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Kara Swisher talks Twitter under Musk so far

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

Love him or hate him, Elon Musk has turned Twitter upside down. In the weeks since the billionaire investor bought the social media platform, more than half of Twitter's 7,500 employees have either resigned or been fired. Musk also started a new verification system that he quickly had to pull back after users impersonated celebrities and companies. And according to the watchdog group Media Matters for America, Twitter has lost 50 of its top 100 advertisers since Musk took it over. Now, this all raises serious questions about Twitter's future. And to help us think through all of this is Kara Swisher. She's a tech journalist and host of the "On With Kara Swisher" and "Pivot" podcast. Kara Swisher, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KARA SWISHER: Hi. How are you doing?

DEGGANS: Doing great. So you've been pretty tough on Elon Musk on Twitter, especially recently (laughter).

SWISHER: Yeah. Yeah. I've been pretty actually not tough on him. Actually, I've been someone who's interviewed him a lot and always defended him in a lot of ways that maybe I shouldn't have. No, I should have. He's amazing in rockets and cars. I was always inspired by a lot of the things he was making, especially compared to other entrepreneurs who are working on, like, dating services and home laundry delivery services. And I always thought aiming for solar or aiming for cars or rockets was really a very difficult thing to do. And he pulled it off very well, created an amazing car, amazing rockets.

And so I thought he could be the one to fix Twitter, actually. He had the money, the means. He had the support of Silicon Valley. He's got the technical skills, and he's obviously an avid user of it. And what's happened as he's taken it over - and over the last year or so, I would say, is he's sort of become this massive troll and someone who punches down and who is using the platform in exactly the way that the problem was.

DEGGANS: Well, just in case our listeners might not know, I want to go over your greatest hits...

SWISHER: Sure.

DEGGANS: ...On Twitter with him. You called him your greatest disappointment as a tech reporter.

SWISHER: Yeah.

DEGGANS: You accused him of turning Twitter into a petty grievance freak show.

SWISHER: Yeah.

DEGGANS: Is there one thing, one moment or one action, that convinced you that Musk has sort of changed from this innovator that you thought he was to what he's doing now?

SWISHER: No, he's still an innovator. Let's just be clear. There's - you know, Thomas Edison was awful if you read any biography of him. You know, there's a lot of innovators and inventors who, personally and in their lives, did all kinds of awful things. We have to keep that in mind. Nobody's perfect. But I think when he started to really turn - the way he fired everybody - now, a lot of people, including myself, had talked for years - I've covered Twitter since it was started. I've talked about it being overstuffed and not being able to keep up with the other social media companies, et cetera. It needed to change rather drastically, but the way he did it was needlessly cruel - the way he fired people, insulted people. That was one sign that was like, that's very strange for the world's richest man to be nickel-and-diming these people on their way out.

The second thing is, when he tried to pull out of the deal and made a series of what were essentially fabrications about why he did it, you know, trying to get out of a deal he signed because he paid too much, which is absolutely true. And then I think what really drove me crazy - there's a number of them. But when he posted - this was one of the first acts as CEO - he posted a piece of misinformation about Paul Pelosi that was part of an anti-gay trope, which was just so damaging. He took it down, never apologized for it. It just shows the way of someone who really has no impulse control and is at the helm of a very important communications site.

DEGGANS: Yeah. And what's interesting is that many of the things he seems to be doing, even this plan to readmit accounts that were suspended for abusive behavior...

SWISHER: Yeah.

DEGGANS: ...Overturning Donald Trump's suspension - it seems like those are the kind of things that would repel advertisers just when he needs them. So that leads a lot of people to wonder, is there some sort of method to what he's doing that we just don't see? Or is there some sort of logic that we're not seeing here?

SWISHER: We praise wealthy people as if they're smarter than the rest of us, and they're not. Let me just say, I've after many years of covering them, they're just not. You know, I think - it's not just repel advertisers. He's attacked advertisers. It's not like - it's - he called them woke. I've never met an advertiser that wouldn't advertise on Satan Inc. if it sold him a watch. That's my feeling is they would do whatever it takes. And so he's sort of attacked advertisers as woke, which is kind of ridiculous. And the readmittance of Donald Trump - I said he was going to do it. He talked about it at the time. On January 7, he thought it was the wrong decision. I didn't think he wasn't going to. And again, that's his call. But I do think this overall everybody needs to speak at all times without taking account the safety of people is irresponsible.

DEGGANS: As a Black person who uses Twitter a lot, I'm worried about the survival of Black Twitter.

SWISHER: Sure.

DEGGANS: And, you know, just to explain again for people who might not know, that's kind of an informal network of people who talk about Black culture and things from a Black perspective on Twitter and social media. Do you agree with those who worry that Black Twitter might be marginalized or atomized by Musk's plan, especially to bring back these accounts that were abusive in the first place and often attacked people who were central to Black Twitter?

SWISHER: Yeah, I do. I think it's not just Black Twitter, which has been incredibly vibrant and one of the most important parts of growth of Twitter, actually. Twitter has not been the greatest business. But some of these communities that have formed around all kinds of issues - and Black Twitter being the most prominent - have been wonderful and really amazing places to connect. I'm not of the thing that it's going to collapse in any one second. I think the issue is if they let everyone get a blue check, whatever - they - he can charge whatever he wants to people; I'm not paying it. But it creates a confusing situation, and it allows you to be attacked easier. And so that could create a situation, certainly.

I think that community will move elsewhere and - as it should. But he isn't playing to the strengths. Black Twitter is a strength of Twitter. You know, there's every kind of Twitter, and those are the strength - these communities of people that find each other and share information in a civil way - not necessarily - not disagreeing, by the way. That's perfectly fine. It's how you disagree and how you debate issues.

DEGGANS: Yep, exactly. And I've seen you point out, too, you know, people are talking about the First Amendment, all that stuff. These are private organizations, or these are companies. It's not a public square. And I'm just wondering, what recourse does the public have when so many of these important communications tools, like Twitter and Facebook and Google, are privately owned? What can you do when somebody goes off the rails?

SWISHER: I'm sorry to say nothing. It's a private company. It's always been a private company. It's just people think it's something else. You can leave. That's really your only choice is you can leave and find a better place where you can conduct yourselves and have great communities. And that's what's going to happen here if people begin to feel unsafe. I don't know. My own usage has dropped rather significantly. I turned off comments. I got so many anti-gay comments in the wake of the shooting in Colorado...

DEGGANS: Right.

SWISHER: ...Because I put up a this is terrible. I mean, everyone's got their issues, right? And I just turned off the comments, and it's made Twitter - the whole point was listening to people. I don't - I can't listen to people tell me I should be dying 'cause I'm gay. I just can't. I don't want to. It was bad for my mental health. So, you know, that's what's happening for lots of different types of people around Twitter.

DEGGANS: Exactly. That's Kara Swisher. She's a tech journalist and host of the "On With Kara Swisher" and "Pivot" podcast. Kara Swisher, thanks so much for joining us.

SWISHER: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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