The internet is getting worse. What was once an exciting world of possibility is now a crowded dystopia of ads, AI-generated content, and bots. This is a pattern that has been noted for years, but it wasn’t until November 2022, when writer and journalist Cory Doctorow coined the term “enshittification,” that we had a catchy name for this phenomenon. Doctorow also used the term “platform decay” to describe the trend.

Sites across the web are facing the same issues, seemingly becoming less user-friendly and moving away from the features that attracted people in the first place. But no site personifies this decay as much as X (formerly Twitter) under Elon Musk.

The town square

By far the ugliest side effect of Elon Musk’s drive to make X the web’s digital town square is the subsequent and unrestrained rise in hate speech. Under the guise of enabling free speech—a concept Musk himself has previously taken umbrage with—the site is now chock-full of far-right conspiracy theories and talking points, from the antisemitic “great replacement” theory to more run-of-the-mill misinformation. Rules around harassment and bullying are also lax, making X an extremely dangerous space for minority groups like the transgender community. It is especially insulting for these people as it is often Musk himself sharing and ‘liking’ these vile posts.

When pressed on the issue, Musk has long compared the removal of disgusting hate speech with “censorship.” In a recent (and bad-tempered) interview with former CNN host Don Lemon, Musk again clarified his thoughts on the matter, claiming that if a post was not illegal, then it wouldn’t be removed. When Lemon suggested that moderation might be an option, Musk replied: “Moderation is a propaganda word for censorship.” This viewpoint is likely to play well with Musk’s radicalized fanbase, promising them that as long as they don’t do anything technically illegal, they can say what they like within the confines of Musk’s online fiefdom. Further demonstrating the hypocrisy inherent in Musk’s drive for free speech for everyone, Don Lemmon’s show on X was cancelled shortly before the awkward interview aired.

A digital ghost town

Another key promise Musk made when he purchased X was that he would ban all bots. They were becoming a problem, and he had the answer. Since the acquisition, X has trialled registration fees, blue ticks, and community notes, all in an attempt to combat bots and misinformation. Unfortunately, the problem is worse than ever.

In this age of platform decay, the internet at large is witnessing an influx of so-called zombie content: AI-written self-published books, page after page of worthless search results, and bots commenting under every post and article. Most of these are pushing items, usually certain cryptocurrencies or pornography sites. But it has meant that X is no longer a place for discussion. When once you might have opened a post about a film, news item, or the daily discourse and interacted with real people, now you are faced with AI-generated responses—often repeated ad nauseam—and porn bots promising their ░L░I░N░K░I░N░B░I░O░. Click through to these profiles and you’ll see that they’re bereft of everything except for a suspicious link and a stolen profile picture.

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The man at the top

Elon Musk has long threatened to be the death of X, but the platform is holding on. Many free-speech absolutists prefer it this way, unrestrained by censorship or guise of morality. But Musk has arguably failed in his promise of turning X into the internet’s digital town square. A town square suggests a place you’d want to visit and, for many, that’s not the case. Bots are rife, hate speech dominates, and, without proper moderation, it shows no signs of improving. The town square is in flames, and Musk has sacked the fire department. 

So why are people—especially left-wingers—sticking around? Some want to see its downfall from the front row and laugh as it burns. Others feel they were there first, in the good old days, and should not have to leave just because Musk is ruining it. Many others are a mix of the two. But a few still hope they can change the platform for the better. Or if not that, use the lax moderation rules to get in a few desperate last-minute jabs, condemned to using the tools of their enemy against them.