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Why one writer questions whether Musk is the right fit for Twitter

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To other news, the world's richest man is purchasing Twitter for about 44 billion bucks. In a tweet - where else? - Elon Musk said, quote, "I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter because that is what free speech means." Well, those critics point out that Twitter can be rife with disinformation and racism and harassment, and they question whether Elon Musk is the right person to address those problems.

Among those questioning, Anand Giridharadas - he's author of the book "Winners Take All: The Elite Charade Of Changing The World" and wrote about the acquisition for The New York Times opinion section. Anand, welcome.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: All right. So when Elon Musk says he wants to promote free speech on the platform, that seems like a good idea in principle. Why does it raise a red flag for you?

GIRIDHARADAS: Free speech is a great concept. And I'm a big supporter, as I know you are. You work in the business of it, as do I. But free speech has become a dog whistle in American life in recent years, and Elon Musk means it in a much more specific way. And he's been much more specific about it. And what he's talking about is the feeling that what is, frankly, content moderation on sites like Twitter and other social media platforms is suppressing free speech.

In other words, efforts that have been made to clamp down on very real problems that you and I see on Twitter every day - which is Nazi speech going unchecked, racism going unchecked, disinformation going unchecked, misogyny, rape threats to women who've made the mistake of having opinions going unchecked - there have been modest - inadequate, but modest efforts in recent years to clamp down. And Elon Musk thinks that kind of reform, which actually allows more people to speak more freely and safely, is the problem.

KELLY: You actually take this a little bit farther in your piece for the Times. I want to quote one line. You ask, what happens when the incarnation of a problem buys the right to decide what the problem is and how to fix it? I mean, you're - just to take one example - the bullying and harassment problem on Twitter. Why is Musk the wrong person to fix that?

GIRIDHARADAS: It's not only the wrong person, it is the perfect embodiment of the problem, right? So I kind of focused on three in the piece. And when I talk to people who work at Twitter, these are the three they're thinking about, right? So Twitter has a disinformation problem by its own acknowledgment, right? And Elon Musk has shown himself to be someone who spreads falsehoods. Twitter has a racism problem, which, again, Twitter has fessed up to and has tried to fix and not done enough, but owned up to the fact that it is working to make it a less bigoted, harassing place for people of color. Elon Musk runs a company that the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment recently said is a segregated workplace; not awkward, not mean - segregated. And Twitter has a bullying and harassment problem, as particularly women and people of color experience every day. And Elon Musk is the incarnation of that kind of social media behavior, siccing his followers on people who disagree with him...

KELLY: A recent tweet against Bill Gates, for example.

GIRIDHARADAS: ...Living in a kind of perpetual adolescence.

KELLY: Belittling...

GIRIDHARADAS: Correct.

KELLY: ...Bill Gates. Just - I mean, setting aside for the moment, you know, the question of Elon Musk and whether he's the right man for the job, are you assigning too much power to Twitter? I mean, most Americans aren't even on Twitter. How does this affect them?

GIRIDHARADAS: Twitter is incredibly powerful in certain ways. It's not powerful in the way that network television was in the '70s with, you know, 40 million people watching the same thing. But it is. I think Elon Musk is correct when he calls it the closest we have to some kind of global town square. And now one rich guy has bought the thing he described as the town square. Town square's necessarily a kind of public thing.

And so the problem is he is going to have a disproportionate power to shape discourse, shape journalism, shape how people think about public problems. And a man who embodies many of our biggest public problems is going to have the chance to shape the solution...

KELLY: Right.

GIRIDHARADAS: ...To those problems...

KELLY: Just a couple seconds...

GIRIDHARADAS: ...And to veto solutions that threaten him.

KELLY: Sorry - just a couple seconds left. So a yes or no question, are you going to stay on Twitter?

GIRIDHARADAS: I will stay on Twitter, and I hope Elon Musk does not.

KELLY: We will leave it there. Anand Giridharadas, author of the book "Winners Take All" - it was a pleasure. Thanks for talking with us.

GIRIDHARADAS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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