Beyond Musk’s oft-repeated rants about free speech, may lie shadier plans to recoup the $44bn he paid for the site
The world is burning and Ukraine is trudging into a winter of war. Prices are spiralling and the NHS is limping. The US and Brazil have held the line against fascism, just, while Italy has fallen to the far right. Watching the disastrous takeover of Twitter by the world’s richest bam can feel a little frivolous. So what if it becomes a rich boy’s toy? It often felt like that anyway.
But the thing is, we can’t solve the world’s problems without talking, and social media has become the way we do that. At its best, a space beyond the increasingly oligarch-owned press where citizens of the world can chatter, gossip, joke and revolt; can organise into new collectives and explore new identities and senses of self. At its worst, well, I don’t need to tell you.
And in that context, Twitter is important.
Not, particularly, because of its scale. The site has around 400 million active monthly users, compared with about three billion on Facebook, 2.5 billion on YouTube, 1.5 billion on Instagram and a billion on TikTok.
Nor because of its financial value – the company has made significant losses almost every year since it was founded in 2006.
Why, then? Why did Elon Musk pay $44bn for perhaps the world’s 15th-biggest social networking site, at a rate of more than $100 per user?
The answer is that Twitter has become a key space, particularly in certain countries, for discussion of politics; where disgraced politicians share resignation statements and journalists post scoops; where the kinds of people who used to write into newspapers respond and argue.
It’s the social media site of record and, compared with other social media, its users skew towards educated, middle-aged people with some kind of power. As such, its ownership confers power, of a sort: the power to set the boundaries of public debate.
What Musk claims
In a letter to the then-chair of Twitter’s board when he made his initial offer to buy the company in spring, Musk wrote: “I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy”. He went on to add: “The company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form. Twitter needs to be transformed.”
Read his public statements from the past year or so, and you get a strong sense of what he meant. When governments reportedly requested he block Russian news channels from using satellites operated by SpaceX (his spacecraft manufacturing firm), Musk refused, describing himself as a “free speech absolutist”. Weeks later, he polled his Twitter followers on whether they believed the site rigorously adheres to the principle of free speech – two million answered, 70% said no.
“Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square,” he responded, “failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?”
His offer to buy out the firm (he already owned 11% of shares) came less than three weeks later, and shortly after, he tweeted that Truth Social, the Twitter-like platform founded by Donald Trump for conspiracy theorists, racists and other assorted bigots, “exists because Twitter censored free speech”.
The implication was clear: Musk believes the various measures Twitter has taken in recent years to flag disinformation, hate speech and incitement to violence – most prominently banning Trump – have been a mistake.
When he finally arrived at Twitter last week, not just as the owner of the company, but also as its CEO, he did so with a sledgehammer. The entire human rights team, which worked to protect users around the world who face persecution because of what they’ve said online, was disbanded, leading to outcry from the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The team working to make the site more accessible to disabled people was sacked, as was the content curation team, a key part of the site’s work to counteract disinformation.
At the end of his week in California, Musk flew to New York for an hour-long discussion with billionaire Ron Baron at an investment conference, where he explained that he believes Twitter could become the “most valuable company on earth”.
He also claimed “the content moderation policies have not changed, it is not OK to engage in hateful conduct on Twitter” and said the question he’s asking himself is: “How do we get 80% of America [the rest of the world is clearly an afterthought], maybe not the extreme left and the extreme right, to join a digital town square, to voice their opinions and exchange ideas and, maybe once in a while, change their minds?”
Asked about racism, he asked: “Who’s going to stay on a platform if that’s prevalent?” Adding that “it is important to have a digital town square where people feel comfortable talking, one of the things that’s important is to be able to decide what kind of experience you want to have. You should be able to pick your preference – full-contact battles, or flowers and nice landscapes and stuff.”
Musk later clarified that he sees his Twitter Blue scheme, effectively a paid-for premium service, as the solution: “There is a huge problem with spam, bots and trolls, organisations trying to manipulate public opinion.” The answer, he said, is to “get as many regular people to be subscribers for $8 a month”, which would also mean their accounts are verified as being that of a real person. While unverified accounts may still exist, their content would be deprioritised, and disappear to “the equivalent of page eight of a Google search”.
