Herald View: A fox in charge of a henhouse?
Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is significant because only four companies—Alphabet , Meta , ByteDance (TikTok) and Twitter— globally dominate the social media space
Elon Musk’s acquisition of social media platform Twitter is significant because only four companies—Alphabet (parent of Google and YouTube), Meta (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp), ByteDance (TikTok) and Twitter— globally dominate the social media space. All four companies enjoy extraordinary powers to shape opinion and direct or deflect public attention from issues ranging from war to public policy to elections. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, not surprisingly, has divided the Internet and fuelled intense speculation over the future of not just Twitter but of the Internet itself, and of free speech and democracy. Twitter users are less than a tenth of Meta’s but the platform has enjoyed disproportionate influence because politicians, business leaders, public intellectuals, writers, journalists and activists are all active on it. Twitter has been driving discourse around politics, finance, technology, media and society.
Following Musk’s takeover of Twitter, an overpriced deal which he tried to wriggle out of and was eventually nudged by a court to honour, the platform has ceased to be a publicly traded company. It is now a private company with Musk, who fired the entire Twitter board and has promised to downsize the staff strength, enjoying absolute control. The disruptive deal has heightened suspicion over Musk’s ability to balance free speech with his business interests. Musk is no ordinary businessman. He sells his state-of-the-art rockets and aerospace technology to South Korea, Turkey and a growing list of other countries. He has Tesla factories in Germany and China. He also owns and controls more than 3,000 satellites circling the Earth. The US military uses his rockets and satellite communications services for its drones, ships and aircraft. NASA has no way to get American astronauts to the International Space Station without his space capsule. He produces more electric cars than any other automobile manufacturer, plans to colonise Mars and develop robots that can cook dinner. He will possibly find it difficult to reconcile his ever-growing business interests with demands for content moderation on Twitter from governments, especially in countries like China and India, both largely untapped markets for him. He is already under pressure to dismantle the label of ‘Chinese state-affiliated media’ from hundreds of handles allegedly promoted by the Chinese state. With other governments not entirely innocent in this respect, it will be interesting to see how Musk navigates this minefield.
Described variously as brilliant, erratic, arrogant and impulsive, Musk has often courted controversy with his own ‘reckless’ tweets. His publicly expressed stand against policing social media content could trigger a rise, many fear, in disinformation, bullying, harassment and fake news. A spike in hate speech on Twitter has already been reported. Those who have argued that Musk will be good for Twitter and the Internet have pointed to his desire to eliminate fake accounts and bots and to make the platform’s algorithm ‘open source’. Twitter, they rightly point out, in any case had done little before the takeover to stop misinformation barring belated attempts to label tweets as unverified. There is much less surprise at Musk’s attempts to charge a fee from Twitter users for ‘blue tick’ authentication, advertisement-free access to content and rights to edit tweets. Musk part-financed his hostile takeover with loans and he needs to pay them back. His plans to collect subscription from users, however, is unlikely to add much to Twitter’s revenue, the bulk of which comes from advertisers and is in the region of $5 billion, compared to Meta’s $115 billion. The fee that Musk plans to collect, it is calculated, will not amount to even $100 million.
The real risk may lie elsewhere. Twitter can become more elitist, more exclusive and perhaps a global club of the privileged. It may also, in its transformation under Musk, shut out minority opinion, and indeed minorities and the marginalised, and drift very far from becoming the ‘digital town square’ Musk declared he wanted Twitter to be.