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By Bill Ketter

CNHI News Service

Elon Musk’s ego and hard-nosed success with risky business investments landed him ownership of Twitter. Now he has to find a way to make the social network a money-flush enterprise.

A simple cost-side first move trimmed the 7,000-workforce in half through firings and resignations. Many of the dismissed handled Twitter’s security, trust and language vetting responsibilities.

The combative, brassy billionaire is discovering the revenue side of the digital platform isn’t so obvious.

Twitter’s advertising revenue is shrinking fast over fears Musk’s idea of sweeping free speech could become a magnet for deplorable language. The user base is also melting. And Apple is said to consider booting Twitter from its App Store.

Musk’s eagerness to win is based on the notion that he, better than anyone else, can create a Twitter path to wealth and power by allowing each and every speech the First Amendment allows. He named himself “chief twit” as a symbol of his conviction.

It is a dicey strategy in a nation fractured over what is acceptable speech and what is not in the social media era torn by cultural wars. Courts have broadly interpreted the First Amendment but they have also preserved certain rights to privacy and punished reckless defamation.

Section 230 of the federal Communications Act offers some legal immunity for a wide open Twitter. The Federal Communications Commission or Congress could close that sanctuary of protection by restricting 230’s broad interpretation. Or revoking it altogether.

One thing is quickly becoming certain.

Musk’s unbounded speech approach is embraced by conservative critics who previously denounced Twitter for kowtowing to liberals by rejecting tweets that mislead, confused and deceived. Users spewing hate, violence, harassment and provable lies often found their tweets blocked.

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To change the rules, Musk inexplicably polled Twitter users for a yes or no vote to lift the embargo imposed on former President Trump after the 2021 Capitol riot. The same but separate survey option applied to users weighing in on those folks in Twitter purgatory for violating posting rules.

The yes votes prevailed in the starkly unscientific, self-serving polls.

Musk promptly reactivated Tump’s Twitter account, which attracted 88 million followers during his presidency. A few days later, Musk granted amnesty to users who had their Twitter accounts locked.

A predictable outcome occurred. The Washington Post’s analysis of the amnesty aftermath showed a sudden shift in followers from unabashed liberal to cheeky conservative congressional figures.

Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right conspiracy theorist, gained more than 350,000 followers upon reactivation of her Twitter account. More than 300,000 followers flocked to GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a hard-right flag-bearer.

In contrast, the Post’s analysis found staunchly liberal Senators Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., losing more than 100,000 Twitter followers since Musk acquired the social network a month ago.

On average, the Post said, Republicans in Congress gained 8,000 followers and Democrats lost 4,000. Modest numbers compared with those for far right and far left members.

ProPublica’s data base that tracks congressional Twitter activity informed the newspaper’s analysis.

“It’s like opening the gates of hell in terms of the havoc it will cause,” Harvard cyber law expert Alejandra Caraballo told the Post. “People who engaged in direct targeted harassment can come back and engage in doxing, targeted harassment, vicious bullying, calls for violence, celebration of violence.”

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Musk has amassed a net worth of $181 billion, according to the mid-November Bloomberg Billionaires index. That’s after losing several billion since January, largely due to valuation declines for his co-founded electric car maker Telsa and other investments in a down market.

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Still, Musk remains the richest person in the world. So he can afford to do whatever he wants with Twitter despite the paranoia over his ownership.

But can he navigate the resulting chaos over time without alienating the large public audience he envisions for unbridled Twitter speech?

Expanding the boundaries of acceptable free speech on social media is different than building a better electric car or space rocket.

Most Americans willingly tolerate lusty criticism of government officials. They reject speech that bullies, harasses, degrades and spreads untruths.

Bill Ketter is senior vice president of news for CNHI. Reach him at [email protected]

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