Like a lot of people, when Elon Musk first announced his intentions to buy Twitter I thought he was either engaged in high-level trolling or trying to create an excuse to sell the shares he’d acquired. Like a lot of people, I was wrong. Now, the question is whether his bet on the social media company will pay off for him — and what it will mean for the rest of us.
There is no shortage of apocalyptic predictions here, with many people suggesting it will empower right-wing politicians and further coarsen an already nasty public political discourse. There are also plenty of well-informed calls for calm and restraint, along with reminders that Twitter’s previous owners (including, most notably, founder Jack Dorsey) weren’t exactly the best stewards.
Simon Fraser University lecturer Stewart Prest captured the mood best, tweeting he was “torn between seeing the Musk Twitter news as being an overblown nothingburger and it guaranteeing the reelection of Trump, thereby putting final nail in the coffin of American democracy as we know it.”
As the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle pointed out in her column on the subject, the reality of running a $44-billion social media company goes beyond talking about free speech and promising an edit button. “He can certainly order people to take the heavy hands off the ban-hammer,” she later wrote on Twitter, “but day in and day out, it is still lower-level employees who will be making the ban decisions, because no one wants an actually unmoderated platform full of spam and child porn.”
That includes the multibillionaire who now owns it and has pledged his stake in Tesla — his first and true baby — against the money he borrowed to buy Twitter. For his part, Musk seemed to strike a less juvenile tone in his announcement about the deal. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans,” he said.
“Twitter has tremendous potential — I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”
In fairness to Musk, it’s not like Twitter is some digital Garden of Eden right now. Yes, it begrudgingly removed Donald Trump, along with fellow travellers like Alex Jones, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Milo Yiannopoulos. But it is still plagued by the influence of foreign-controlled bot farms, which have contributed massively to the spread of misinformation about COVID-19, among other sensitive subjects. There is a chance that a privately owned Twitter won’t feel the same need to artificially inflate its user data with them as the publicly traded one did and could therefore kick them off the platform entirely.
Musk’s Twitter takeover isn’t without its potential pitfalls, especially for progressives on the platform who worry about the return of Trump and his hurricane of hatred and misinformation. They’re also right to worry about what a Musk-owned Twitter might do with the direct message histories and other potentially sensitive user content it can access. His willingness to use his clout to advance far-right movements like the trucker convoy that occupied Ottawa in January should give just about everyone pause.
But those worries aren’t best addressed by waiting for a different billionaire to swoop in and save the company from Musk, as many people seemed to hope would happen. There is no such thing as a benevolent billionaire, and that’s especially true when it comes to something as fundamental to democracy as the flow of information. As dangerous as Musk might seem to that flow, he has a long way to go before what he’s doing can even be compared to the chaos Mark Zuckerberg has already wrought.
In his opening salvo of his campaign to take over Twitter, Musk described it as the “public square” of democracy, one that should be free of censorship or constraints. He’s not completely wrong about that, given the role Twitter plays in shaping our understanding of current events. But his attitude towards free speech, and the degree to which it might empower the worst actors in society, is a reminder that social media companies should never have been left to govern themselves. As Bloomberg’s Timothy O’Brien wrote, “Social media companies need to do a better job of vetting the information on their platforms. Musk shows no sign of being up to that task.”
Opinion: Now, the question is whether his bet on the social media company will pay off for him — and what it will mean for the rest of us, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #Twitter #ElonMusk
Now, more than ever, they cry out for proper regulation. The challenge, of course, is that people like Musk and Zuckerberg will almost certainly use their social media platforms to campaign against any new attempts to regulate them. That’s a fight elected officials must be willing to wage — and win. The future of democracy, and the crucial role that information plays in it, is now clearly at stake.