Experts think that taking Twitter private has significant ramifications for shareholders, but much greater implications for democracy. The board of the social media business said this week that Tesla TSLA, 3.20 percent CEO and Twitter fan Elon Musk will be able to buy the platform for $44 billion. As word circulated quickly (on Twitter, of course) that the world’s wealthiest man had lined up the cash to take over the firm, the hashtags #DeleteTwitter and #RIPTwitter started trending.
Over the years, Musk has used Twitter lavishly – and controversially. In 2018, he was sued in a British court for defamation after labeling a British cave explorer a “pedo person.” Musk defended himself by saying he didn’t mean it literally when he stated he considered him a “scary old guy.” A British court found in 2019 that Musk did not disparage the explorer.
Musk is still involved in a dispute with the Securities and Exchange Commission over market-moving remarks he made in 2018 when he openly pondered in tweets that he was “thinking” of taking Tesla private, according to another long-running tale that played out on Twitter TWTR, -2.09 percent. He tweeted on Monday that the SEC’s San Francisco office “were blatant puppets of Wall Street short-seller sharks.”
Users on Twitter are likely to have differing views on whether Musk’s statements on taking Tesla private were too near to, or perhaps broke, SEC guidelines for public firms, and if the indecent British kerfuffle was an insult or something more serious. In any case, other observers are now debating far broader issues, such as the impact of a Musk-owned Twitter on democracy.
Musk, for one, has described Twitter as a raucous and energetic public square. “Free speech is the backbone of a functional democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where critical issues affecting humanity’s future are argued,” he said on Twitter. “Making the algorithms open source to boost trust, combat spambots, and authenticate all people,” he said.
The public square/free speech pitch does not sit well with everyone. That argument, according to Jennifer Grygiel, an associate professor of communications at Syracuse University, is intended to assist Musk in achieving his more important goal: shareholder approval for the sale. “It gives him a lot more clout with nations who use this platform to spread misinformation.” They said that Twitter has “devolved into a propaganda engine.” According to research, fake news travels quicker on Twitter than accurate ones, and the site may be used to successfully reinforce conspiracy theories that advance political goals.
While Twitter was instrumental in mobilizing protests during the Arab Spring in 2010 and the grassroots Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Grygiel believes that the platform’s most powerful users — politicians and big business — have a disproportionately large presence on the platform compared to those without celebrity or fortune. “Musk behaves more like a monarch,” they said. “He wants to be more like Mark Zuckerberg,” says the source.
As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has admitted, owning a social-media platform confers enormous power on the world stage —- yet firms have battled and failed to control the material that appears on their platforms, information that has the potential to impact elections. “On social media, we don’t speak about how statecraft works,” Grygiel remarked. “Twitter is used by all sectors of the federal government.” It’s not just about Musk; it’s about the nation, the president, and the worldwide geopolitical ramifications of his purchase of Twitter.”
Despite ongoing concerns about the quality of Twitter debate, the firm does have defined criteria for what is — and is not — considered appropriate. It forbids, among other things, threats of violence, terrorism/violent extremism, child sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, abusive behavior, and the advocacy of suicide/self-harm. Tracking and deleting any or all of the aforementioned, on the other hand, is a different task.
“Twitter’s moderation practices are far from ideal. “None of them are,” said Jeff Hancock, the Stanford Social Media Lab’s founding director. “They’ve put in a lot of effort to enhance their online dialogues and eliminate the really harmful ones. On that front, it’s unclear what Musk will do. His personal Twitter style has become a source of contention. Someone else would be fired if they tweeted the same things he did.”
Twitter has pledged to fight false news and remove phony accounts, but others view Musk as an even worse threat to civic dialogue. “It’s scary because one billionaire chooses how millions of people will be able to interact with each other,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, of Musk’s Twitter bid.
According to Donna Davis, an associate professor, and director of the University of Oregon’s Strategic Communication Master’s Program, Musk’s “freedom of expression” argument for his Twitter takeover is a huge oversimplification of Musk’s aim and leaves many problems unresolved. “What does it turn into?” Is Twitter destined to join the Dark Web as a result of its utter lack of filtering?”
A disinformation culture
Davis, like Warren, is worried about a single individual wielding such power over a site with 217 million daily users. “It’s the good, the terrible, and the ugly,” says the narrator. We’ve already seen the worst of it: how unmanaged social media material has created a misinformation culture and shattered so much of our civilization. It will only grow worse if left unchecked, and [become] possibly hazardous.”
She went on to say that user anonymity might contribute to a poisonous culture and affect elections. “I recall back in the day when you had to sign your name to an op-ed because you owned it and had to deal with the repercussions,” Davis remarked. “So that more people may have and share a voice.” They found protection in anonymity, but they also discovered power, which they utilized in a very terrible manner.”
According to Aram Sinnreich, an associate professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C., “big tech” holds great influence. “American billionaires are practically oligarchs,” he remarked, adding that they have a disproportionate influence in politics and the public arena. “Wealth disparity and a billionaire class that cannot be controlled, taxed, or held responsibly are catalyzing all of this.”
As the author of an upcoming science fiction book and a huge lover of the genre, Sinnreich portrays a bleak, even fatalistic picture of social media as “digital fiefdoms ruled by billionaires.” “This is effectively a massive referendum on what the future of America’s democratic society looks like, and the weather vane is not pointing in the right way right now,” he said.
Sinnreich believes that the geopolitical impact of social media platforms was foreshadowed in 2010 by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which arguably ushered in a wave of campaign spending by removing century-old barriers preventing private corporations from directly funneling money into electioneering.
Would active Twitter users notice a change if Musk took over the company? According to Mark Beal, assistant professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information and author of “Gen Z Graduates to Adulthood,” Twitter could look very different in a few years, focusing more on engagement with videos like TikTok and photos like Instagram — while simultaneously morphing into a platform with less oversight.
He believes that if the site’s monitoring of tweets is reduced, it would lose its credibility as a source of breaking news. “What might Twitter be?” you may wonder. Beal was perplexed. “I’m not sure where it could go.” What form or shape may it take? Is it going to be able to compete with Facebook? Platforms such as Twitter are monitoring material and, in some cases, eliminating it. What happens if there’s a new person in control who is more likely to open things up?”
One of the doubters is Andrew DeVigal, director of the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center. DeVigal said he feels anxious anytime a billionaire, such as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, the creator of Amazon AMZN, -0.15%, has a large role in influencing everything from how people interact as a society in public venues like Twitter to how we buy things on the internet.
However, he also said that power might come and go. “There were days when neither Twitter nor Facebook FB, -2.04 percent existed,” he remarked. “It is undeniable that Instagram has maintained its relevance and popularity. However, individuals are migrating from one platform to another. Take a look at TikTok. Twitter has a lot of clouts, but it’s just a platform. Who could have predicted that people would abandon Netflix NFLX, -3.19 percent?”
DeVigal recognizes Musk’s goal and desire for Twitter as a public square. However, he agreed with Grygiel that some Twitter users are more equal in the digital world than others. “Those who lead with inquiry, balance, and complexity of who we are as a society frequently become the loudest because they receive the greatest amplification, in contrast to those who lead with curiosity, balance, and complexity of who we are as a society.”
He claims that the extremes — emotional and political, left and right — suffocate the atmosphere. “As a culture, we need to agree on what kind of world we want to live in. Can we use that platform to foster civility and genuine interest in our definitions of facts and truth? There is no true base to establish a robust democracy on if we don’t function in the reality of what we identify as truths.”