Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover should concern us all

(Picture: CCL)

By Tobias Watson – Contributor

In an age of technological innovation and global interconnectivity, our voices matter more than ever and are louder than ever as the public square went digital. Impulsive hotheads like Musk centralising control over the world’s most influential public space with their wallets directly threatens this and modern socio-political discourse as a whole.

Twitter is the place to be if you want to know it all, all the time. From seeing what the latest gossip around the latest batch of Love Island contestants is, to keeping up with football transfer rumours and even things as important as global politics, as revolutionaries took to the streets through the ‘bird app’ in the 2011 Arab Spring and world leaders such as the currently banned and highly controversial former President Trump have used their platforms, for better and worse, to exert power and influence worldwide. Whilst Jack Dorsey was by no means universally loved, he was a source of stability for the company and the platform that they built and understood the weight of his power.

However, the self-proclaimed ‘chief twit’ is a far more chaotic figure, with a history of making outrageous public comments and stunts alongside holding the immense influence of being a prominent 21st century industrialist, with the synthesis of these elements leading to events such as him crashing cryptocurrencies such as Dogecoin with but a single tweet and funnelling obscene amounts of money into pipedreams like Hyperloop. 

Furthermore, his moves over the last few days since acquiring the platform we all love to hate have been bold and rash, purging the board of directors and setting hordes of banned users free from ‘Twitter jail’ for ‘minor and dubious reasons’ on the grounds of his professed belief in free speech- which sounds good and democratic as a victory for free speech and freedom of expression on the digital soapbox until you realise that this is a vague and loosely defined category, raising concerns about a surge in hate speech on the platform and in the short period since becoming owner of the social media juggernaut, according to the Washington Post, there has been an almost 500% spike in the N-word being used on Twitter. Things only continue to get worse, responding to speculation on if former US President Donald Trump would have his account restored by saying that the platform would assemble a “content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints” and that “no major content decisions or account reinstatements” would go ahead before the council met, after coming out in May when he first attempted to buy the social media titan to say that the decision to ban Trump was “a morally bad decision and foolish in the extreme”. The former President welcomed Musk’s ascension to the owner of the platform on his own ‘free speech’ platform Truth Social as a transfer to ‘sane hands’, gloating that the platform would no longer be owned by ‘radical left lunatics and maniacs who truly hate our country’. 

Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States, is currently under federal investigation for his role in the January 6th riots, unauthorised possession of classified documents at his Mar-A-Lago residence, and has openly promoted misinformation about the 2020 US Presidential Election being ‘stolen’ from the GOP through his Twitter account, with such a loose cannon being banned from the platform after much agonising following the Capitol riots (which were directly inspired and caused by this misinformation) in order to preserve public order and prevent further turmoil befalling the country. 

Given the extent to which political life in the United States has polarised and the extent to which Trump’s fascistic rhetoric about the press and conspiracy theory peddling about elections has influenced the Republican base, the (admittedly limited) democracy in the United States is in a very turbulent and troubled place. To even so much as have a chance of his return to a platform where his Twitter-based brinkmanship raised tensions with the nuclear armed DPRK and their Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-Un, to the point of near thermonuclear war is a serious threat to the political stability of the US in this tempestuous period and, were he to secure the GOP nomination for the Presidency and win the election in 2024, to the wider international community as a whole, especially in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine and heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington. Therefore, the potential for such a momentous return for the national-populist firebrand to the platform and its consequences show a clear threat to political discourse in the United States as a direct consequence of Musk’s refusal to take a hard stance on the issue.

The former President’s potential restoration to the platform is not the only threat that comes from Musk’s buyout of Twitter: serious concerns about worker’s rights and their general well being as well must be raised. Musk has what many would describe as an exceptionally poor track record on worker’s rights, having opposed the lockdowns in California that protected the labour force due to it shutting down his Tesla gigafactories as COVID-19 raged on, an alleged culture of racism directed towards people of colour in the workplace, mass lay-offs in the past and union-busting efforts routinely plaguing Tesla in addition to questions being raised in the past over the ethics of sourcing cobalt for Tesla batteries in relation to child labour and modern-day slavery in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With the board of directors at Twitter already seeing massive changes and the chaos of rumours that up to 75% of Twitter’s staff were to be laid off by the South African billionaire’s latest acquisition, many workers at Twitter fear for their futures at the company in a time of incredible economic instability and rising cost of living, from gas to rent to food in a time where the threat of joining the reserve army of labour would almost certainly mean misery. We should thus be alert and highly concerned for the wellbeing and rights of employees at Twitter and what the acquisition by Musk means for them, as the potential for his oversight to adversely affect the platform (whether it be from lack of staff numbers or a demoralised and heavily exploited workforce) is immense. 

Finally, Musk’s erratic and at times aggressive presence on social media himself raises the ultimate question of a potential authoritarian streak on the platform of a new kind. Musk’s history regarding critics and his misuse of social media is full of red flags indicating a potential crackdown on those who are not fans of him as well as a more general pro-business authoritarianism, from laying off employees critical of him and referring to British diver Vernon Usworth (who rescued 12 Thai children trapped in a cave) as ‘pedo guy’ in 2018 after he called out Musk’s own efforts to rescue them with a submarine as a “PR stunt”, to him tweeting out in support of the US-backed far-right coup in Bolivia (a country that coincidentally has large lithium reserves that were nationalised prior to the coup) against Evo Morales’ popular ecosocialist government in 2019, saying ‘We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”. Despite Musk’s efforts to paint himself as a champion of free speech and liberty, these events display him to be anything but this: a man who is willing to support imperialist meddling in the affairs of democratic sovereign nations and lashes out at those who criticise him could potentially translate these tendencies into how Twitter operates, potentially spelling doom for trade unionists, socialists and critics of him and his actions in general. If his hot-headedness and aggression towards those who speak ill of him is anything to go by, we should be worried about the freedom of speech on Twitter, namely the freedom to criticise Musk and industrialists like him.

All of these signs and concerns point to a potential future for the platform and socio-political discourse that looks bleak: one where trouble-makers like President Trump can once again unleash chaos in American politics with the tap of an icon; one where hate speech can fester more openly; one where the quality of the platform is reduced due to poorer working conditions for Twitter employees and where criticism of the platform’s ownership can get you placed in ‘Twitter jail’ indefinitely. However, this problem does not stop at Twitter and Musk alone, but rather with the notion that such sweeping changes to platforms that we depend upon to stay connected with one another all because of one’s purchasing power is normal and acceptable. In a world where money is king and one’s command of their wallet can determine who moderates the global conversation, the implications for democracy and discourse as a whole should terrify us all. 

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