Elon Musk is More One-Man Rule for Social Media
Isn't there a better way to do this?
On April 14, Elon Musk, the world's richest man, made an offer to buy Twitter for about $43 billion, for 100 percent ownership of the company. Should Twitter accept his offer to take the company private, he would have complete control over one of the world's most powerful social media platforms. Twitter is valued at $37 billion, while Meta is valued at $605 billion and Alphabet (the holding company of Google) is valued at $1.77 trillion. Even though it has far fewer users than Facebook or YouTube, Twitter is used by politicians, journalists, and celebrities alike, giving it an outsized importance in the public sphere relative to its valuation.
It's far from clear that Twitter's board will take the Tesla CEO's "best and final" offer, or even what will happen if the offer is rejected. On April 15, Twitter's board adopted a "poison pill" measure to make it harder for him to acquire the company. If Musk were to control Twitter, it would mean that, in addition to Meta, of which CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the controlling shareholder, a second global social network would be in the hands of a single man. That prospect has caused significant angst among critics of big tech. Shoshanna Zuboff, the author of "Surveillance Capitalism" and a professor emerita at Harvard Business School, tweeted, "We obsess over one man and his whims because we don’t yet have the democratic rule of law needed to govern our information spaces."
What could that governance look like? One possibility would be to regulate social media like utilities. Utilities, like power and water companies, are not owned by the government, but generally have tighter regulations than most private companies. Anti-monopolists argue that social media, like water, is an essential need of daily life and competitors (like the Trump-created Truth Social) cannot easily come in to challenge existing platforms. Regulating social media as a utility has drawn supporters from the left, center, and right -- Zephyr Teachout, scholars at the Brookings Institution, and Steve Bannon alike have all called for it.
What would Twitter as a public utility look like? The Brookings Institution scholars, Josh Simons and Dipyan Ghosh, offered some ideas for tech companies Facebook and Google that could apply to Twitter as well. The algorithms would be transparent. There might be citizen juries for content moderation decisions.
Content moderation would differ under utility regulation versus Musk's Twitter. Musk has called himself a "free speech absolutist." President Trump, who Twitter permanently banned in the wake of the January 6 riots, would likely benefit from Musk's "absolutism." While it's possible that a citizen jury of the likes of which advocated by the Brookings scholars could reinstate Trump on the platform, there would be more deliberation than a decision that Musk could unilaterally make with 100 percent ownership.
In an August 2021 interview with Public Sphere, Sheera Frenkel, the New York Times reporter who co-wrote a book about Zuckerberg, argued that it wasn't good to have one person at the helm of such a massive technology company. "If you look at historical examples, it's not healthy for people to have that kind of unabashed power. It's good for human beings to be vulnerable; to be forced to listen to other opinions and ideas, to know that they can be fired, if they're not doing a good job and if they've made mistakes," she said. This is a cautionary tale for Musk's ownership of Twitter.
Twitter is a platform that hasn't changed much since 2017 and needs overhauling. Musk does have some reasonable ideas for change -- he's called for subscriptions, an edit button, and algorithmic transparency. However, the problem is that nobody could overrule him when he has a bad idea. If the past is prologue, Musk is bound to have more of these: in 2018, his Twitter judgment caused his lawyers to have to settle with the SEC on securities fraud charges.
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