On March 25, just one day after some guy named “TJ” texted Elon Musk with a request to “buy Twitter and then delete it,” the Tesla and SpaceX CEO took to the platform to ask his then–80 million followers a philosophical question: “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?”
Replying to himself, Musk told his prospective voters to “please vote carefully,” stating that “the consequences of this poll will be important.” Just one month after “No” won out with 70 percent of the tally, Musk made his offer to purchase Twitter outright.
Since officially taking the helm in October, Elon Musk has repeatedly returned to such polls to get feedback on how to govern his new company: asking whether Twitter should revive Vine, bring back Donald Trump, or “offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts.” He also employed one Monday as part of his blooming feud with Apple, although it’s unclear what he thinks he could do to make Apple “publish all censorship actions it has taken that affect its customers.”
Clearly, Musk is taking the poll results quite seriously—as a marker of his faux-populist leadership style, and as a means by which to justify consequential decisions. Which means that if you are someone who wants Twitter to remain somewhat usable, you need to vote in Musk’s polls.
Yes, I know, this is dumb. Even those inclined to support the new Chief Twit have made the obvious point that polling by tweet isn’t exactly scientific. Nobody has any idea (probably least of all Elon Musk himself) just how many of these votes are from legitimate accounts, who really is voting in these polls, or what the poll-making process looks like.
Instead, we get real-time tweets about the “fascinating” nature of the queries, undetailed metrics, and an old-time Latin phrase lauding the power of the people: Vox populi, vox dei, which translates to “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” Never mind that the very concept of the polls seems disingenuous: Musk knows that the people most likely to vote are his most fervent supporters, and they know what results he really wants to see. No paid votes required here, really.
Of course, as the Vine result shows, Musk doesn’t always do what the polls call for. In 2018, he used the system to ask his followers whether he should “create a media credibility rating site,” for which the options offered were: “Yes, this would be good,” and “No, media are awesome.” Despite the former’s landslide win, this website was never actually developed.
And last November, after Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden proposed a tax on billionaires like Musk, the tech titan tweeted—you guessed it!—another poll to his followers. “Much is made lately of unrealized gains being a means of tax avoidance, so I propose selling 10% of my Tesla stock,” Musk wrote. “Do you support this?” Minutes after asking the question, he also promised to “abide by the results of this poll, whichever way it goes.” (Never mind the myriad issues with this that were brought to his attention, like the preponderance of “paid twitter poll votes for cheap.”) Out of more than 3.5 million votes tabulated, about 58 percent supported the move, and Musk got ready to sell as Tesla stock values dived. Yet by the end of the year, Musk had only offloaded about $16.4 billion of Tesla shares—not quite reaching the $20 billion required to fulfill the 10 percent pledge.
Still, these polls offer Musk’s critics an opportunity. The fact that such staggering political and monetary power can rely on the whims of this one man and his stan army is troubling. But it’s where we’re at, and in this instance, we may actually have something to do about it. Best-case scenario: A vote tally that doesn’t go Musk’s way could help steer Twitter in the right direction. Worst case: He’ll lose the democratic cover of his decision and further clarify what’s obvious—that he’s an erratic, likely unreliable leader. One need not take Space Karen in good faith to make note of a fully available option at our disposal. There are a lot of devoted users who don’t want to see Twitter become what many suspect it will: a sprawling safe space for right-wing trolls that crashes every so often and lacks sufficient resources to foster a better user experience. For those people, Elon Musk’s Twitter polls might be the last and best chance.