By Paris Marx
Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, has bought Twitter. Musk says he’s trying to safeguard democracy and promote free speech — but what does a mega-billionaire with a history of silencing critics and retaliating against workers know about democracy?
On April 4, Elon Musk disclosed his 9.2 per cent stake in Twitter. That news set off a nearly month-long back and forth that saw Musk almost take a seat on the board, before reversing course and instead of announcing plans for a complete takeover on April 14.
Initially, there was scepticism over Musk’s acquisition plan. In his offer letter, he said it was a good deal and his final offer — if the board didn’t take it, he’d consider selling his stake and walking away. Funding had not been secured, which led investors to question whether he was serious. But in the days that followed, Musk put together a mix of loans and personal equity to show he could finance the deal, and on April 25, the board accepted his $44 billion offer.
As a result, Twitter will once again become a private company, and regardless of what position Musk gives himself, he’ll have immense power to direct the future of a platform that is central to public discourse in many countries around the world. But what changes he actually makes, and whether users will really abandon Musk’s Twitter, remains to be seen.
Free speech for whom?
In the lead-up to his purchase of the social media platform, Musk had positioned himself as a defender of free speech. Anyone with a good grasp of reality can see that this isn’t true, as Musk has a history of silencing his critics and retaliating against his workers, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have a material impact on how he directs Twitter’s content moderators to approach their work.
In a statement after the deal was finalized, Musk wrote that “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” There is some degree of truth to that, though the idea that Twitter encourages reasoned dialogue that benefits society over shitposting is a bit of a stretch.
Musk’s understanding of the concept of free speech comes from the right-wing commentators he increasingly associates himself with and who accuse social media platforms of silencing conservative voices. They’ve founded a series of alternative social networks like Parler and Gab in recent years that claim to respect “free speech,” but are mostly about allowing people to say whatever vile things they like.
To be fair, Musk has made statements that suggest he won’t completely abandon every rule. In a TED interview, he said he would err on the side of not taking down posts and prefers limited time-outs to bans, but there would still be a role for human moderators and he’d respect the laws of various countries. He’s also said he’d “defeat the spam bots or die trying!” More broadly, he’s talked about extending access to verification, opening up the company’s algorithms, and tinkering with a number of other features.
It’s likely he’ll find that reshaping a major social media platform isn’t as easy as simply telling people under him what he wants them to do. There will also be unintended consequences to anything he attempts, particularly on content moderation, which could provoke anger among Twitter’s employees. Musk has a history of considering himself an expert on things he actually knows little about and a habit of firing people who tell him things he doesn’t want to hear.
All of that means it’s hard to know exactly what Twitter’s future will look like. There’s a particularly terrible version that resembles the repugnance of Parler or Gab; there’s another where the changes are minor, and the billionaire’s interest eventually moves on to something else. But there is also the natural question of what the acquisition tells us about capital’s control of the digital space, how to respond, and whether it’s possible to secede to a better alternative.
Is there an alternative?
In response to the acquisition, there was a subset of Twitter users that claimed they would leave the platform or at least sought to imagine how things could be better than they are today. Those exiting have gravitated toward Mastodon, a decentralized alternative that started in 2016 and gets renewed attention every time left-leaning people get mad at Twitter, but which has never really caught on. It’s unlikely that will change even with Musk taking the helm.
When considering alternatives, the suggestions often amount to a return to some moment in the Web’s past that was perceived to be better: the early days of the Web, the moment when many people used Tumblr, or the time immediately before the dominance of today’s platforms when blogging was popular. While the revival of the blogosphere may seem appealing, proposals to turn back the clock to an idealized period in the history of the Internet fail to consider how the structural incentives of the Web have shifted.
Since those moments, the Internet has undergone a further process of consolidation and commercialization, which allows capitalists to exert more power and extract greater returns from what we do online. Centralization has also made the Web easier to use and provided certain benefits for users. To reverse course, or to get off a track that’s sending us toward the dystopias of a crypto-based Web3 or the metaverse, those incentives would need to be fundamentally altered — something that would require a policy response that itself takes aim at the underlying capitalist forces driving those developments.
Within certain tech circles, there’s a desire to believe that solving structural problems simply requires the right technological solution, even though we have decades of evidence that capitalism can co-opt even the most well-meaning innovations to serve its ends. But serious proposals for an alternative platform infrastructure need to contend with the social, political, and economic factors that have brought us to this moment, and that will need to be addressed to enable a more just and democratic alternative.
What comes after Twitter?
In taking over Twitter, Musk has demonstrated that his wealth means he neither needs nor cares to think seriously about the implications of his proposals. Instead, his plans for a platform with millions of users are driven by his individual experience. He sees spam bots in his mentions, so he perceives them to be a problem. But he doesn’t encounter the harassment that the political right (or Musk himself) can unleash on people, so that’s not on his priority list. This is clearly not a practical, sustainable, or fairway of governing the mass infrastructure social media platforms have become.
There’s unlikely to be a mass Twitter exodus because of Musk for the simple reason that this kind of drama is exactly what Twitter’s most dedicated users live for. But it is possible that his purchase of the company is an important marker in the company’s history — one that signals the beginning of its decline, and the need not just to build alternatives, but to create the broader conditions for them to thrive in a way that Mastodon has not.
Paris Marx is the host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast and author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, coming in July from Verso Books.