Later still, he expanded further on his plans, seeming to suggest that once he’s got people paying for Twitter, he wants to launch more complex payment mechanisms through the site.
There has been some speculation about how this will work, but the basic idea seems to be that once people have bank cards connected to their Twitter accounts, content creators could, for example, charge users $1 to watch their videos. The money would be paid into an account held with Twitter, which would pay interest, gradually turning a social media platform into a sort of bank: a fintech start-up, but with 400 million users to try and tap.
“I was one of the key people behind x.com which became PayPal,” Musk said to Baron. “I know how to make a way better PayPal. There’s a product plan I wrote in July of 2000 where I thought it would be possible to make the most valuable financial product in the world, we’re going to execute that plan.”
Beyond his public comments, though, may be some shadier plans to recoup the significant amount he paid for the site – in a deal he initially tried to wriggle out of. Twitter’s revenue comes almost entirely from its ability to target adverts based on its capacity to know huge amounts about its users, meaning the firm has endless conflicts internally, and sometimes externally with government regulators, about privacy.
In the past few days, numerous senior staff responsible for compliance, privacy and security have resigned, shortly before they were due to file documents with US authorities overseeing their privacy practices. With Musk pushing engineers to develop new products rapidly – in a meeting with staff yesterday he floated the risk of bankruptcy – there is a suggestion that the engineers are being asked to ‘self-verify’ that their products meet privacy regulations, rather than subjecting them to the usual tests.
There are lots of obvious problems with Musk’s plan, even if he manages to avoid a death spiral to bankruptcy in the coming weeks as advertisers pull out. Perhaps most fundamentally, he’s going to struggle to get people to pay for a service they are used to getting for free, especially when he’s just slashed many of the staff who hold it together.
For many Twitter users, the anonymity it’s historically allowed has been a key attraction. The two major countries where Twitter use is most prevalent are Japan, where 46% of people have an account, and Saudi Arabia, where 40% do. When I asked Japan expert Nevin Thompson why Twitter is so popular in the country, he pointed to the fact that, unlike Facebook, for example, it doesn’t require you to use your real name. “Very generally speaking – Japan’s not a monolith – privacy is highly valued,” he said.
In Saudi Arabia, the need for privacy is, for obvious reasons, even stronger, though significant questions already hover over that, with prominent Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal being one of Twitter’s main investors.
Even if users do sign up for Twitter Blue, even if Musk and co can iron out the problem they already have with scammers buying verification, relegating bots to the bottom of everyone’s timeline will do little to solve Twitter’s actual problem. The majority of lies and abuse come from unashamed named accounts; the issue isn’t @xxxvaccinesarefake123, it’s @realdonaldtrump and @FoxNews.
And so the company ends up with the same big questions it’s always had. Who does it allow? Who does it ban? What kinds of speech are acceptable, and what aren’t? Can I use the N-word? And if not, then what about other terms of abuse for hundreds of other kinds of minoritised peoples around the world, including terms in different languages, and those that have evolved meaning in different ways in different cultures?
If I avoid using those terms, can I endlessly harangue women of colour? Am I allowed to post pornography? Or graphic images of dead people? Or photos of someone else’s children without their consent?
Can I, as Trump and his supporters did in 2021, use Twitter to attempt to overthrow the US government? Can I, as Egyptian democrats did in 2011, use it to try to overthrow the Egyptian government? And who decides which side of the line Venezuela sits on?
Until last week, these editorial questions were largely determined by the market. Advertisers wanted enough controversy to ensure potential consumers came to the site and saw their products, but they didn’t want their posts marred by association with the wrong kinds of nastiness, the kinds that might put customers off.
As Sunny Singh argued on Monday, the result was hardly great.
“As a woman of colour,” she wrote on openDemocracy, “my experience of the platform has always been vitiated by an overarching sense of violence: gendered, racialised and sexualised abuse has always been commonplace there. As I have written before, simply being online as a visible minority has long been seen as an invitation for abuse.”
Quoting the feminist theorist Flavia Dzodan, she adds, “the ‘theatre of cruelty’ remains at the heart of Twitter’s model, where abuse and violence against those who are historically marginalised is not only constantly, repeatedly, incessantly enacted but also presented as entertainment for audiences who have grown increasingly desensitised to this collective sadism and its effects. Over the past decade, this has developed into a near-perfect feedback loop: celebrities, journalists and politicians enact, lead and encourage abuse of marginalised peoples in either legacy or social media, and the abuse is then replicated and boosted on the other.”
