A lot of money may shortly be spent on Twitter. The world’s richest person's said he thinks it’s worth $44 billion of his money, but for what? – a plaything or a way to influence the world in ways he wants. And that world is waiting to see if he goes through with his planned purchase or pulls back.
The world that cares – and, no, that isn’t everyone – is divided here. Fans of Elon Musk’s buccaneering form of techno-business are excited; those who focus on "the public sphere" despondent. “Free speech warriors” on the right exult, while many freedom of expression activists are deeply anxious.
There are lots of assumptions going round about what Twitter is and what’s its impact. First, then, some thoughts on what it is and, as important, what it’s not. And then, five issues that are raised by Musk’s planned acquisition for the wider internet environment.
What Twitter is
First, it’s not a universal platform, just an influential one. About 400 million users, just over half using the platform daily, around a quarter of the latter based in the US. An awful lot of users in Japan; big numbers per head of population in the UK; variable elsewhere. Before a surge during the pandemic, its user numbers had been almost flat for half a decade.
That means it’s nowhere near the scale of Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, WeChat or TikTok. And there are some markets, such as China, where it doesn’t count (where it’s been blocked since 2009 and Weibo plays much of its part). But it’s influential because it’s used by many influential people.
Different tweets for different peeps
Some hail Twitter as the public square, a place where ideas and opinions can be shared and argued over. Others see the same space as a place for combat, where loudmouths shout past one another and victimise the vulnerable. It can, of course, be both, for Twitter means different things to different people. Some examples:
For politicians and celebrities, it’s an easy way to stay within the public eye. Likewise self-publicists and, especially, provocateurs (who may themselves be politicians or celebrities, particularly those who like to shake the gullible with extreme views).
For some journalists, it’s a lazy way to do vox pop, picking up quotes for stories that really need more depth and nuance; for others, it’s an element in serious investigation.
For writers, academics, civil society organisations, it’s a way to spread the word about new publications and campaigns.
For many users, it’s a source of entertainment, a way to fill in moments at the bus stop or in the supermarket queue, and a way to share personal news of cats and walks and families.
For propagandists, it’s a way to influence opinion, even influence elections held in other countries, or to spread disinformation about whether vaccines work or the world is run by lizards from another planet. Platforms that are good at spreading information are good as spreading mis- and dis-information too.
And for some it is a way to take pleasure in attacking those who’re vulnerable.
In short, it’s very different things for different people, whose usage is going to be affected differently by tweaks to how it’s run.
What is distinctive
Some things about Twitter, though, are quite distinctive as a communications medium. And they are worth reflecting on when thinking about what a new owner might do with it.
First, like other social media that rely on user networks, it tends towards monopoly. The more people there are on a platform, the more desirable that platform to new users. There’s just one Twitter, so far as most people are concerned, and that gives its management potential power. Donald Trump’s discovered how hard it is to set up an alternative. More on this later.
Second, it’s a peculiar medium. There’s only so much you can say in 280 characters: more in some languages than others but still insufficient for much nuance or considered argument. You can point to something without giving detail. You can shout but not explain (except through threads that only experts read). And it’s much easier to lie in 280 characters than it is to counteract a lie.
And third, things can go viral, spreading out from Twitter into different media. This can cause pleasure (funny cat memes) or distress (the kind of pile-ons experienced by individuals, particularly women and members of minorities who’re seen as targets by extremists). What happens on Twitter doesn’t only stay on Twitter.
What Twitter’s not
In discussions about what’s happening to Twitter it’s important to remember what it’s not.
It’s not the public sphere, though it adds to it and arguably alters it. It can be highly influential – thanks to the way it’s used by politicians, journalists and propagandists – but it’s used directly just by a minority. It should not be seen as a potential substitute for debate in other places.
And different ways of thinking are required for a medium that’s built on soundbites than for tabloid or broadsheet journalism, broadcasting, essays, public meetings and elsewhere where more complex arguments can be more readily developed.
Twitter’s also clearly polarised, for many users. I follow whom I follow, whether that’s because I share their politics, find them insightful, admire their photographs, or want to keep up with their lives as friends. I don’t often burrow down into the undergrowth but when I do – for instance when friends have been attacked by trolls – in mere moments I can find my feed surrounded by racism, misogyny, hatred and intimidation.
Twitter fans who see in it what Jack Dorsey, Twitter-founder, absurdly called “the light of consciousness” should remember that they’re not necessarily themselves exposed to the glare of hatred that is dazzling others.
