Illustration by Timothy Chiu

Eight Dollar Speech: How Much Could a Joke Cost?

With his Twitter takeover, Elon Musk has introduced paid “free” speech. The chaos may be entertaining, but is putting the entire social media platform on the road to failure.

Nov 13, 2022

The Falcon 9 has landed in the Blue Bird’s nest. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, also a billionaire with zero playboy qualities and hardly a philanthropist, has finally decorated his third top-floor office, this time in the headquarters of Twitter. The thought that the prominent Twitter user is now owning Twitter itself (in some regards) has not sunk in, despite the fact that Musk “let [the] sink in” his office himself, as he referred to the popular meme on his account.
Musk acquired ownership of the social media platform on Oct. 28 for $44 billion, and only 24 hours later, the entire deal spiraled down into a circus skit. Not that Musk’s road to Twitter acquisition was any less entertaining: he announced his first official proposal in early April, only to try to back out of it a month later, and then returned in the beginning of October to demand that the deal be sealed within a couple of weeks. After this rollercoaster of events, the billionaire, colloquially known in Twitter as the platform’s “most important shitposter,” crowned himself the owner of the social media platform and began to restructure the whole company under the pretext that he needed to optimize its budget. Since Musk’s takeover, reportedly 75 percent of the workforce has been fired, including the majority of the former senior management. Right after Elon’s move-in day, two men were spotted carrying boxes in front of the Twitter headquarters and spreading “insider information” about what is going on inside the building. Later, it was revealed that they were pranksters rather than fired Twitter employees, which only fueled the ridiculousness of the situation. Another big scandal, which had most of the celebrities on Twitter scared and the meme generation overly excited, was regarding paid verification. Musk introduced a new membership system in which it would cost Twitter users $8 a month to receive a verification tick. Its implementation immediately took a comedic turn with imposters of prominent American politicians and public figures receiving the coveted blue tick and overflowing the Twitter feed with jokes and misinformation. Twitter has now stopped reviewing verification applications because of the incidents and has decided to introduce a new “Official” tag to distinguish the official accounts from the troll ones.
While everybody was exploiting the situation, we overlooked the side effects Elon Musk’s radical reforms might have. The most obvious one is making “free” speech paid. Musk has defended his membership idea, claiming that Twitter is on the verge of bankruptcy. However, this idea is contrary to the belief system which he promised to be well implemented before he took over the company. He was once again playing humanity’s savior and promising an uncensored online platform where free speech would be a priority over fact-checked information. Among the social media platforms, Twitter was a pioneer of fact-checking, yet Musk saw this as a feature that degrades user experience and its purpose as an open short-blog type of platform. That is perhaps why he was unconcerned about cutting over half the staff of the company, compromising Twitter’s ability to mediate, fact-check and put trigger warnings on Tweets. In only its first few days of running, the new system has caused severe damage to the reputation of companies and organizations, costing some billions of US dollars in revenue, like the case with Eli Lilly. Because of these incidents, some high-ranking profiles have decided to leave the platform for good, including the publication Playbill. The editing team of the theater journal found that the new management of Twitter promotes “tolerance for hate, negativity and misinformation”, and their concerns are definitely not unfounded. Twitter, even years ago, was one of the platforms that permitted the fastest spread of misinformation, which is also why it was forced to establish stricter control and even start banning certain individuals from the platform. . The staff cuts at Twitter are also going to affect migrant workers and their visa status, especially those with H-1B visas, granted to individuals who are experts in a particular field. A Business Insider check estimates that about 120 staff members with such visas are already concerned whether they face a swift deportation. Some have been employed at the company since 2009. Even though 120 might not seem like a huge number and would not cause an economic collapse, this case might prove to be crucial for demonstrating how U.S. employers work with immigrant workers. These people were hired specifically by Twitter to perform a specific job, and the unreasonable dismissal from Twitter might make them appear unqualified to do anything else anywhere else. Change does not seem forthcoming in the unforgiving U.S. visa system, and Elon Musk has single handedly destroyed the livelihoods of many.
What Musk has managed to establish in his short rule over Twitter is that it is a highly selective and elitist platform and company. Now that the ones who will receive the most benefits, including the most views, will be the ones who pay. The people who are unable to afford the membership fee or who do not have the interest to partake in the online town hall that Twitter is turning into will leave, leading to a shrinkage in Twitter’s target audience and content quality. What began as a “speech liberation” project has led to a mass-trolling initiative, and I, for one, hope that Elon Musk could beat Liz Truss’s record, for a term short enough to be outlived by a lettuce, for the sake of our online integrity.
Yana Peeva is Deputy Columns Editor. Email her at
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