Surprise, surprise: Another billionaire has bought another toy. Elon Musk seems to have finalized a deal to take Twitter private and unleash the value he insists it has had all along.
During Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s tenure as chief executive, he was criticized as an ineffective leader partly because of his libertarian leanings and partly because he ran another company―Square, which now calls itself Block. So, it may come as a surprise that a chorus of voices is now insisting that Musk, who seemingly shares similar politics but owns and runs even more companies (e.g. SpaceX, Boring Company, Tesla, NeuraLink), will save Twitter. Still, that’s what a coalition of right-wing pundits who think he’s on their side, “free speech absolutists,” Musk cultists, and even Dorsey himself seem to believe.
For others, though, the news of the world’s richest man—an unapologetic shitposter with main character syndrome—buying Twitter was cause for a meltdown.
Many threatened to leave Twitter altogether, with some critics reminding people that using a site owned by Musk means you’re doing free labor aimed at further enriching the world’s richest man. This is true, but it’s also not unique to Musk. In that framework, we were doing free labor for Twitter shareholders like Vanguard Group, BlackRock, and the Saudi royal family before Musk’s acquisition. Both Vanguard and Blackrock have undoubtedly done more harm than Musk to this world through just one section of their portfolio―they are some of the world’s largest investors in fossil fuels―and the Saudis are busy committing war crimes against Yemenis, so it’s hard to argue that a moral calculus that allowed us to freely shitpost for their benefit would now compel us to stop. Twitter was always a vehicle for billionaire cash, just not from ones with a taste for publicity like Musk.
Others have pinned their hopes on intervention from the federal government to block the deal, but this borders on delusional. Former administration officials who helmed the Justice Department’s antitrust division and Federal Trade Commission told the New York Times that while regulators might examine the purchase, as the size of the acquisition will require Musk to submit the deal for their review, they’re unlikely to block it because it doesn’t pose a competition problem. If Musk wanted to buy another company that builds electric cars, or rockets, or attempts to win government contracts to build pointless tunnels, regulators at least might have something to say; why they’d object to a rich person buying a company unrelated to their existing businesses just because it happens to be Twitter isn’t clear.
The reality is the deal will most likely sail through because ours is a world where major communication platforms, the infrastructure necessary to provide digital goods or services, and nearly every other aspect of the digital world—just like the analog one—is structured with private interests and profits prioritized above all else. Musk taking over from another set of wealthy individuals and corporations is not necessarily a better or worse circumstance, but it does reveal the framework that Twitter always sat within, even if it’s recently become popular to refer to it as a “town square” akin to a public good, mostly driven by aggrieved right-wingers who believe that social media is a liberal plot.
The problems highlighted by Musk’s apparent purchase won’t be solved focusing solely on this or that billionaire’s stewardship or this or that group of shareholders. (It’s worth noting that the deal only came about because Musk—whose wealth is largely tied up in the value of his companies—is being enabled by Morgan Stanley and “certain other financial institutions” that are offering $13 billion in debt, $12.5 billion in loans backed by Musk’s Tesla stock, i.e. more debt, and $21 billion worth of equity financing.)
The world’s richest man will soon own Twitter. The second-richest man (Jeff Bezos) owns the Washington Post. The third-richest man (Bernard Arnault) owns French publisher Lagardère Group, which owns a host of major news media organizations in Europe. Two of the 10 richest men (Larry Page and Sergey Brin) own Google. Mark Zuckerberg, one of the richest 20 men in the world, owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. If you are looking for another rich übermensch to save you, I’ve got bad news.
There are, of course, alternatives we should aspire to, and they don’t include billionaires. In The Nation, Victor Pickard points out that there are an abundance of proposed models (public utilities, cooperatives, protocols, etc.) but that our options, at the moment, are limited to “broaden[ing] our conversations about how platforms should be designed, financed, and governed.”
Alternatives like open and public protocols are worth pursuing for a variety of reasons: they could foster innovation through competition as well as novel business models (for the capitalists reading this), decentralize walled gardens while empowering users and workers by handing over more control over privacy and governance (for the socialists reading this), and maybe even intentionally decide what the shape, form, and purpose of communication services like Twitter should be.