Five issues raised
I don’t want to go into the details of Musk’s proposed takeover, though I should be clear – lest there be doubt – that I’m certainly no fan of his style or modus operandi. Instead I’ll raise five issues that the present context should bring to the fore.
The first’s that Twitter matters. It’s a significant force within society – particularly some societies – and has influence beyond its size because of the way it’s used by those who want to influence them.
Its future needs to be considered according to its influence. It isn’t clear whether Musk wants to buy Twitter as a plaything or in order to promote his interests, commercial, political or both. Either would have significance because Twitter matters, and tweaking its algorithms can more than tweak its outcomes.
There are significant issues that arise, therefore, for the governance of communications, not just the internet but its relationship with the wider sector that includes the (much more regulated) spheres of broadcasting and newsprint with which Twitter competes for the attention of consumers.
It is its market
Twitter effectively has a near-monopoly for microblogging, at least in many countries. If you want a big audience, you need to be on Twitter. Creating a competitor, as Donald Trump has found, is very difficult: it would require huge capital investment to overcome the advantage of incumbency, and even that is no guarantee of viability. I suspect that only Google could set up a competitor from scratch, and it has better ways of making money.
Which makes ownership especially important. The ‘marketplace of ideas’ is not a marketplace of platforms. If a platform owner chooses to use that platform to promote particular interests – political, commercial, technological – what is to stop him?
Much of today’s big tech is dominated by powerful individuals who aren’t constrained by the same degree of corporate governance as industry bosses in other sectors (think Zuckerberg, think Bezos, for example). Whoever owns it, a privately owned Twitter would take this one step further.
As for multistakeholderism!
The internet world makes much of multistakeholderism but it would be hard to get much further from that than with Musk's proposed Twitter deal.
The sale itself will have been determined by the purchaser (with just under 10 per cent of the company), five or six major financial institutions (the other major shareholders) and the endorsement of the Twitter founder who made a pile of money on the deal.
It’s a classic case of big shareholders, from financial institutions, determining the future of a business. This is, of course, what they’re supposed to do as shareholders, so there’s nothing wrong there from their point of view. But where’s the opportunity for public interest to be expressed in something that’s important to the public sphere? There's been no involvement of or consultation with Twitter’s users here; no involvement of civil society; no involvement of firms outside the global North, no involvement even of the advertisers that generate most of its revenue.
If you want to see the limits of multistakeholder engagement in the age of data corporations, look no further.
Human rights and freedom of expression
Internet discussions about freedom of expression are often less sophisticated than they seem. There’s a growing tussle now over the meaning of the term “free speech” between those from traditional liberal, human rights, perspectives and those who come from the far right. There’s not space to go into this in detail here, but I’ll make three points that have been raised and need much more discussion.
First, much of the argument around content moderation (regarding hate speech and disinformation on Twitter) revolves around distinctions between the US First Amendment as it’s been interpreted in US jurisprudence, and the international rights regime as set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. If Twitter seeks to run a global platform on the principle that “anything goes”, or that the First Amendment should apply worldwide, it will run up against the laws of other countries, democracies included, that have put more stress on (for instance) protecting women and minorities against the threat of violence.
Second, speech is linked to power structures. Those who have access to power, money and resources are much better placed to maximise their influence through all kinds of media than those who don’t. Speech is about the ability to make yourself heard, which is highly unequal, and unequal in ways that mesh with other inequalities of gender, race, class, caste, etc. Having the biggest megaphone should not be all that matters. Twitter’s big hitters have big megaphones, few bigger than that wielded by its owner.
Third, speech is not just about the right to say what you want but about the right to do so without fear. That doesn’t only come from governments. Anyone who has been bullied knows the power of intimidation. So do bullies. Intimidation online is the same as intimidation offline. Hate speech and vilification are attempts to silence people’s right to speech, particularly that of the most vulnerable. That’s why they need to be addressed.
And, finally, accountability. To whom should the owner(s) of a communications platform be accountable? This is challenging enough with powerful corporations that provide information and communications services in public spheres. It is more challenging still when such services are effectively controlled by private individuals.
The question isn’t whether any individual is using or planning to use control of a platform in ways that society would disavow. The problem’s that such an individual could do so if they chose and that if they did they’d be accountable to no one but themselves.
There have been many moguls in the history of media, and (apologies for the English metaphor) few have been given to hiding their ‘light of consciousness’ under a bushel.