Elon Musk | The man who bought the virtual ‘town square’

The world’s richest person, who describes himself as a ‘free speech absolutist’, wants to change the business and operations of Twitter 

May 01, 2022 12:30 am | Updated 02:55 pm IST

There is little that’s unclear about Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter. Even as he was proposing to buy the world’s most influential social media platform, in mid-April, the world’s richest man spelt out the logic behind his decision. In a TED interview with Chris Anderson just hours after his offer became public, he said it is important to have an inclusive arena for free speech. He subsequently spoke about how he planned to make it so.

Now, with ownership all set to come to his hand via a $44-billion deal, the big question his followers and critics alike have is not whether Twitter will change but whether Mr. Musk can manage the complexity of running a politically-sensitive social media platform alongside his many other businesses.

Since launching software company Zip2 in 1995, the South Africa-born, U.S. entrepreneur has managed to successfully spot promising business opportunities in a slew of sectors. After Zip2 was bought by Compaq, he saw a future in an online financial services venture, which eventually merged with PayPal, only for the new company to be bought by eBay. The riches from these exits gave Mr. Musk an opportunity to invest in new areas such as electric vehicles, space travel, battery energy storage and even tunnel boring. The result has been Tesla, SpaceX, Tesla Energy, and so on— representing sectors where he has had to necessarily work closely with the government and its agencies. Tesla recently became one of only six U.S. companies to touch a market capitalisation of $1 trillion.

Amid all this business scale-up, Mr. Musk, 50, has found time for tweeting. On more than one occasion in recent years, he has called Twitter fun. In an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher in 2018, he said he looked at Twitter “as a way to learn things, kinda stay in touch with what’s happening. It feels like dipping into the flow of consciousness of society”. It was clear in the run-up to the bid, though, that he had problems with the way the platform was run. After winning the bid, Mr. Musk reiterated his point on free speech, tweeting, “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”

Neutral platform

It is amply clear that Mr. Musk wants Twitter to be perceived as neutral. Another of his tweets said, “For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally.” In the TED interview, Mr. Musk agreed with the description of himself as a “free speech absolutist”. He believes that Twitter, like any other platform, is bound by the laws of the country where it operates. And, therefore, there will be limitations for free speech. But, “going beyond the legal obligations and having it be unclear who’s making what changes…, having tweets be mysteriously promoted or demoted with no insight into what’s going on, having a black-box algorithm, I think can be quite dangerous,” he said.

Governments across the world now have specific rules under whose framework social media companies operate. This has evolved over the last decade or so, especially after Twitter gained in prominence as a tool that helps anti-government protesters to organise themselves. Such movements, in countries such as Iran and Egypt, came to be known as ‘Twitter Revolutions’. In recent years, its fight against disinformation and hate speech has forced it to frame new rules and policies of flagging such content or de-platforming whom it considers as offenders.

Mr. Musk, who said he doesn’t care about the economics of this at all, has proposed a few changes. He believes the Twitter code should be available, say, on a platform such as GitHub, so that people can propose changes in the same way that they do for open-source software such as Linux or the Signal messaging code. There’s a problem with this idea, though, according to an MIT Technology Review article. It says, “Musk might have a strong aversion to authority, but his desire for algorithmic transparency happens to chime with the wishes of politicians around the world. The idea has been a cornerstone of multiple governments’ attempts to fight back against Big Tech in recent years.” The new owner is also in favour of letting “the speech exist” if in doubt. “I am not saying I have all the answers here,” he told Mr. Anderson. But he has clear preferences — “timeouts are better than permanent bans”. The ultimate “good sign” of a neutral platform is “someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like.” Mr. Musk’s top priority is dealing with the bot armies on Twitter.

The complexity of running a business isn’t new for him. Nor is the risk of failure. “Who starts a car company and a rocket company expecting them to succeed? Certainly not me,” said Mr. Musk in a recent interview with Mathias Dopfner, Axel Springer’s CEO. He was referring to the many close shaves his businesses had.

He said, “After the third failure of SpaceX in 2008, I knew that if the fourth launch failed, SpaceX would be dead. We had no money for the fifth launch. Tesla’s been on the verge of bankruptcy many times. We even closed on the last day of the financing round in 2008. Remember, back then General Motors and Chrysler had gone bankrupt, and Ford was on the brink of it. So, imagine trying to raise money for an electric car start-up while General Motors was going bankrupt. People were very angry that I even asked.” But he managed to squeak through.

New changes

But Twitter could bring in new challenges, critics feel. Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com founder, and No. 2 in the richest men list behind Mr. Musk, tweeted, “Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?” The ‘town square’ reference was to Twitter itself, something that Mr. Musk himself used. The reference to the Chinese government is because of multiple reasons. China banned Twitter over a decade ago. It is the No. 2 for Tesla and it is the main battery supply source for the company. Mr. Bezos himself answered this, tweeting, “My own answer to this question is probably not.

The more likely outcome in this regard is complexity in China for Tesla, rather than censorship at Twitter.” And then, he concluded saying, “But we’ll see. Musk is extremely good at navigating this kind of complexity.”

Reuters columnist Pete Sweeney wrote, “Elon Musk is buying Twitter in the name of free speech. Beijing will lean on him to un-ban its troll army, then push him to comply with its extra-territorial sedition law. Tesla’s key Shanghai outfit risks being a pawn in the fight.”

Twitter has a challenging transition in its hand, and so does Mr. Musk.

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