A story that circulates in the PR world about Elon Musk is that, a while back, he threw a gigantic temper tantrum when the PR agency that Tesla retained couldn't make a reporter write that Musk started the electric-vehicle company, which he absolutely did not. I have no idea if this story is true or not, but I’m sharing it here because, you know, I believe in freedom of speech — wink wink, nudge nudge.
The billionaire's latest embarrassing spectacle involves Twitter Blue, the $8-per-month product Musk chose to replace Twitter’s verification function with. Last Thursday, Twitter began to finalize the process of replacing Verification, a trust and safety feature designed to make it harder for disinformation to propagate, with Twitter Blue, a paid-for service that placed the badge formerly associated with verification next to any user who signed up for Blue. Under Blue, anyone with $8 and a cell phone can get “verified,” which makes verification meaningless as a tool for users to establish the authority and credibility of their engagement on the platform.
The backlash to the replacement of a useful free feature with a useless paid one was as predictable as it was quick. The optics of helping Musk’s social network thrive are so bad that being busted for paying for the mark is humiliating for Twitter’s power users. A movement to block all Twitter Blue users sprung up almost immediately.
Musk’s seeming “solution” to the blowback is pretty on-brand. Over the weekend, Twitter began to dole out the once-coveted and now-shameful blue checks to accounts that vocally do not want them, possibly in violation of a law that forbids the false endorsement of goods or services in the U.S.
While this is all emblematic of how things have gone on Musk’s Twitter, it’s difficult to summarize everything that’s happened to the platform since he agreed to acquire it for $44 billion last April. His drastic cuts to the company’s workforce have received much of the attention, and for good reason. Cuts to the technical side of the house have made the platform buggier and more brittle. Cuts to the teams that managed high-profile advertising accounts have made it easy for advertisers to quit advertising. Gutting moderation and re-platforming Twitter’s most toxic users has destroyed the user experience. All of this has happened in six months.
But those problems are all, to different extents, fixable. If the right people are in charge, code could be fixed, advertisers could be lured back, and hate speech and disinformation could once again be punished with bans.
What isn’t fixable is Twitter’s astonishing reputational collapse under Musk because that collapse is the direct result of the rank politics of its owner.
For most people, and for most brands, spending time or money on the platform is now an implicit endorsement of Musk’s political ideology, which includes or has included vaccine denial, union busting, homophobic disinformation targeting Democrats, hate speech targeting trans persons and other toxic beliefs. Musk is Twitter and Twitter is Musk, and I absolutely do not want to gloss over one point: taking a political stance can help brands thrive. Some, including me, argue that getting political, strategically and in an informed way, is essential in today’s social environment. But endorsing Musk’s particular political stance is brand poison. As political strategist and Third Degree founder Max Burns wrote, “having a Blue Check is now about as toxic to a celebrity’s brand as wearing a MAGA hat.” If you’re a powerful person who wants to cozy up to Elon Musk, and plenty of them do, then the way to go about that is really, really quietly.
Here’s the best metaphor I have for the situation: If Twitter was a commercial airliner, then problems with the technical controls are what blew out its engine and led to its quick descent into chaos. But, instead of a pilot who’s capable of landing a plane with a busted engine, there’s a raccoon on meth in the cockpit. That plane doesn’t stand a chance if that raccoon is in charge of taking care of things.
The reason why all of this matters is because Twitter was, merely a handful of years ago, where social justice and pro-Democracy movements originated, and where journalists went to gather information in order to make sense of the world around us. Musk reportedly believes Twitter can become the WeChat of the United States, but what he’s molding it into is just 4chan with a better user interface: an unserious place where trolling is rewarded and hate thrives. And, unlike trying to make people believe he is the genius who started Tesla, this time, there’s nobody he can sue to make his fiction into our reality.
Andrew Graham is founder and head of strategy at Bread & Law, a public relations agency in New York City.