Elon Musk’s Takeover of Twitter Is More Problematic Than You Think

There has been some speculation about how this will work, but the basic idea seems to be that once people have bank cards connected to their Twitter accounts, content creators could, for example, charge users $1 to watch their videos. The money would b…

There has been some speculation about how this will work, but the basic idea seems to be that once people have bank cards connected to their Twitter accounts, content creators could, for example, charge users $1 to watch their videos. The money would be paid into an account held with Twitter, which would pay interest, gradually turning a social media platform into a sort of bank: a fintech start-up, but with 400 million users to try and tap.

"I was one of the key people behind x.com which became PayPal," Musk said to Baron. "I know how to make a way better PayPal. There's a product plan I wrote in July of 2000 where I thought it would be possible to make the most valuable financial product in the world, we're going to execute that plan."

Beyond his public comments, though, may be some shadier plans to recoup the significant amount he paid for the site—in a deal he initially tried to wriggle out of. Twitter's revenue comes almost entirely from its ability to target adverts based on its capacity to know huge amounts about its users, meaning the firm has endless conflicts internally, and sometimes externally with government regulators, about privacy.

In the past few days, numerous senior staff responsible for compliance, privacy and security have resigned, shortly before they were due to file documents with US authorities overseeing their privacy practices. With Musk pushing engineers to develop new products rapidly—in a meeting with staff yesterday he floated the risk of bankruptcy—there is a suggestion that the engineers are being asked to 'self-verify' that their products meet privacy regulations, rather than subjecting them to the usual tests.

Financialisation

There are lots of obvious problems with Musk's plan, even if he manages to avoid a death spiral to bankruptcy in the coming weeks as advertisers pull out. Perhaps most fundamentally, he's going to struggle to get people to pay for a service they are used to getting for free, especially when he's just slashed many of the staff who hold it together.

For many Twitter users, the anonymity it's historically allowed has been a key attraction. The two major countries where Twitter use is most prevalent are Japan, where 46% of people have an account, and Saudi Arabia, where 40% do. When I asked Japan expert Nevin Thompson why Twitter is so popular in the country, he pointed to the fact that, unlike Facebook, for example, it doesn't require you to use your real name. "Very generally speaking—Japan's not a monolith—privacy is highly valued," he said.

In Saudi Arabia, the need for privacy is, for obvious reasons, even stronger, though significant questions already hover over that, with prominent Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal being one of Twitter's main investors.

Even if users do sign up for Twitter Blue, even if Musk and co can iron out the problem they already have with scammers buying verification, relegating bots to the bottom of everyone's timeline will do little to solve Twitter's actual problem. The majority of lies and abuse come from unashamed named accounts; the issue isn't @xxxvaccinesarefake123, it's @realdonaldtrump and @FoxNews.

And so the company ends up with the same big questions it's always had. Who does it allow? Who does it ban? What kinds of speech are acceptable, and what aren't? Can I use the N-word? And if not, then what about other terms of abuse for hundreds of other kinds of minoritised peoples around the world, including terms in different languages, and those that have evolved meaning in different ways in different cultures?

If I avoid using those terms, can I endlessly harangue women of colour? Am I allowed to post pornography? Or graphic images of dead people? Or photos of someone else's children without their consent?

Can I, as Trump and his supporters did in 2021, use Twitter to attempt to overthrow the US government? Can I, as Egyptian democrats did in 2011, use it to try to overthrow the Egyptian government? And who decides which side of the line Venezuela sits on?

Until last week, these editorial questions were largely determined by the market. Advertisers wanted enough controversy to ensure potential consumers came to the site and saw their products, but they didn't want their posts marred by association with the wrong kinds of nastiness, the kinds that might put customers off.

As Sunny Singh argued on Monday, the result was hardly great.

"As a woman of colour," she wrote on openDemocracy, "my experience of the platform has always been vitiated by an overarching sense of violence: gendered, racialised and sexualised abuse has always been commonplace there. As I have written before, simply being online as a visible minority has long been seen as an invitation for abuse."

Quoting the feminist theorist Flavia Dzodan, she adds, "the 'theatre of cruelty' remains at the heart of Twitter's model, where abuse and violence against those who are historically marginalised is not only constantly, repeatedly, incessantly enacted but also presented as entertainment for audiences who have grown increasingly desensitised to this collective sadism and its effects. Over the past decade, this has developed into a near-perfect feedback loop: celebrities, journalists and politicians enact, lead and encourage abuse of marginalised peoples in either legacy or social media, and the abuse is then replicated and boosted on the other."

What's changed is that Musk has cast himself as emperor, and bought the amphitheatre. He can't decide who wins the fight. But he can choose what weapons the gladiators are allowed; whether, when things get a bit dull, to release a lion or two; whether, at the end of the day, to put his thumb up or down.

Or, to put it another way, the richest man in the world, a man who this week urged voters to back the Republican Party in the US midterm elections, has appointed himself as editor-in-chief of one of the world's biggest media outlets.

And, whatever he says about the rules not changing, a number of previously banned accounts have already been allowed back onto Twitter, while speculation circles about whether more bans—including Trump's—will be lifted.

The result, unsurprisingly, is that at least some of those who produce free content for Twitter have walked away, including celebrities Stephen Fry, Gigi Hadid, Whoopi Goldberg and Jameela Jameel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, numerous advertisers appear to have followed them, in a move that Musk moaned was "an attack on the first amendment", as though his firm has a legal right to advertising revenue.


This content originally appeared on Common Dreams - Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community and was authored by Adam Ramsay.


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