“The bird is freed,” tweeted Elon Musk last Thursday, when he acquired full ownership of Twitter. The day before, he strode into Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters carrying a white ceramic wash basin to impart the message that his new ownership should “sink in.”

Musk has repeatedly signaled his intention to liberalize the platform by relaxing its limits on free expression. Since taking over, he's stated that Twitter protocols and account bans will remain in place pending review by an internal, ideologically diverse “content moderation council.” Recently, however, he has also stated that the platform should be...

“The bird is freed,” tweeted Elon Musk last Thursday, when he acquired full ownership of Twitter. The day before, he strode into Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters carrying a white ceramic wash basin to impart the message that his new ownership should “sink in.”

Musk has repeatedly signaled his intention to liberalize the platform by relaxing its limits on free expression. Since taking over, he’s stated that Twitter protocols and account bans will remain in place pending review by an internal, ideologically diverse “content moderation council.” Recently, however, he has also stated that the platform should be an open virtual public square with minimal controls on expression, that “comedy is now legal on Twitter,” and even that the most controversial user of them all, former president Donald J. Trump, would be welcome to return.

Left-wing Twitter threw its predictable tantrum. Many users compared Musk to Adolf Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan, the apartheid regime of Musk’s native South Africa, and other well known proponents of free speech. Some prominent leftists have vowed to leave the platform with the same dubious fervor with which they promised to move to Canada after Trump’s election.

But the most fanciful reactions of all were on display at Twitter’s headquarters. It had been a long time since I’d visited San Francisco, which now lives up to its dismal reputation as a progressive nightmare come true. But I happened to transit overnight in the City by the Bay on my way home from a two-week sail through the South Pacific, just as Musk’s possession of Twitter was being confirmed. After landing, I was fresh enough to enlist my host, the scion of an old San Franciscan real estate family, to take a ride downtown to see what was happening.

Twitter’s headquarters is in the city’s historic Western Furniture Exchange and Merchandise Mart Building, a splendid art deco edifice where Twitter has been an anchor tenant since 2012. Augmented only with a small rectangular column that says “@twitter” and features the company’s iconic blue bird logo, the building rests on a section of Market Street at the beginning of a “car-free zone.” My friend tells me this redesignation has devastated traffic patterns so the city can appear to look greener. A gaggle of French tourists was there Friday morning mocking a bike share facility, which dutifully reports the number of bicycles that have passed by (nearly 400,000 so far this year). The occasional derelict city resident ambled by to heap abuse on Twitter’s new owner, while another tolerant progressive had spray painted “FUCK MUSK” on the sidewalk nearby.

Much of the building’s interior has been stripped down to a functional brutalism, with bare concrete pillars soullessly standing guard as millennial tech workers flit to and from a bank of restricted elevators. A usually alert security guard unsurprisingly told us Twitter was not welcoming unannounced visitors, but the lobby remained open to the general public. It features an upscale market/takeout joint frequented by Twitter employees that boasts healthy Asian food, a wide selection of products described as “Alternative Milk,” and an ample supply of Astroglide. Periodic signs remind patrons, “Smile, you are on camera.”

A side entrance attracted a sizable contingent of serious-looking media types. The day before, Musk had summarily fired Twitter’s CEO Parag Agrawal, chief financial officer Ned Segal, general counsel Sean Edgett, and head of “legal policy, trust, and safety” Vijaya Gadde, with the top executives reportedly ejected from headquarters in haste.

Rumor held that lesser employees, reportedly including an entire team of data engineers, had also been fired and could be expected to spill out at any time. Two dejected figures were spotted doing just that later on Friday, carrying the requisite cardboard boxes of personal effects. One lamely raised a copy of Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming, in what looked like a limp act of solidarity with a progressive ideology literally on its way out. “Michelle Obama wouldn’t have happened if Elon Musk owned Twitter,” said one of the men, identifying himself as “Rahul Ligma.” The other, “Daniel Johnson,” claimed to be feeling “shitty.”

Local and legacy media diligently reported their sad stories. “It’s happening,” tweeted CNBC tech reporter Deirdre Bosa. “Entire team of data engineers let go. These are two of them.” The Washington Post’s resident crybully Taylor Lorenz quickly responded, tweeting that she was “gutted by their firing and what it means for Twitter.” “Please tell Mr. Ligma to connect w[ith] me on LinkedIn,” she exhorted her 343,000 followers. Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who was acquitted of shooting assailants during an August 2020 Black Lives Matter protest, also reacted, tweeting “these two guys were part of the effort to ban anyone who dared defend me in the public square. They silenced public debate and promoted hate against me and my family.”

As it turned out, they were victims of a hoax. Once reported, complete with video feed and abundant photos, Twitter employees denied any knowledge of these individuals. “Ligma,” others observed, is a well known internet meme originally referring to a fake disease but more recently used to initiate sophomoric “gotcha” jokes among tech bros since it sounds similar to “Lick my.” “Johnson,” of course, is an old-fashioned but still recognizable slang term for the male appendage. Musk himself played along, tweeting “Ligma Johnson had it coming,” followed by the eggplant emoji and the splash emoji. Later, he congratulated the imposters on their trolling skills and mocked CNBC for its “ace reporting.”

Theatrics aside, there was a palpable undercurrent of doom surrounding Twitter’s downtown digs. Recent press reports have held that Musk would lay off 75 percent of Twitter’s workforce. Musk has denied that the numbers would be that high, but his immediate purge of the company’s C-suite did not dispel their apprehensions.

Sullen employees entering the building during our visit had nothing to share. None made eye contact as they plodded by. Those who presented as female performed determined “take back the night” walks, delicately balancing cold avoidance with an unconvincing pretense of fearlessness. Musk seems to be following a methodical course as he reshapes social media, but one might wonder how many of his employees will still be on the payroll next Friday.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute