and submitting financing documents on April 20, he snuck in two references to the number “420” (slang for smoking marijuana).  

One of Musk’s main objectives is to change Twitter’s content moderation rules. The rules historically have operated to prevent the spread of misinformation and protect users from online abuse. Musk says these guidelines are censorious; last week, for instance, he tweeted that former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter because the platform “censored free speech.”

In right wing spheres, Musk’s takeover is celebrated as a “triumphant return of the troll,” Donovan says. Musk seems to equate “free speech” to a “free for all,” with potential dangerous repercussions for the safety of users and the stability of our democracy. 

It’s nothing new for a billionaire to take ownership of a massive media organization, notes The Verge editor Elizabeth Lopatto; Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post. Rupert Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal. John Henry owns the Boston Globe.

But Twitter is not a reputable news platform, and Musk is the most erratic billionaire on the planet.

“If Twitter starts to go down this narrow scape of being reengineered every time Elon Musk is annoyed with something, it’s going to create a very unstable communication environment,” Donovan says. “We can’t forget this is an election year.”

The segment is a valuable listen; it provides a comprehensive history of Musk’s relationship with Twitter and puts some of his intentions—such as implementing “open source algorithms”—in layman’s terms.

The experts offer thoughtful speculation on how Musk’s leadership will impact free speech on the platform. But at the end of the day, they say, we just don’t know yet.

We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

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