Elon Musk’s AUD $61 billion purchase of Twitter has given the world’s richest man the power to shape and control one of the largest and most influential social media platforms. While Musk’s description of Twitter as ‘the digital town square’ is debatable, it is true that it is used by millions of people across the world to access news, share ideas and build community.
While Twitter is hardly the most popular social network, its popularity with academics, journalists and politicians has meant it plays a significant role in shaping news around the world. Musk claims that his purchase is about defending free speech, yet in bringing Twitter under his control, Musk is essentially trying to buy the power to shape public debate. That should make anyone with an interest in democracy nervous.
Free speech For whom?
While Musk has portrayed himself as a champion of free speech, he has a history of bullying and silencing his critics.
In 2018 a very public spat broke out between Musk and British caver Vernon Unsworth. Unsworth, who was helping with the rescue of twelve boys trapped in a cave in Thailand, labeled Musk’s dubious offers to help with mini-submarines a ‘PR stunt’. In retaliation Musk used his Twitter account to call Unsworth a ‘pedo guy’, and Unsworth sued for defamation. Musk then spent $50,000 to hire private investigators in an attempt to dig up dirt on Unsworth.
Musk’s version of free speech doesn’t extend to the people who work for him, either. Tesla fired an employee who posted a video of their own Tesla crashing into a traffic pylon while in self driving mode. Musk has even used Tesla’s PR department to spread rumours about Nevada employee Martin Tripp in retaliation for leaking to the media that Tesla was wasting up to 40 per cent of the raw materials at its factory. Tesla even went as far as to report that Tripp was planning a mass shooting at the plant, an allegation quickly dismissed by police.
Musk has been found guilty of union busting at Tesla, too. A Californian judge found that Tesla was
letting security guards harass workers who were passing out union pamphlets in the parking lot, banning employees from wearing pro-union T-shirts and buttons, repeatedly interrogating union organizers, and eventually firing one of them.
The right to free speech invoked by Musk is not the juvenile concept of the right to offend—it also requires an analysis of who gets to speak freely and the power dynamics that govern this. Workers are prevented from speaking freely because of fears of retaliation. Women, LGBTIQ, Indigenous people and other people of colour face a disproportionate amount of harassment and abuse online which discourages their free expression. But addressing these barriers to free speech is clearly not what Musk is referring to.
Musk has also flagged an effort to verify humans on the platform. Any move to block pseudonymous accounts is also a threat to free speech. There are many reasons that people may not wish to expose their real identity online, especially if they have opinions, identities or interests that threaten those in power. Online anonymity is a vital part of online safety and free speech, something that Twitter has strongly advocated until now.
Musk’s proposed approach to content moderation (or lack thereof) will likely make Twitter a less safe place for many people to speak freely while allowing powerful disinformation and propaganda campaigns to spread unchecked. Musk’s style of free speech absolutism will tilt the scales in favour of the rich and powerful who can silence or bully critics. It will make it harder for most people to speak freely and engage in democratic debate.
By using his immense wealth power to trash reputations and silence critics, Musk has shown how dishonest his claims to be a free speech defender really are. What Musk really wants is freedom from accountability.
An internet for the people
The news of Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is a timely reminder of the importance of these platforms. Not only are they central to our news and democracy—they have become the social fabric of modern life. A platform like Twitter, with millions of users worldwide, shouldn’t become the plaything of a narcissistic billionaire with questionable motivations.
Digital platforms are the essential social infrastructure of modern life but the billionaires who run them have shown that they are more interested in their bottom line than operating in the public interest. Last year, Facebook showed that it was willing to deplatform Australian news organisations, government agencies and civil society groups in an attempt to avoid regulation. These ‘big-tech’ platforms have the power to decide what information millions of people see, and what they don’t. They wield tremendous power over our economy, culture and political institutions. It should be clear to us by now that letting this kind of power sit solely in the hands of unaccountable billionaires on the other side of the world is a danger to the health of our society and democracy. Too often, shareholder value comes into conflict with the public interest and our democracy pays the price.
At the same time, we should not lose sight of the potential of these platforms. It would be remiss of me to deny how attractive these platforms can be. Twitter can even sometimes be fun. Digital platforms allow us to connect, give us space to be creative, experience the creativity of others and build movements for accountability. The internet can still be a site of expression, creativity and connection. In fact, these platforms are built on our creativity which they have captured and enclosed on their private platforms. It’s the videos we upload to Facebook or the hot take we post to Twitter that gives these platforms their value. But despite the inherent communal nature of these platforms, they aren’t governed that way.
At Digital Rights Watch we have been running a collaborative research project called ‘Rebalancing The Internet Economy’ which is seeking to understand how we can tip the scales in favour of the creatives and activists who make the internet what it is. At our community town-halls we have already heard from artists, community organisers, sex workers and writers. Next month, we will be hearing from musicians before compiling our findings. But we are already hearing that the way the largest digital platforms are currently governed isn’t working for local users who struggle to earn an income or battle with censorship, spurious copyright claims and unaccountable, unpredictable algorithms. With the sale of Twitter, the question of what it will take to build a global internet that serves local communities is even more urgent now than it was when we began the project.
Digital Rights Watch are far from alone in trying to answer this question. Common Wealth, a think tank in the UK have released a set of proposals for taming the power of platforms and bringing them under public control, while researcher Michael Kwet has borrowed from the New Deal to argue that ‘a combination of political, economic and social alternatives based on a Digital Tech Deal are needed to turn the tide against digital colonisation’. Ben Tarnoff, author of the upcoming book ‘Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future‘ has similarly argued that only by fighting against privatisation and bringing these platforms into public hands can we build something that truly works for the people instead of big business.
In Australia, the Centre for Responsible Technology has proposed that the ABC should play a bigger role online to create an alternative digital space to the for-profit platforms. The ABC is a well trusted institution built on a history of providing a reliable, accessible and trusted non-profit alternative to the commercial broadcasters. Could it be equipped to take on this new challenge?
But if there is one thing that all of these proposals do agree on, it’s this: governments are going to need to play a much bigger role on the internet. That may involve greater investment in our civic digital infrastructure, but it could be other things as well. We would be concerned about a government-run social media platform, but strong privacy and human rights protections are an obvious way in which policy makers could impose meaningful limits on the worst excesses of surveillance capitalism.
This is no doubt a difficult problem to solve, but that’s not an excuse not to try. Why should the town square be privately owned? Digital platforms are at the centre of modern life and we deserve to have a real say in shaping how those platforms work and who they work for. We should be able to engage in civic life free from surveillance, manipulation and control. Billionaires are not the answer, and especially not ones with fragile egos. Now is the perfect time to be asking serious questions about how we best build, maintain and govern such critical social infrastructure in a way that is accountable to the people.
Image: Elon Musk in 2018, Daniel Oberhaus