Elon Musk, a billionaire in the technology sector, wants to buy Twitter, make it a private company and change it fundamentally. The implications for political discourse and democratic deliberation can be considerable, especially in countries of the South.
On Friday, the unpredictable Elon Musk put the Twitter acquisition “temporarily on hold,” but didn’t cancel it. Charles Martin-Shields’ comment remains relevant.
In southern countries, Twitter is not as popular as other social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram, TikTok or Facebook. It is nevertheless an important global forum that shapes public debate and influences people.
Many internet users will not personally notice Twitter’s relevance for political discourse, as it has a relatively small user base. What matters is that specific groups rely heavily on Twitter, including journalists, public intellectuals, and policy makers. What makes Twitter valuable are the networks of people who belong to these elite circles.
Prominent people have the greatest reach on Twitter, as figures in politics, media, pop culture, etc. have the most followers. Bots – software that automatically shares and retweets specific posts – have been known to drive propaganda in manipulative ways. However, an average person would probably be unable to attract a large number of followers, even with the support of an army of bots.
Musk has over 90 million Twitter followers. He is known for his jokes, sarcasm, and leaking proprietary business information, which brought him the attention of the Security and Exchange Commission, the stock market regulator in the United States. For him, “freedom” seems to mean doing what he wants without a government agency getting in his way, an attitude often seen among oligarchic populists (see Hans Dembowski at www.dandc .eu).
Depending on how Musk might change Twitter’s rules, the platform could either bolster democratic deliberation or authoritarian populism in the future. The crucial questions will be who is allowed to use Twitter and what kind of messaging is allowed. Musk claims to be a “free speech absolutist”. For all intents and purposes, this will likely mean that anyone with a loud voice will be free to say whatever they want, including misinformation, hate speech and lies. When that manuscript was finalized in mid-May, the future owner of Twitter had just tellingly said that he did not want former US President Donald Trump to remain locked out of the platform.
In the Global South, Twitter will most likely continue to amplify powerful members of the elite. Debates that start on Twitter often find their way to other social media platforms as well as mainstream media. India’s reactionary Hindu supremacists typically rely on WhatsApp to amplify messages, while Russian and Ukrainian actors use Telegram channels for propaganda campaigns amid the ongoing war.
Would a new management of Twitter make matters worse? The platform is unlikely to become an unusable hub of misinformation and disinformation. Although Musk denies having an economic stake in Twitter, he wouldn’t have become a billionaire without worrying about money. To generate revenue, he offered to charge Twitter users “a small fee”. This could make the platform even more elite.
If Musk tried to turn Twitter into a business platform like Instagram or Facebook, the constant stream of publicity would likely cause serious voices in civil society, politics and journalism to drop out. The current role of Twitter would be compromised. In the United States, pro-democracy Twitter users began leaving the platform. Such a trend could well prove harmful both to Twitter and to democracy.
Musk also said he wanted Twitter’s algorithm, which determines what people see on their timeline, to be transparent. Transparency would reduce the possibilities of manipulation. However, the algorithm is quite complex, so only a few people would actually understand it.
What’s more publicly relevant is who Musk hopes will back his $44 billion acquisition. Relevant allies include an investment fund controlled by the reactionary royal house of Qatar, a super-rich Saudi prince and software billionaire Larry Ellison of Oracle.
Twitter is an important platform for international discussion. Now he seems in danger of becoming a billionaire’s plaything. We should take this as a warning.
Charles Martin Shields is senior researcher at the German Development Institute in Bonn.