Twitter’s acquisition by Elon Musk is finally a done deal, and as expected, hot takes are coming in from all directions, both critical and complimentary. But there’s a lot more at stake than the company going private and falling into the hands of a free-speech absolutist who has his own well-documented history of censoring critical debate. But one facet of the blockbuster acquisition that has evoked the most passionate argument among experts is free speech on Twitter.
Musk has promised that he wants debates from all sides of an ideology to flourish, and has doubled down on the democracy-defending idea in the past few weeks. But with free speech comes abuse, toxicity, harassment, and every other evil that can be packaged in 140 characters or less. Musk lacks the experience to handle such sensitive issues that remain unsolved over a decade after the social media boom.
Free speech, transparency, and risks to democracy
Walter Shaub, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, remarked that Twitter was about to “become unbearably bad with a billionaire man-baby in charge.”
I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 25, 2022
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) called the deal a danger to democracy. Author and human rights activist Qasim Rashid notes that free speech is important, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to shield those that incite violence and promote terrorist ideals. Musk says he wants even his worst critics to stay on Twitter and likened that to free speech.
However, Musk himself maintains an expansive list of people he has blocked on the platform, which includes everyone from journalists to academics. Among those on Elon’s generous blocked list are people like eminent columnist and Columbia University professor Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, who shared a screenshot of the Tesla chief blocking him on Twitter.
Billionaires controlling the public discourse
Linette Lopez, a senior reporter at Insider, shared that Musk’s Twitter purchase is about Elon Musk himself and that it creates a new threat of billionaire trolls dominating social media. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich labeled the buyout as an example of a platform monopoly, claiming that no other brand provides as much convenience to reach millions of followers via short messages as Twitter does.
NBC columnist Ben Collins highlighted how Twitter is headed toward a nontransparent future when it comes to developing new products and features, now that it is a privately owned company.
More importantly, there wouldn’t be much oversight if Twitter decides to sell user data to brokers to make money. Given Twitter’s recent financial record — which is not very good — Musk faces the massive challenge of making money and paying back his loans. And if he can’t do it via ads or paid features, data brokerage is the only feasible option.
Emily Bell, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, expressed bewilderment at how a platform as big as Twitter can change ownership and go from a public to a private company with little scrutiny.
“The last thing we need is a Twitter that willfully turns a blind eye to violent and abusive speech against users, particularly those most disproportionately impacted,” Amnesty International wrote in a statement to Digital Trends, which reached out to the human rights organization for comment. But multiple experts have also highlighted the rising trend of billionaires chasing properties that can help them control the public discourse.
Jeff Bezos bought Washington Post in 2013. Jack Ma’s Alibaba acquired the media assets of the South China Morning Post in 2014. Salesforce chief Marc Benioff bagged Time magazine in 2018. Thai billionaire Chatchaval Jiaravanon landed Fortune the same year. And that’s excluding names like Rupert Murdoch, Michael Bloomberg, and the Springer family that amassed a fortune in the media business.
Those billions could be better spent
And now, Musk has joined the list with his Twitter purchase. The world’s richest man has faced criticism over splurging $44 billion dollars on a social media platform instead of opting for philanthropic endeavors. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at America Magazine, opined that all those billions could have been spent on providing food, water, medical aid, and shelter to those in need.
If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 31, 2021
Patrick Gathara of African publication The Elephant sarcastically tweeted that Musk’s purchase would help solve issues like diseases, gun violence, and the shambolic political landscape in his home continent. Jezebel editor-in-chief Laura Bassett and political podcast show host Brian Tyler Cohen highlighted how Musk could’ve eased world hunger if he had taken the UN’s offer to extend $6 billion in aid.
But Musk’s fat purchase of a troubled social media platform is not solely guided by an ambition to fix its issues and become a free speech messiah. As New York Times journalist Kara Swisher says, Twitter is the toy Musk will have the most fun with. Thanks to Twitter, Musk now owns a personal megaphone that he can use as he wishes to promote his business ventures and troll others. But the stakes are high.
Risky bet, but a support lobby is ready
As investor Ross Gerber puts it, Musk now controls “three of the most strategically important U.S. business assets” namely SpaceX, Tesla, and Twitter. And there’s a very real risk that some conflicts of interest bound to happen. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos questioned whether the deal means China now has leverage over Twitter, given Tesla’s deep-rooted business interests in the country. Interestingly, Bezos was quick to add that “Musk is extremely good at navigating this kind of complexity.”
Elon’s goal of creating a platform that is “maximally trusted and broadly inclusive” is the right one. This is also @paraga’s goal, and why I chose him. Thank you both for getting the company out of an impossible situation. This is the right path…I believe it with all my heart.
— jack⚡️ (@jack) April 26, 2022
However, there is another side to the debate that is more hopeful of a positive change. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey tweeted that Musk was “the singular solution” he trusts with solving the platform’s problems and extending the “light of consciousness.” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives told CNBC that the deal was a victory for investors, citing Twitter’s share price history and bleak moneymaking prospects in the immediate future.
Sriram Krishnan, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz and a former product lead at companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Snap, claimed that the platform needed a shake-up and it couldn’t be in better hands than Musk’s. The likes of CNBC contributor Alex Kantrowitz and venture capitalist Hunter Walk applauded Musk’s will to get things done once he sets his sight on an objective.
Reviving business without losing core appeal
But the current state of the market and advertising economy is not in Twitter’s favor. “If the advertising economy is slowing, then you would think Twitter is the least well-positioned social media company,” Rhys Williams, investment head at Spouting Rock Asset Management, told Barrons. It remains to be seen whether Musk can inject some energy into Twitter’s fortunes. But there just might be a silver lining here.
“By taking Twitter private through this acquisition, I’m hopeful the company will become less distracted by the turmoil of its ad business (i.e., the impact by ATT) and more focused on building its product to better serve as the de facto town square,” blogger Jane Manchun Wong told Digital Trends.
The challenges ahead are huge, and Musk’s inexperience with running a free-speech-loving social media platform is going to be a hurdle. But taking Twitter private will allow him to make the hard decisions that a public company that is answerable to shareholders can’t easily make. For now, Musk’s plans of open-sourcing the algorithm and eliminating the bot menace sound like a reasonable start, but it will be balancing the debate on Twitter that will truly be a test of his character.
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