In a Twitter thread talking about the acquisition, Dorsey said Twitter “wants to be a public good at a protocol level, not a company.” He also believes Twitter is “the closest thing we have to a global consciousness” and trusts Musk’s “mission to extend the light of consciousness.” None of that means anything concrete, precisely because Twitter and every other communication service that operates as a platform for private profit rationalizes its social utility ex post facto to match its valuation, or user base, or some other metric as opposed to some sort of actual, intelligible purpose. (It also shows that the service has long been controlled by a techno-mystic who appears to think his business transactions are carried out at a civilizational if not galactic scale, so Musk may not represent much change at all even in theory.) Things can and should be different.
“Existing platforms try to be all things for all people,” Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, wrote in a thread on platform governance. “Is Twitter a robust civic public sphere? A place for shitposting? A place for experimental bot-based poetry? The fact that it’s all makes it very hard to govern. Lots of social networks, aggregated, each with purpose.”
As Zuckerman writes elsewhere in the thread, the solution is a hard one that requires us—each and every one of us, as individual people, as well as members of collectives—to actually limit how much we invest in social networks we don’t govern. To stop begging for better billionaires or better moderation, but instead build and find platforms that empower collective governance. To push for adversarial interoperability, or as Cory Doctorow puts it, “when you create a new product or service that plugs into the existing ones without the permission of the companies that make them.” Migrating to other services is only part of the solution, because we need to both find alternatives that prioritize users over owners and allow people to maintain ties (or control data) they’ve built in other places.
So, where does that leave us right now? What can we expect from Musk in the meantime?
Charlie Warzel writes that Twitter has, as an unnamed senior executive there told him, for years been a “honeypot for assholes,” and how this is unlikely to change with Musk’s ascension. “The only thing I’m confident about is that Musk will return the company to its founding ethos—one that all of Twitter’s founders later lamented as overly simplistic or naive about the nuances of running a technology platform at scale,” Warzel writes. “And so, Twitter will be left to face the problems of an aggressively polarized and increasingly toxic political and cultural environment with little of the crucial hindsight of its past.”
Thus, Twitter is unlikely to change much, if at all. And if it does, it will likely be a version that is familiar to us―it was only a few years ago, after all, that Twitter was a private company possessed by the same sort of purportedly free-speech maximalist rhetoric that Musk is now parroting. If the past few years have proven anything, it’s that Musk is a salesman who will say what an audience wants to hear so that he can do what he wants.
“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,” Musk said in a statement. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential—I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”
As many critics have pointed out already, many of these goals are contradictory or possibly disastrous. Open-sourcing code could in fact lead to its gaming by bots—something the crypto industry is very familiar with by now as scammers exploit public smart contracts—and “authenticating all humans” would in its worst iteration amount to Musk controlling a private database with the confidential information of dissidents, sex workers, and other legitimately vulnerable people.
But what about the supposed core issue for Musk, free speech? Well, in the past, Musk has tried to destroy a Tesla whistleblower for raising the alarm about waste and fraud leading to unsafe products, personally canceled a blogger’s Tesla order after they wrote about a poorly-run launch event, allegedly tried to have an anonymous blogger fired for a negative stock analysis, fired employees for reporting racist harassment, and tried to bribe the teenager who set up an account tracking Musk’s private jet flights. If one were to judge Musk’s commitment to free speech based on his actions, we must conclude that he couldn’t care less about it. He cares about advancing his interests.
One theory put forward is that a key motivator for Musk is that “Twitter, and its ability to generate attention and hype, is an essential component of the business strategy for Tesla, SpaceX, and the Boring Company.” Other commentators land somewhere close because this matches up much more closely with Musk’s track record. Given Musk’s ability to move markets with tweets―and the trouble he’s gotten in for it with the SEC―we have to face the possibility that Musk doesn’t have some grand plan in mind to re-envision Twitter, but will settle on something convenient to his interests and dressed up as a pretentious vision for “global consciousness.”
“By buying Twitter and taking it private, Musk is seemingly trying to ensure he’ll have the full force of the company behind him the next time the SEC questions him about using the platform to commit fraud,” Revolving Door Project research director Max Moran said in a press release.
On the other hand, nothing much might change at all, which would be fitting. Musk, with his insistence on marketing himself as an avatar of the future, would very much like you to think that this transaction represents something new in human affairs. Instead, it’s just a very old story: A very rich person using money to control not just what people say, but where they say it. The other part of that story is the people trying as hard as they can—and often winning—in a world where everything is, in one way or another, owned by the very rich.