Twitter can't become a town square if Elon Musk is in it

Elon Musk artwork behind a phone
Elon Musk kunngjør en opprydding av inaktive kontoer på Twitter. (Image credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Twitter's new CEO Linda Yaccarino is amped up for Twitter 2.0 and the platform's potential to finally become the 'town square' long ago promised by outgoing CEO Elon Musk. But that will never happen as long as Twitter resembles less of an open forum and more of a live recreation of The Lottery.

Yaccarino, who joined the social media platform last week from NBC/Universal, penned a spirited Twitter thread this week in which she briefly outlined the platform's goals and potential. On the one hand, I applaud the effort. It's Yacarrino's job to set the tone and communicate Twitter's latest aspirations.

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However, her tweets came just a day after Musk once again waded into the debate around transgender issues. And those tweets came fast on the heels of so many others aimed at media, universities, and any number of Musk's other favorite targets. It wouldn't matter, I guess, if Musk didn't have 143 million followers – more, by a significant margin, than any other platform member.

Yaccarino cannot move forward until she addresses Musk's influence, claims, and penchant for flame-throwing on the platform she now runs.

It wasn't always like this

How did we get here? Was every relationship between Twitter and various communities so toxic? Of course not. Let's look at the media.

Twitter once had a symbiotic relationship with media and news operations. They were complementary. Twitter could help you identify the buzz around an event, geolocate, and track it in real time. Qualified, trained media would then follow up and get to the ground truth and real reporting. 

This cycle repeated itself countless times, and journalists came to rely on the specific thing that it seemed only Twitter could produce. Nothing was as good for real-time reporting as Twitter.

We lost that when the outgoing CEO, Elon Musk, who has a special enmity for the media and labels most journalists as the enemy, took over. Musk's distaste for journalists and media started long before he bought Twitter in 2022, and it wasn't because they got things wrong, but rather a reaction to how the media was reporting on Musk, sometimes casting him and his businesses in an unflattering light.

At Tesla, Musk hated being media managed, and fired most of his PR support staff. However, when even his speaking directly to audiences, often on Twitter, did not help massage the message into a perfectly Musk-shaped truth, Musk decided to tear the whole thing down. 

Twitter's close relationship with the media posed an existential threat. No one could be trusted except for him and those he deemed trustworthy on the platform Musk ultimately bought under duress.

And because media was the enemy, it could no longer occupy a rarified space on the platform, so he had to strip media and those representing it of their status, which ultimately led to the great legacy verified purge. Not just that though, he had to elevate the status of those who didn’t have the same training or skills but certainly had, like him, their own set of facts.

Twitter’s function as a platform for free speech does not make it a platform for truth.

Twitter was always as open as any town square, and like a real town square, if someone runs around screaming that there’s a bomb, you need to understand if that’s a real threat or if it's just someone who wonders what it would be like to yell that in a crowded space. It is not true just because they say it in the town square.

Twitter’s function as a platform for free speech does not make it a platform for truth. There is information posted and then it has to be investigated to verify that truth. Someone else on the platform saying, "Sure, that’s true," doesn’t make it true. Even a dozen or 100 people affirming it’s true doesn't make it so. You have to interrogate. Twitter has no tools to do this because Twitter is not a media company with a team of skilled reporters at its disposal.

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Take a look around

Perhaps this is why Yaccarino's tweets got under my skin.

“Our first principles are questioning our assumptions and building something new from the ground up," she wrote

Questioning assumptions always sounds so cool, but it can also lead to people inviting assumptions and then accepting some as fact. Flat earthers like to wonder if the earth is actually flat because they don't believe the science. You can have a flat earth convention and draw a few hundred people who all believe as you do. They're questioning but they're also not listening or learning. You not believing facts, even in a town square that lets you do so, does not make you right, just part of a very fringe community.

Yaccarino was in rally mode, though, and also tweeted, "We have the opportunity to reach across aisles, create new partnerships, celebrate new voices, and build something together that can change the world. From what I can tell so far, we’re built for this.”

She’s right, Twitter was built for this, but now it’s a platform for the perspective of one man and a lot of the activity revolves around how Musk sees the world. That is not a global perspective, and his approach does not encourage open discourse. As I tweeted:

“Your most followed account often starts from a specific perspective regarding hot-button topics. Instead of opening a discourse, the account provides pronouncements + memes. It baits millions of other accounts into piling on. Feels less like a Town Hall than The Lottery.”

Yaccario was not finished and, like Musk, seems convinced that Twitter is the best way to divine truth on, I guess, any topic:

“Twitter is on a mission to become the world’s most accurate real-time information source and a global town square for communication. That's not an empty promise. That’s OUR reality.”

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Start over

When you're making an argument it can be useful to first define the terms. In this case, I was curious about how Yaccarino defines 'accurate.' I tweeted a response that I'm sure she'll never see because Twitter's algorithm basically buries any Tweet not from a paying customer:

“Define accuracy. It's not something you crowdsource. It's something you investigate and then get empirical evidence to back it up. News organizations are usually built to do this. Social media not so much. I do believe in and like on-the-ground reporting. Twitter has that skill.”

If Yaccarino believes Twitter is built to do this in its current state, she’s fooling herself.

There is a way to get started (or restarted) on the right foot. Muzzle Musk for a few months. No more memes or Tweets about trans youths and brainwashing. No more attacking the media as if it was a Borg-like entity. Let him work on platform and technology and you actually open up the town square to everyone to become what a media platform is supposed to be: agnostic. Open to voices but taking no sides. Squelching the harmful and violent while supporting healthy debate.

Let’s see you do that and then, maybe, I’ll believe. For now, however, this is just a bluster and empty promises.

Lance Ulanoff
US Editor in Chief

A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.