Elon Musk Twitter

Elon Musk won’t save or sink Twitter

“Musk is not a hero. He’s just a self-serving tech mogul who has the means to afford more extravagant mid-life impulse buys than your average divorced dad. But he’s not that different from former Twitter owner Jack Dorsey, who was also not your friend.”

The minute it was announced that Tesla CEO and the world’s richest man Elon Musk had reached a deal to acquire Twitter for $44-billion, my inbox was inundated with random trolls giddily informing me that “Elon is the man!” and it’s a “tough day at the office for little leftists” who are now in “full panic mode.”

The messages were an interesting reaction addressed to someone who had barely raised an eyebrow at the news or made any specific declaration alluding to feeling one way or another. It was the expectation of panic that amused me.

First, a reality check, both for those disturbed by the acquisition, bracing for a free-for-all that will unleash all hateful trolls, and for anti-woke boomers excited by the news, thinking that this somehow ushers in a new era of free speech. I don’t expect either are about to take place.

I’m frankly shocked some people think that a 50-year-old man who spends his free time attempting to (badly) troll Bill Gates on Twitter or who sided with the Freedom Convoy delusional conspiracy nonsense is a social media mastermind. He’s just a rich guy looking out for himself and that, of course, comes with its own set of concerns, but I’m not yet convinced he will mess with what makes the platform financially viable.

Elon Musk jumped in to purchase Twitter on a bored whim. Twitter will be Elon’s plaything until exploding rocket ships or one of his eight kids demand more attention. Since running a social media platform isn’t nearly as fun as being on it, and since profit remains the main goal, I expect that (if the deal goes through) he will soon be leaving the day-to-day affairs of the site to his trusted minions, and he’ll be focused on his next visionary venture. Time will tell.

Musk no free-speech fighter

By the same token, people treating Musk as a free-speech warrior, an anti-ban messiah coming to save them from online censorship and tyranny, are laughable. Elon isn’t your friend and he sure as hell doesn’t give a damn about your freedom of speech. Most billionaires didn’t become billionaires by caring about the common man. They do so by ruthlessly and myopically making deal after deal while doing everything possible to evade paying taxes and therefore giving back to the very society that subsidizes most of their ventures.

They’re not your ally, and they’re most certainly not interested in safeguarding democracy, free speech or human rights. If Musk were interested in any of that, he would have used some of his immense wealth to subsidize tuition-free education, fund social housing or cancer research, relocate and save refugees, protect women’s reproductive rights — pretty much anything other than buy a social platform the way a divorced dad in search of validation and new life goals buys a Porsche like a testosterone injection.

Where in Musk’s track record has there ever been any indication of interest in human rights, democracy or the lofty ideals of free unobstructed debate? Even his “concerns” about freedom of speech are questionable. He only tweeted about the possibility of developing a rival social media site, only after he had already acquired 7.5% of Twitter, making him the company’s largest shareholder. That’s a weird way to protest free-speech concerns if you ask me.

Privilege and questionable business practices

Elon Musk is not some quirky, benevolent billionaire who likes to dream about colonizing Mars and hyperloop travel, a visionary looking to make the world better, someone that we should look up to. He’s just a rich South African kid born into unbelievable family wealth, derived from exploiting emerald mines (and the poor Black people who work in them) in Zambia. He’s continued the proud family tradition of exploitation with his own companies, with Tesla taken to court for allowing child labour in his cobalt mines and his company recently sued for racial segregation.

From profits in the mining industry, he later purchased Tesla and PayPal, and then went on to receive millions upon millions of government subsidies and stimulus funds. Like many other rich white men like him, he’s been allowed to spectacularly fail upwards most of his life. And all this while constantly registering capital losses in an effort made to pay as little taxes as he can. So, no. Musk is not a hero. He’s just a self-serving tech mogul who has the means to afford more extravagant mid-life impulse buys than your average divorced dad.  

But he’s also not that much different from former Twitter owner Jack Dorsey, who was also not your friend.

Twitter is a double-edged tool

The #MeToo movement in action

I’m not leaving Twitter. At least, I have no reason to do so for the moment. As much hate as it gets, Twitter remains my favourite platform for news dissemination and debate. Sure, it’s often a cesspool and search engine optimization and algorithms have complicated matters even more, but Twitter, like all technology and public platforms, are ultimately tools. How you use them ends up defining what they are as well as their worth to you and society overall.

Twitter is a place that has democratized debate and allowed powerful people and politicians to be called out and face intense public scrutiny about their lies, their double-speak and their insistence that their version of any story is the only story. Activists, social movements, government critics and ordinary people challenging power who don’t have easy and unfettered access to media outlets and front-page headlines have an indispensable tool at their hands with immense political and social benefits. The Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements have used social media to amplify their voices in ways unheard of before.

Despite my full awareness that Twitter can often be nothing more than an outrage machine where we all just shout out our grievances like some demented, cacophonous form of collective therapy, I never lose sight of the platform’s potential and role as game changer and a public forum where all voices can be heard.

We can eat the rich or we can regulate them

The rich attempting to control the media is nothing new. Long before the internet and social media platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter, media critic and New Yorker columnist A.J. Liebling raised the alarm about newspaper monopolies and corporate takeovers of newspapers. “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” he wrote.

But we are not powerless. The more that rich people try to control public discourse and buy up media empires, the louder the rest of us need to be. It’s up to us to ensure that legislators and tech companies work in tandem to figure out how to more ethically and transparently regulate and ultimately remove targeted hate from these platforms.

It’s healthy to be skeptical and vigilant of any rules that would curb unpopular or minority speech. But that doesn’t mean that tech companies should stand as unaccountable platforms for content. Those now concerned that Musk’s acquisition of Twitter might increase disinformation and hate speech on the site have legitimate reasons to be concerned. But sound and responsible public policy can counteract and neuter many of these self-serving and dangerous-to-democracy ambitions.

We are the many. We still have the power to regulate the few. Governments remain accountable to us. And insisting on and enforcing legislation or establishing ethical and legal frameworks that can both redefine and take into consideration today’s online reality is to enforce accountability and real free speech.

Ultimately, it’s a question of values. Ours, not Elon Musk’s. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.