Musk bids for Twitter but wealth doesn’t create wisdom

Elon Musk, who according to Forbes and other sources is the richest person in the world, has made a $43 billion bid for Twitter. Musk is very, very rich. He is also an ideas man and manages to get clever people around him.

Space X, more than any other company, has brought the world into an era of space where businesses rather than governments lead in space. Space X is launching satellites and humans into orbit and beyond. Tesla is building more than 300,000 electric cars a quarter in the company’s largely automated factories. The Boring Company has several projects delivered or underway.

But does that make Musk fit to own Twitter? And are his proposals to make Twitter a bastion of free speech where anything goes, truth or lies providing it does not break local laws, tenable in a social media universe where tweets are so influential?

Musk joined Twitter in July 2009 and has published more than 17.4K tweets, slightly more than former President Obama, but many fewer than former President Trump, before he was permanently banned from the platform in January 2021. At that point, Trump had 88.9 million followers, many fewer that Obama who had (and still has) 132 million followers. Elon Musk is not far behind Trump with 82 million followers, making his account the eighth most followed in the world.

Speaking at the 2022 Ted conference interview last week, Musk said he could fund the purchase of Twitter – he has offered $43 billion. If his offer is refused, he says he has a Plan B but declined to reveal it.

“Twitter has become kind of a de facto town square, so it’s really important that people both have the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely, within the bounds of the law. My strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization… I don’t care about the economics at all”. (The TED video, which covers more than Twitter, is worth watching).

Speaking about controversies he has generated on Twitter, Musk said he tweets in a stream of consciousness. He recently tweeted that he was a “free speech absolutist”. Having purchased a 9.2% stake in Twitter in March, hr didn’t waste any time in pushing for change:

The battle for control of Twitter open up the broader question of who should own and control social media. Some countries, including ours, have controls on media ownership but this does not extend to social media.

Meta, for example, has Facebook, which has 2.9bn monthly active users (MAUs), in its portfolio. It also owns Instagram (1.1bn MAUs) and WhatsApp (2bn MAUs), among a host of other companies including the Oculus gaming platform. Owned by shareholders, Meta remains firmly under the control of Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook is worth about $600bn.

Whereas Meta owns companies that could be seen as competitors, or at least parallel ways of working, Twitter has focused its acquisitions on companies that will improve its offer, performance and advertising revenue. Twitter has around 200m MAUs and Elon Musk’s bid values the company at $43bn.

For a quick comparison, TikTok has 1bn MAUs and the fast growing Telegram around 2m MAUs. YouTube has around 866m MAUs. There are differing accounts about Truth Social (Donald Trump’s version of truth) but it doesn’t seem to be catching on.

Most social media use statistics dwarf that of any newspaper, TV or radio channel. Online channels have a powerful reach. We saw during Trump’s failed bid for a second term, and we are now seeing in Ukraine, that social media can be used to amplify fake news, lies and propaganda. The Guardian reports that Facebook is struggling to contain pro-Russian and anti-western posts that are contributing to political instability in west Africa.

Despite people being more attentive to negative news, there is a lot of good news on social media. It is a tremendous force for good, raising funds, helping people including refugees, reducing people’s isolation, comforting during personal and other crises, and so much more.

There is no getting away from social media which is now central to social, political and pprofessional lives, just as print and broadcast media have been for generations. The distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ media has blurred. They feed each other stories and Twitter is seen as the best of the social media networks for news. Much of the press coverage of Musk’s takeover bid has been triggered by his tweets and those news stories have in turn been tweeted and included in social media posts.

There is a need to a keep balance on social media, to kick out the paedophiles, mute the bullies and eliminate dangerous lies. That requires moderation. Elon Musk is proposing to all but abandon moderation except where tweets are illegal. He said in his TED Interview last week that if a tweet is legal in the country, it should be published. He says Twitter should be very cautious in deleting tweets. Temporary bans of users should be used than permanent bans.

Musk promises an edit button and wants any tweet modified to be flagged. A top priority would be eliminating spam bots. Both are good moves but the law in most countries is ill equipped to deal with fake news and bullying and social media owners must take responsibility for controlling it.

Elon Musk is demanding that Twitter algorithms that moderate and control content must be open source. I suspect that would make Twitter more vulnerable to hackers and those that want to post nasty content. So far, Musk has said nothing on ethical governance of Twitter and how fake news and abuse will be dealt with.

It is the way of many of the ultra-rich to boost their position on the world stage by buying up media. But Elon Musk’s free speech idealism could undermine the integrity of Twitter as a news provider and its continuing work to be a social network that is more supportive than abusive.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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4 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 18th Apr '22 - 5:46pm

    Free speech is a an essential component of any free society and a necessary requirement for democracy to thrive. If Elon Musk agrees with these points – as I suspect he does – then I do not fear any influence he may have on Twitter.

  • When one party is advocating free speach in general, and specifically stating they will require honesty and transparency by a multinational business.

    Anyone who is threatened by the idea of multinationals being transparent probably ought to take some time to reexamine their reasoning.

    There are theories that much of the panic about Musk enforcing disclosure of the methods of censoring and shadow banning is because it may expose Twitter and its agents lied in legal contexts that may crystallise civil or criminal liability. Again if that bothers anybody, they should perhaps take time to think about that.

  • I think we should be asking why these extremely powerful individuals want to control the channels by which information is distributed. Looking at historical media magnates and their new social media successors very seldom turns up philanthropists. It does,however, reveal many individuals who have an insatiable need to increase their personal power, often with a need for public acclaim.

    In every form of government there are some people with power whose actions can be bought. The wider population are the inevitable losers. I think, therefore, we should be very uneasy about any extreme concentration of power, which is what wealth brings to these fallible individuals.

    Elon Musk is unusual in having achieved real success in his projects outside of the world of media and politics. He also, remember, reacted to the being left out of the rescue of the children trapped in the flooded caves by very publicly calling the successful leader a paedophile. This is the man who also has a worldwide satellite communication system and a rocket/missile company. Add a massive social media brand to his collection? What could possibly go wrong?

  • It is not always easy to differentiate between misinformation vs dissenting but nonetheless informed opinion or between hate speech vs a controversial but benign opinion.

    However, it is fair to say that Twitter, social media generally and public officials often do a very poor job of the above e.g they censor Trump but not the Taliban.

    Therefore, I would have no problem with Musk taking over (although it’s beyond me why Twitter is worth £43bn).

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