Rory Hamilton – 4th November
“The bird is freed” announced Elon Musk last week as his takeover of social media network Twitter was finalised to the tune of £38bn ($44bn). His opening tweet as ‘Chief Twit’ indicates the underlying motivations and key factors which drove his decision to buy the company: free speech.
In his first week as CEO, Musk has already moved quickly to announce key interventions which he believes will rejuvenate his new acquisition. Having fired almost all of its chief officers, including Vijaya Gadde who is believed to be behind the suspension of Donald Trump’s account after the Capitol riots in January 2021, Musk has also ousted the board of directors, leaving himself as the only Director. Furthermore, ‘code reviews’ are underway by Tesla engineers to essentially cut the wheat from the chaff and streamline the workforce by 25%, while Musk has also indicated his intention to overhaul the ‘Blue ticks’ of the platform which indicate the legitimacy of a source – currently for free. His proposal will introduce a £7 ($8) monthly charge for Twitter users to have a blue tick by their name, which Musk has said is “essential to defeating spam/scam.”
The takeover marks a critical juncture in the way the 21st Century develops, coming just a year after Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook conglomerate became ‘Meta’ and begun building the ‘meta verse’. The hotly anticipated ‘policy’ announcements made by each of the companies might once have been news only for those tuned into the tech industry, but the importance of the changes implemented by two white, straight, cis, billionaire men now leads us to question at what cost does our use of social networks come?
We await these policy announcement like governments and their budget statements (or leadership contests more recently). And yet the accountability of the platforms and those who run/own them appears hidden behind a virtual firewall.
Undoubtedly, social media has added a great deal of good to the world as we know it, particularly advancing the way we connect with one another, improving access to information (beware the disinformation though!), and supporting research into digital technology that have ramifications like the Internet of Things which helps you control your heating from a distance, or your TV which responds to your preferences – but this advancement is not without its drawbacks.
Musk’s priority in taking over Twitter is to supposedly restore free speech, and reclaim the social space from the left-leaning liberals he claims hound people off the space. But this so-called free speech is out of keeping with his wish for Twitter to be ‘a digital town square’: in a town square you don’t find bigots screaming about far-right conspiracy theories, inciting action to violence at major events (Jan 6th), or decrying Covid vaccines. If people do that, they are ignored, or removed and not given the space to air views which have no legitimacy. Legitimacy which can now be bought for £7 a month. So to talk of defeating spambots and scammers (former Presidents included), the idea that anyone can self-legitimise only gives rise to an increase in disinformation and a clouding of the lines of legitimacy, and by extension authenticity.
Not to mention that ‘free speech’ can essentially be bought; what this move will do will alienate the voices of the marginalised further – people of colour fighting climate collapse in third world countries, and working class people in particular who cannot afford such a subscription service. It is a dangerous world when democratic participation (which is one facility that the platform offers) is at the whim of one or two people whose motivations appear self-serving at best and dangerously erratic at worst.
So why is Musk doing this? What interest does he actually have in free speech or social networks? There was a time when Musk appeared more than just an unhinged weirdo who had a shit-tonne of money. Well as one Guardian columnist accurately surmised:
“Musk’s takeover relies on the same sense of preternatural self-confidence that underlies his other successes. Tesla built an electric car when the conventional wisdom in the industry was that it was a niche product for eco-nuts, and it sells almost 1m a year, all at the luxury end of the market. SpaceX built reusable rockets, and almost single-handedly lowered the cost of getting things in to orbit, sparking a spaceflight renaissance that lets Musk credibly commit to sending a rocket – if not people – to Mars. Musk’s central thesis for Twitter is that there’s an opportunity if you bet the farm on the conventional wisdom being wrong.”
And you could believe that conventional wisdom is wrong: people are willing to pay for subscription streaming services, and have been willing to pay subscriptions to news outlets for years. And what has Twitter become? It has increasingly drawn journalists and politicians to the space owing to its ability to react to and share events in real time. Not to mention, how often people complain about the amount of unwanted ads they see on their feeds, so why not turn social networking on its head? Pivot away from ads to recent re-centre the user in the experience by making it paid? There’s certainly a business case for it, and if I were in anyway profit-inclined I might suggest this would be a smart move. However, much of this also goes in the face of the evidence: we’ve already heard about Netflix’s plan to introduce a cheaper streaming service, featuring advertising, in order to counter its stagnating (and falling) income; likewise, the subscription to newspapers digital and physical has been in decline for years, mostly owing to the threat of social media platforms like Twitter – a move to make the two more similar thus sends Twitter into the same declining spiral journalists and editors elsewhere struggle with.
