The Irish Times view on Elon Musk and Twitter: a pyrrhic victory

The billionaire’s musings about the future of Twitter expose the fragility of our digital spaces for collective discourse

Six months after technology entrepreneur Elon Musk made an impromptu $43 billion offer for social media platform Twitter, the fate of the deal, and Musk’s motivation and commitment, remain as baffling as some of his frequent tweets.

Since the April offer, Musk and Twitter’s board have engaged in a titanic struggle for the company. Twitter at first tried to retain control. But then, as the global economy began to churn, so too did the value of technology companies. Musk, bound to a now-overpriced Twitter, sought an exit. Twitter then turned tables, aiming to force him to complete the deal by taking him to court in a case that was due to begin this month. But this week, Musk suddenly stated he’d go through with the deal, albeit with fresh stipulations – if his bank funding comes through, and the case is halted.

If Musk does acquire the company, it will be a pyrrhic victory. Though Musk is a billionaire, much of his wealth is on paper. He lacked the wealth to fund the deal outright and is dependent on bank loans and cash commitments from billionaire friends. If Musk’s always-wandering focus becomes mired in Twitter’s ongoing financial and functional problems, his other companies may suffer. But the rest of us should also be worried. Musk’s musings about taking Twitter private, minimising content moderation and re-admitting banned extreme figures to a platform that retains a significant role in public discussion – and disinformation – exposes the fragility of our digital spaces for collective discourse.

If billionaires can gain control of these spaces, perhaps only on a whim, global concern is justified. We still don’t fully understand the implications and impact of our social media platforms. We know they can bring numerous benefits, but also have proven horrifically damaging, affecting individuals, organisations, even democracy. We haven’t yet found any adequate way to fully identify, much less manage, such threats. When a platform such as Twitter becomes a billionaire’s plaything, the need for global focus in addressing such challenges is obvious, and urgent.