The End of Twitter?: A closer look at the Musk takeover
By BRADLEY BARNES
‘The bird is freed’ tweeted billionaire and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, upon completing his $44 billion takeover of the both loved and maligned social media company Twitter. But what does this actually mean for the platform’s future? Musk, a self-proclaimed free speech absolutist, has wasted no time in making changes: he has already fired top executives; promised a content moderation council with “widely diverse viewpoints”, and even tweeted that he plans to alter Twitter’s “lords and peasants” verification system, so that now anyone willing to pay 8 dollars a month can obtain that coveted blue tick.
These, and further reforms which are yet to come, are likely to fundamentally alter the face of the platform. But will Musk’s quest for deregulation bear fruit? Will his leadership transform Twitter into a bastion of free speech in an age of heavy social media regulation or will it turn it into a playground for the far right and doom the company to financial ruin? To try and answer these questions we need to look at: the man himself, the platform he is taking over, and the state of the social media domain in 2022.
Elon Musk has always been divisive. His supporters would praise him as a visionary;
responsible for shaping the future of automobiles with Tesla and innovating space travel with SpaceX. His critics, however, would point to his erratic Twitter outbursts, spreading of Covid misinformation, and general bizarre antics as proof that he isn’t the seminal figure that he and his devotees seem to think he is. Whilst few would deny that he has had successes as a CEO, particularly in the case of Tesla, these triumphs don’t necessarily mean he has the skills, experience, or discipline necessary to effectively run a social media platform.
This brings us onto the state of Twitter itself. The platform has a relatively small user base compared to other social media companies (e.g Snapchat, Facebook), perhaps due to its not entirely unearned reputation for toxicity. But at its best, Twitter provides a vibrant online space for conversation and facilitates interactions between ordinary users and public figures that just wouldn’t be possible on any other platform. I believe Musk’s goal, therefore, should be to try and make the platform more attractive to outsiders, thus increasing its user base, making the platform seem less niche which will attract yet more users.
But it’s also important to remember that Twitter isn’t just a platform; it’s a company. And in recent years it has been a company which has struggled to turn a profit, reporting losses of $270 million in the second quarter of this financial year. Therefore, Musk has the challenging task of both turning Twitter’s financial prospects around as well as ensuring its continued relevance as a platform for years to come. So far, he hasn’t shown he has a clear plan for either. Instead of a unified vision for the company, what we’ve seen in the last few days is a series of chaotic and disparate policy proposals including a reform to the verification system and the announcement of mass layoffs. Whilst these measures may help bring in some extra income and cut Twitter’s costs, it likely won’t be enough to ensure consistent profits for the company, especially with advertisers already beginning to pull support due to questions surrounding the platform’s direction.
Moreover, the uncertainty of staff about their future; the seemingly daily changes to proposed reforms, and the usual sporadic tweeting, has left Musk’s performance as CEO so far looking at best haphazard and at worst disastrous. If he does have a plan, he certainly hasn’t made it clear to anyone what it is, and if he continues to behave like a child with a new play toy as opposed to a CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, Musk will doom the platform before he even has a chance to put his stamp on it.
All this being said, perhaps it is unfair to write off Musk’s Twitter as a failure just yet. After all, Twitter founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey previously stated that ‘Elon is the singular solution’ and has put his money where his mouth is, retaining his $1 billion stake in the company. Furthermore, the idea of rolling back regulations is, in principle, not one I’m entirely against. Whilst I stand firmly against hate speech and discrimination in all its forms, I’m not sure censoring certain views and de–platforming certain people will necessarily solve our problems. Rather than eliminating problematic views, do we not risk emboldening them by allowing censored voices to present themselves as martyrs and pushing communities that hold these opinions outside of the public sphere and into echo chambers, helping to further reinforce the very ideas we wish to combat?
There is also a question of power here. Even with the horrors of the capitol riots in mind, should social media companies should have the power to permanently de-platform a US president? Also, where and how are corporations drawing the line between merely expressing a viewpoint and saying something that can be considered hateful or spreading misinformation? It is important to ask ourselves these questions considering the massive role social media plays in our day to day lives and increasingly in our politics. An advantage of a Musk Twitter is that we may be able to get a feel for what a less hands-on approach looks like in practice, and whether it would be preferable to the status quo. That’s not to say there aren’t risks to taking this path. If regulation of hateful or abusive language becomes too deficient, we could see a mass exodus from the platform, turning it into a safe space for xenophobes as opposed to the free forum for open debate that it ideally should be.
All in all, whilst I believe the Musk takeover has potential to be successful, it is hard to deny that the company’s new owner has thus far behaved in a reckless and irresponsible manner, putting the platform on uneasy footing and leaving its future in jeopardy. I still think, however, that this situation can be turned around. If Musk can present a clear plan for the company’s future, find ways to attract new users to the platform, and reassure both existing users and newcomers that regulations will be rolled back in a disciplined way which won’t lead to a massive spike in abusive and hateful rhetoric on the platform, this could still be made into a success. In short, to realise his ideas, Musk needs to ditch his current scattergun approach and show he’s capable of behaving like a responsible CEO. If not, Twitter and indeed his own reputation may well be doomed.
Image: Flickr/Steve Jurvetson