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OPINION

Twitter: Should I stay or should I go?

Elon Musk’s ideas about free speech could turn the social media site into an even more noxious free-for-all.

H. Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff; SciePro/Adobe

How do you turn a sometimes-fetid swamp into a vermin-choked bottomless pit? Sell it to the world’s richest troll.

Elon Musk — Tesla and Space X CEO and Bond villain prototype — reached a deal to buy Twitter on Monday. Less than two weeks ago, Musk’s original offer was stiff-armed by the social media company’s board, or so we thought. But like a cheesy movie monster who springs back to life for an unwanted sequel, Musk snagged Twitter for a staggering $44 billion.

A reckless, thin-skinned multibillionaire cosplaying as a free-speech crusader, Musk claims he wants to unlock Twitter’s potential. During a recent TED conference, Musk said, “Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have… both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”

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Except that since Musk plans to take the company private, he alone will decide those bounds. Predictably, right-wing hobgoblins view this as an opportunity for the return of a certain one-term, twice-impeached former president permanently suspended from Twitter after inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection and spreading voter fraud lies about the 2020 presidential election.

In a statement, the NAACP said the ban on Donald Trump shouldn’t be rescinded and warned Musk not to allow Twitter to become “a petri dish for hate speech, or falsehoods that subvert our democracy . . . especially as the midterm elections approach.”

Whether Trump returns to Twitter is irrelevant. What matters is that Musk’s ideas about free speech could turn Twitter into an even more noxious free-for-all for racists, antisemites, disinformation pushers, misogynists, and haters of the LGBTQ community.

What far-right flamethrowers whining about “cancel culture” really despise is even a modicum of accountability. In its current state, Twitter’s administrators are like referees who do nothing before slowly stepping in to stop a lopsided pummeling by suspending, usually briefly, users who go too far even by the site’s permissive standards.

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Musk could do even less. In taking the site private, he won’t be beholden to meddlesome shareholders trying to rein him in or protect their bottom line from Musk’s worst instincts, which he giddily displays on the social media platform.

On Twitter since 2009, Musk has more than 85 million followers. He has tweeted sexist comments about women’s bodies and spread disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Labor Relations Board forced Musk to delete a tweet perceived as a veiled anti-union threat against labor organizers at Tesla.

In another tweet, Musk called a man who helped rescue Thai children trapped in a cave in 2018 a “pedo guy,” presumably as in pedophile. During a defamation trial against Musk, which Musk won, he said, “People say a lot of things on Twitter that aren’t true. I thought it was obvious that I was just insulting him.”

Scurrilous lies and insults — that’s Musk’s idea of free speech. It isn’t taking long for his Twitter acquisition to spark the beginnings of what could become a significant exodus. On Monday, users ranging from actor Mark Hamill to Neera Tanden, a senior adviser to President Biden, reported suddenly losing thousands of followers. (I lost about 150.)

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I’ve generally enjoyed Twitter and gotten to engage with many remarkable people. But I also know users, especially Black women, who have deactivated their accounts after too many racist tweets and rape threats. A few years ago I was receiving so much harassment, Twitter advised me to change my privacy and notification settings. That put the onus on me, not the company, to make it stop. I have since muted or blocked nearly 3,000 accounts. Now I’m weighing whether to ditch Twitter for good if Musk’s purchase is finalized.

“I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter because that is what free speech means,” Musk tweeted Monday. He has teased maybe adding an edit button, a feature Twitter users have long wanted. I’m more concerned that he’ll eliminate the mute and block functions to better align with his ideas about creating a free speech forum without limitations.

Musk is a grotesquely wealthy man who, as millions suffered, turned the COVID pandemic into a financial bonanza. That means he probably thinks his impossibly deep pockets exempt him from rules — like paying his fair share in taxes — that govern the rest of us. His devil-may-care attitude has fostered a culture at Tesla resulting in racial and sexual harassment lawsuits from current and former employees. He is Citizen Musk, an amoralist who scoffs at guardrails, hits twice as hard at his detractors, and whose purported love of free speech dries up whenever he is criticized.

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Now one of the world’s biggest bullies will soon control one of the world’s biggest and most influential bully pulpits. What can possibly go wrong — except everything?


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.