What’s changed is that Musk has cast himself as emperor, and bought the amphitheatre. He can’t decide who wins the fight. But he can choose what weapons the gladiators are allowed; whether, when things get a bit dull, to release a lion or two; whether, at the end of the day, to put his thumb up or down.
Or, to put it another way, the richest man in the world, a man who this week urged voters to back the Republican Party in the US midterm elections, has appointed himself as editor-in-chief of one of the world’s biggest media outlets.
And, whatever he says about the rules not changing, a number of previously banned accounts have already been allowed back onto Twitter, while speculation circles about whether more bans – including Trump’s – will be lifted.
The result, unsurprisingly, is that at least some of those who produce free content for Twitter have walked away, including celebrities Stephen Fry, Gigi Hadid, Whoopi Goldberg and Jameela Jameel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, numerous advertisers appear to have followed them, in a move that Musk moaned was “an attack on the first amendment”, as though his firm has a legal right to advertising revenue.
Perhaps, with the company clearly in a degree of chaos, the whole thing will die sooner rather than later.
Perhaps, and particularly if the more libertarian end of Musk’s plans goes ahead, we’ll see a drift away from Twitter. Not necessarily a collapse, more likely just fewer people logging on for less long each week – people, particularly liberals and leftists, slowly finding their doom-scrolling is more focussed on other sites, that the blue bird is no longer the first app they open when they wake up in the morning. Perhaps, Twitter will be left, a bit like the forum 4Chan, as a gathering for teenage boys, incels and trolls; fascists, misogynists and Republican activists.
Perhaps, as Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group said to me earlier this week, the small number of key users who create valuable content, rather than just consuming it, are already shifting away. Academics and other experts, he suggested, are making the leap to sites such as Mastodon. “The subtler, more interesting people are going,” he says, and it’s only about 1-2% of accounts that produce the content which most people come for. Those who enjoy sitting in the Twitter audience will go wherever their preferred performers lead. Musk is, Killock predicts, “about five degrees off detonating the whole thing”.
But if he doesn’t, and if we take his plans seriously, then it seems to me that he’s looking to do something much more dangerous still. Perhaps the real risk isn’t that Musk fails, but that he succeeds.
If he genuinely wants to transform the “digital town square” into the “world’s most valuable financial product”, then he wants to bind an important space in our democracy even closer to the financial market, to run it not as a media outlet, but as a bank – with all the dangerous implications that follow. What happens when Twitter starts to lend people money, and to sell on packages of that debt? What happens when people try to use Twitter to raise the alarm when these financial products are rip-offs, or dangerous? What happens if the most senior staff at “the world’s public square” aren’t experts in running a social media site, but in speculating on asset prices?
And if Musk’s plan is to monetise everything, then ultimately, that will mean that access to that public square will be based on ability to pay, the richer you are, the louder your voice. Libertarians like to obsess over what they call ‘the marketplace of ideas’ but as in any marketplace, what that really means is the rich getting their way.
Righting past failures
Perhaps the most important lesson in all of this is that we should never have allowed platform monopolies to play such an important role in our democracies in the first place.
When the BBC first built iPlayer, why didn’t the government allow it to facilitate a space where the public could meet and debate?
Why haven’t EU regulations – as Open Rights Group have long argued they should – insisted that social media firms are mutually compatible in the same way that emails can be sent from Hotmail to Yahoo accounts, or that phones can ring and text between network providers?
Such interoperability, says Killock “Should have been in the EU’s Digital Markets Act. You need to intervene to protect people’s social investment. If competition authorities had gumption, they would have done these kinds of things.”
Why haven’t governments, as Martin Moore of King’s College London suggested to me, invested in supporting mixed models of ownership in social media, rather than allowing footloose finance and oligarch capital to own our public spheres?
The answer is that the arrival of the internet coincided with the peak of neoliberalism, when the assumption was that everything would be done by the market. But that world has self-detonated, with free markets leading to monopoly domination and entrenching oligarch wealth: in the first year of the pandemic, the world’s ten richest men doubled their wealth during the pandemic. And so the choice now is a different one: do we let oligarchs take over everything, or do we take back control?
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence