Elon Musk’s decision to make a serious offer for Twitter – one buttressed by massive loans, as much of his own richest-man-in-the-world wealth is on paper or tied up elsewhere – has kept everyone talking, as ever, about Elon.
From his (vague) remarks on what he will do with it, it seems he has not been overtaxed in contemplating the daunting challenges of running a social media platform. Much of what he has proposed would be likely to drive people from the platform, not attract them to it.
Musk’s own use of Twitter isn’t exactly exemplary. He’s caused his own serious US regulatory headaches by comments he has posted there about his companies.
He can be amusing, yes, but sometimes the attempts at humour are at the expense of others, especially cruel and petty when you have 80 million followers. He has been accused of acting as a high-profile troll, baiting and badgering people, sometimes complete unknowns, including, disturbingly, a teenager, and drawing down the Twitter wrath of thousands of his bullying Muskovites upon them, including, this week, a Twitter executive.
You might say Musk’s use of Twitter represents some of what people like least about the platform he hopes to buy (he has made an offer that Twitter’s board has accepted, but the sale still has to be put to shareholders and examined by regulators, a process that will last months).
It’s impossible to know what the mercurial Musk will do with the company, or how he expects to make any money. But those huge loans mean his private toy must aim towards profitability.
His headline statement is that he wants to make Twitter the bastion of global “free speech” and rein in content moderation. That’s mostly been taken as a dreary indication that nearly anything goes for the next Twitter iteration. But it’s an empty promise. There is no global free speech standard, but legions of them. Twitter must comply with those local and international versions and regulations.
By Tuesday, Musk had, oh so vaguely, rowed back and tweeted that free speech “simply mean(t) that which matches the law”. But, same difference. Which law? Which interpretations (because a law is just a baseline starting point)? Even in the US, where speech is constitutionally enshrined, it’s a limited right. And people and organisations can sue for defamation and injury.
Ironically, Musk's own version of "free speech" has limitations. This is a man who has aimed to stifle those who criticise him personally, or his companies. Some serious personal and employee grievances have not been tolerated, as ongoing ex-employee complaints and lawsuits indicate.
Other bad ideas? Requiring the authentication of every user, removing anonymity. This sounds reasonable, but there are so many reasons not to do this. First off, the most vulnerable will be more exposed and their own speech further suppressed if even worse “anything goes” trolldom is the new Twitter.
Also, Twitter already possesses a trove of personal, sensitive information based on facts and inferences from what people and organisations tweet. This should not be tied firmly to state-issued identification. Finally, many people’s lives and safety depend on social media anonymity in countries under repressive regimes. Social media remains a critical tool for dissidence and pro-democracy activism.
Crucially here, Twitter’s data store and discourse control raises extremely important questions for regulators and for society, going beyond even those that will ultimately be relevant due to the EU’s implementation of its important new Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act. Alongside growing cross-party concerns in the US about the ownership and power of social media platforms, the Acts will have direct impact on how huge platforms such as Twitter operate – yet another reason the Musk “free speech” and minimal moderation agenda is a nonsense, unless he exits dozens of markets.
But now more than ever, lawmakers must go beyond, and consider the sheer power of these companies, their massive private data hoards drawn from international populations and the global communication significance of a medium used by individuals, businesses, organisations and governments.
Should billionaires with fortunes equivalent to some national GDPs be in control of these data and communications empires? Wealthy owners ran media empires in the past, problematical enough in the age of print. But now, online media and social media platforms inhale extraordinary amounts of user data while also possessing the means to control and manipulate local to global discourse. We’ve all seen how swiftly “free speech” slides into and is used as an excuse for disinformation.
Internationally, no government or regulator has shouldered responsibility for addressing the power of ownership, this most worrying of all developments. Perhaps the time has come to reclassify the big news and social media platforms as infrastructure, subject to greater public obligations and ownership and operational restrictions.
We must stop seeing these billionaire purchases as isolated investments, and recognise them as the threatening data and discourse-controlling power grabs they are.