Ever made an impulse buy that you almost immediately regretted? How much did it cost you? For most of us, the answer to that question is a monetary value. For maverick billionaire Elon Musk, the answer may very well be “credibility”.

Whether you’re active on the platform or not, you’re almost certainly aware of Musk’s purchase of Twitter. The deal to buy the platform, which seemingly emerged from a whim, appears to have pushed the social media giant into a very precarious position; and whether you’re active on the platform or not, you’ll almost certainly notice any consequences.

Though most of its highly active user base would have been unaware of it, Twitter was the sick man of social media long before the Musk takeover. It has only turned a profit for two years out of the last decade. A report published by Hootsuite earlier this year found Twitter was almost five times smaller from a user perspective than Instagram and Facebook.

It has also been hit by a string of scandals; through its capacity to spread disinformation, trolling, fake accounts and undesired user behaviours such as stalking and bullying. All of this happened under the previous regime – it was not in the thriving place that you might expect, given the influence it has had on our world.

That Musk tried to back out of the deal suggests that he had not initially grasped the scale of the problems Twitter faced. He appeared to view Twitter from the standpoint of a user, having been highly active – and highly influential – on the platform for some time. As with any user, Musk had a list of things he wanted the firm to address. Perhaps this drove his initial desire to own it.

However, he appears to have misjudged the complexity and obstacles created by leading a social media firm. The method is fundamentally distinct from any other form of business. A social media platform’s market dominance is tightly tied to the people using it. They are powered by influencers and advanced users with monetisation potential. This perhaps explains Twitter’s resiliency over much larger platforms.

The influence that Twitter has is why its potential demise matters. Without Twitter, we may not have seen the “me too” movement take hold, bringing down powerful abusers in the entertainment industry. The platform has allowed citizen journalism to thrive, with stories unfolding in real-time before our eyes. It has been used to expose corruption and to give marginalised groups a voice. The influence Twitter has, as mentioned, is not always used for good, but if it is to disappear, all of us will notice.

That brings us back to Musk. At face value, he should be an ideal person to bring the platform forward and eliminate its issues. He has enjoyed consecutive success in sometimes strange and wonderful business projects, such as PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and Neuralink. He has adopted expensive and risky projects, often against the advice of others, and enjoyed great success. If there’s one thing Twitter is, it is an expensive and risky project.

To say it has not been a case of “so far, so good” would be a massive understatement. Musk has cut, and pushed out, huge numbers of staff. He launched an ill-fated initiative which allowed people to purchase a “blue tick” – previously an indicator of an account’s authenticity. This, predictably, saw swathes of official-looking fraudulent accounts emerging, posing as high profile individuals such as George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Elon Musk himself; and companies such as Nintendo and Chiquita.

It was an utter disaster. A perception that Musk will turn Twitter into a platform where “anything goes” has caused high profile companies to halt all advertising activities – reducing much-needed income. Subsequently, we’ve seen a trend of disillusioned Twitter users moving to the emerging platform Mastodon.

Twitter was already the weakest of all social media platforms. It has long been at the centre of almost every social media scandal. This has been amplified significantly since the Musk takeover.

For all its problems, Twitter has been used as a tool to challenge autocrats. Ironically, its fate is now in the hands of one.

Theo Tzanidis is a senior lecturer in digital marketing at the University of the West of Scotland.

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