Aided by a healthy dose of investors, Elon Musk is set to purchase Twitter for a whopping $44 billion. This news has ignited public response with some celebrating the acquisition as a victory against old Twitter’s arbitrary censorship. Others have been deleting their accounts in protest afraid that new Twitter will now become a cesspool of vitriol and hate speech. Surely by taking the company private and out of the privy eyes of regulators, Musk can now choose to run the social media company of nearly 400 million users according to his own standards. For a platform with as much influence in shaping global narratives as Twitter has, that can be a cause for concern.
But perhaps we are ignoring Twitter’s history when we think Musk sitting atop the throne spells doom for free speech. Because to say that would be to assume Twitter has previously been an epitome of intellectual discourse. On the contrary, Twitter’s model is entirely based on cashing in on human biases. Maximum engagement on Twitter is determined by packing the most punch in 280 characters. By reducing users’ thoughts down to a game of numbers, it actively encourages the most outlandish and egregious ideas. Those already prone to preconceived notions share such tweets without regard to reality, and users feel validated by seeing their like and retweet numbers go up. In the world of Twitter, truth is an anchor.
His political beliefs are all over the place, and, on top of that, he is known to be mercurial and vindictive. It is entirely possible for him to regulate the space in line with his beliefs. In other words, the ‘Musk agenda’, whatever that may be, can become Twitter’s new operation model. But this would be highly unlikely
So, it would be disingenuous now to say that Twitter will transform for the worse after Musk’s acquisition of it. The media industry has always been adept at exploiting our cognitive biases for monetary gain. Investigative journalism has given way for ‘he said, she said’. Journalists have made way for analysts who advance stories based on their version of events. Facts are often considered an encumbrance. TV channels and newspapers mostly focus on the ‘what’ instead of the ‘why’. Twitter has simply taken this phenomenon and amplified it manifold, contributing to polarisation in society.
Nevertheless, any discussion of Twitter’s new ownership would be incomplete without addressing the elephant in the room. Lesser oversight and regulation, and greater autonomy does give one pause to think about the impact Musk can single-handedly have on the global brand. Musk’s own political affiliations are anyone’s guess. In the past, he has been against both unions and taxing the rich. He once ridiculed US Senator Elizabeth Warren for suggesting billionaires should pay more in taxes.
At the same time, he has been an ardent supporter of the Paris Climate Agreement and openly disagreed with Trump’s immigration policies. His political beliefs are all over the place, and, on top of that, he is known to be mercurial and vindictive. It is entirely possible for him to regulate the space in line with his beliefs. In other words, the ‘Musk agenda’, whatever that may be, can become Twitter’s new operation model. But this would be highly unlikely.
While accountability to investors and regulators might now be gone, that to the public remains. Old Twitter took a lot of flak for its non-transparent and arbitrary censorship. In the US, this criticism came mostly from the right, who accused Twitter of routinely silencing conservative voices under the guise of violation of ‘community guidelines’, while known hate-mongers continued to use the space with impunity. Most notably, Donald Trump was banned after the Jan 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. As a response to Twitter’s censorship, Trump started his own social media company called ‘Truth Social’. Musk has indicated an intention to reverse the ban.
While Twitter’s intentions might have been pure, the ends did not justify the means. Their policies only served to alienate and create resentment within certain communities. Musk is conscious of that, and early indications show that he wishes to move past these controversies. His suggestion to make Twitter’s algorithm open source and cracking down on bots might go some way into addressing polarization, but more drastic measures will need to be taken. To reduce censorship, Musk has suggested that all speech allowed by the law will be permitted, which presents a problem. There is no universal set of laws that govern free speech. This might work for the US but what happens when a foreign government tries do a quid pro quo asking Musk to silence dissenters in return for allowing Tesla sales to continue in that country?
Musk recently said that the deal is temporarily on hold until more information about the number of fake and spam accounts on the platform can be gathered. Some have taken this to mean that Musk has realised he has bitten off more than he can chew and is trying to back away from the deal. However, as a shrewd businessman, and in true Musk fashion, he could be gaming the system once more by using this announcement to drive the purchase price down, or buy time until he can get more investors on board.
Elon Musk is an innovator who has completely transformed the electric car industry with his out-of-the box and often incomprehensible thinking. Twitter needs a revolution, and Musk might be the ideal person for that job. The fact that Twitter is now off the open market might help with that aim, as projecting growth and profits might not be as important as they were before, allowing for greater flexibility. If Musk can truly make Twitter politically neutral and manage its toxicity and polarising impact on society, this acquisition can prove to be for the public good.