It’s a recurrent theme in dystopian science fiction novels: the wealthiest man on Earth takes control of the world’s largest news platform.
Sounds familiar? That's because it has become a reality in recent weeks.
Elon Musk’s Twitter operetta has become daily bread for news organizations, reporting on the ways his acquisition has affected the company’s operations.
But the consequences of taking Twitter private are likely to spill over beyond the platform’s own functionalities and features, potentially affecting the global news flow itself.
Can the wealthiest man on earth use the world's most influential news platform for his own benefit?
A Bird Trapped In A Tornado
Since the acquisition was confirmed late last month, Twitter entered an operational thunderstorm that’s severely affected the platform’s business and infrastructure.
On Thursday evening, hundreds of employees chose not to follow Musk’s request to join “Twitter 2.0,” effectively handing in their resignations and joining the 7,500 employees laid off by Musk in recent weeks.
Musk's cleansing of Twitter has left the company running on a wireframe workforce, endangering the platform’s ability to continue business as usual.
“For better or worse. Twitter is a crucial disaster comms tool, and we don’t have a replacement,” says Ashish Prashar, global chief marketing officer of R/GA, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world.
Prashar is concerned about the consequences that a dysfunctional Twitter can have on the world in a time of regional, national and global crisis.
But Musk’s purge has had deeper effects than the turmoil of recent weeks. His changes to the company have the power to deeply affect its status as the 21st century’s digital public square.
Among the many layoffs, Musk dissolved the company’s board and fired top executives including CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO Ned Segal and legal affairs and policy chief Vijaya Gadde.
Musk has become Twitter’s indisputable commander-in-chief, and in that role, he wields a power that in many ways is larger than what can be achieved with his fortune alone.
Twitter As The Web’s Public Square
“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,” said Musk back in April, as he laid down his offer to buy Twitter.
Yet by becoming the platform’s sole director, Musk can become a danger for the same freedom of speech principles he claims to defend.
According to a recent study by Pew Research, Twitter is the most used social media platform by journalists and people in media.
The platform is widely used by reporters as a “newspaper of newspapers,” where the main subjects of the day become decided by a series of algorithms, allegedly built to reflect real-world issues.
Twitter has also taken the role of the “digital town square”: a space where exchanges between influential figures are made public, which has wide effects on the formation of public opinion, across demographic groups.
“Where Twitter has a lot of power is that people can interact with their elected officials directly, unlike any other social network, and trust that they are speaking directly to those individuals,” says R/GA’s Prashar.
The platform has also become a major tool for political action, says Jonathan Bertrand, founder and creator of Social Media Case Management, who advocates for a healthier use of social media through the Social Media Research Institute.
“We see people use it to get their news and mobilize political actions and social issues, like during the Arab Spring uprisings, to help coordinate protests and share information,” says Bertrand.
In Prashar’s words, “Twitter also has helped bring down governments.”
In 2021, Twitter, Facebook META and Google GOOG came under the scrutiny of Congress for their role as major distributors of information.
Based on the size of its user base, Twitter serves a public purpose. While the company has always remained for-profit, its status as a public company gave it more room for public scrutiny, as exchange-listed companies are obliged to report on quarterly operations.
By taking Twitter private, Musk gained the power to shut the blinds on what goes on inside its offices, which can become a cause for concern for those that deem the platform a provider of public services.
The Risks Of An Elon-Owned, Musk-Run Twitter
Twitter’s purchase by Musk is not the first time a billionaire spent a significant portion of their wealth in the name of free speech.
Back in 2013, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in an effort to keep the legendary newspaper out of bankruptcy. The acquisition cost $250 million, which at the time represented roughly 1% of Bezos’ $25 billion fortune.
Yet Musk’s Twitter bid can hardly be compared to Bezos’ newspaper purchase. Musk is estimated to have invested about $33 billion of his own capital in the Twitter purchase, which amounts to 18% of his $181 billion fortune.
His motives could be purely altruistic, but it could also be the case that Musk intends to exploit his control of the platform for his own personal gain, and the success of his projects, which include electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla Inc TSLA and space exploration company SpaceX.
“Anyone who controls a platform for users to share their thoughts and feelings on current events could change what type of content or hashtags are allowed to be shared and how far of a reach that content can achieve,” says Bertrand.
There's no consensus on exactly what changes Musk plans to enact on his new Twitter. But there's nothing technically preventing him from manipulating which hashtags or voices are amplified and which ones are left as background noise.
According to R/GA’s Prashar, Musk’s goals are ideological in nature. He says that Musk and his backers believe that “the global geopolitical arena was being [affected] by too much 'woke' ideology and censorship” and want to fix that “by first restoring voices that had previously been banned for good reason.”
However, it remains to be seen whether Twitter will make any major changes to its content algorithms in the near future.
“Filtering harmful content is nothing new; however, if we see opinions about Musk’s projects become censored, we should worry about what else we are not being told,” says Bertrand.
Conversely, Musk might simply use the platform for increased exposure through advertising and weighted reach for his projects, he says.
Prashar has deeper concerns for Twitter under Musk’s control.
“Musk got angry at AOC and disappeared her account for an evening,” he says, in reference to the account history of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez disappearing from the platform after the lawmaker fell into a public feud with Musk. He responded to the glitch by joking that it was a "naked abuse of power."
“Ultimately, we are dealing with the fact that social engineering through control of the information environment is an inevitable reality – the only question is who has the means and the moral authority to do it,” says Prashar.
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