But Musk’s profit-geared plans, and Netflix’s alternative platform suggestions appear to misread the room. People aren’t leaving Netflix because its too expensive, they’re leaving because it strayed too far away from being a space where you could access all your old time classic films and a few really strong TV programmes, with a small selection of high quality Netflix-developed products. Now I’m thinking “I seriously don’t know what to watch, but I’d rather watch anything that’s not Is Is Cake? ”A recent Twitter thread (ironic) by Professor Paul Bernal of the University of East Anglia demonstrated the key flaw in Musk’s thinking:
As Bernal says, “they’re the community he should care about, not the right-wing-nut-job community”. Meanwhile, the right-wing-nut-jobs want to be on the same space as liberals and socialists like us because they enjoy ranting at us, and once we’re all driven off by the ideologists and nut jobs Musk allows on, they will get bored, because its not as fun when they haven’t got our anger and frustration to take joy from.
Musk’s ideology is ultimately one that pits ownership against legitimacy: ownership of content, ownership of space, ownership of connection. Why are companies like Twitter, Netflix, or Facebook/Meta haemorrhaging profits ($21bn at Meta in three years)?
We could easily say its because of the ‘soulless PR campaign featuring Zuckerberg’s sickly digital avatar’; or because of its failure to produce popular alternatives to its direct competitors (the Facebook Portal alternative to Amazon Echo has been killed off, and Instagram users spend 10% less of the time watching ‘Reels’ than TikTok users spend watching those short-form user-generated videos); or we could even say it’s because Facebook and Instagram rely so heavily on advertising to generate profits that users no longer see content they want to, and the platforms have become mobile billboards placed in the pocket of everyone in the world (almost).
I would argue that none of these are the real reason the world of social media is at tipping point. Sure they all make a significant contribution, but the context in which these changes have occurred is all the more important.
The pandemic should have been a time for these companies to flourish and really prove why they are so cutting edge, but what it showed was how much humans value connection. Connection that’s physical, connection that’s digital, but connection nonetheless. We want connection without having to wade through the pages and pages of hate-speech, or feel we’re stuck in an echo-chamber that doesn’t develop ourselves as human beings – we want progress, not stagnation.
Hence, the question of what purpose social media should serve really must sit at the heart of this critical juncture in tech development. Social media has been described as the ‘public conversation layer of the internet’ and I think that’s quite apt, but conversation must be protected. The ability to buy your legitimacy poses a threat to us all, not least when you consider the national security ramifications and the vested interests of governments in pushing certain agendas. A paid verification scheme opens the door for governments like those in Saudi Arabia to buy public internet space and use it to quash free speech.
We must consider the internet, and networking platforms on it, a public good. Access and legitimacy should be free and protected for all, but this free speech does not mean freedom from responsibility or accountability. You are expected to behave as a responsible citizen in your day to day life, in return you are granted freedoms to access certain services, and enjoy a pleasurable life. Your digital world should be no different.
Once again, the regulation on this cannot be left up to the minds of a small few who are not representative of the wider population. Do you really think that Elon Musk has your best interests at heart? So why should we ask them to regulate themselves?
We need national and international regulatory bodies – with teeth – that can act to preserve public interests on digital platforms, and protect the rights of the most marginalised online, as they do in areas like employment discrimination, and provide opportunities to gain access where they might otherwise be excluded.
Finally, I come back to connection. If we want to achieve real connection in the digital world, and maintain the relationships, interests and engagement we get out of social media networks, then we need to consider the ownership of these platforms. By no means do I think that ‘nationalising’ Facebook or Twitter would be a beneficial, sustainable, or even sensible (let alone affordable) thing to do.
But what if there was a social media platform made by the users, built for the users? At Common Weal we emphasise the need for localised democracy and building small, strong local communities. So here’s my idea: small, localised social networks could present an alternative to the monopolisation of our digital channels and provide the space to build a digital democracy.
Without digital democracy, common ownership, and independent regulation, can we ever really have free speech, or are we merely slaves to our billionaire overlords? So much for freeing the bird, if anything, the cage has just got bigger and it’s about to be invaded by vultures.