OXFORD MEDIA SOCIETY
(By Purav Menon, 1st year, BNC)
Billionaire business magnate and professional man-child Elon Musk has always had a complicated relationship with Twitter. On the fourth most-visited website in the world, he has downplayed the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, alleged a British cave diver was a “pedo guy”, met his partner of four years and the mother of his children, and caused his company losses of $20m over a marijuana joke – all while sharing a plethora of memes to his now 114 million followers (and counting). Thus, his buyout of the company operating the app seemed inevitable once he started buying up shares in the beginning of 2022. Amidst an initial agreement and a subsequent reversal generating threat of a lawsuit, he reversed course once again in October 2022, and within weeks, Twitter was his – for the small cost of $44 million.
Musk wasted no time with his plans for ‘reforms’ for the social media app. The mass sackings of a vast number of Twitter’s workforce began a week after the acquisition, with around 50% of the 7,500-strong number said to likely end up jobless. As for the executives, Musk did not hesitate to throw out the CEO and CFO, replacing the company’s board of executives with his own associates.
Yet perhaps the biggest development to the average Twitter user was Musk’s plan to completely revamp verification. The ‘blue tick’, once a confirmation of veracity of identity for public figures all too susceptible to impersonation and hoaxes around the world (420,000 of them, in fact), is set to become… a paid privilege, coming at $8 a month for any user. “Twitter’s current lords & peasants’ system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit,” Mr Musk tweeted on November 1st. “Power to the people!”
To rephrase, this change of policy means that anyone, anyone, can pay eight dollars a month in order to impersonate any public figure they want. The verification symbol will lose any meaning and helpfulness for those seeking a real public figure from which to receive updates and important information from and is instead set to become a symbol of ‘Twitter Premium’ that only amplifies the ‘lords & peasants’ system Musk supposedly wished to eradicate. What’s more, things like death hoaxes and misinformation could easily rise for those most gullible on the app.
But perhaps more worrying is Musk’s intended plans for content moderation. Long a proponent of his own absolutist idea of so-called “free speech”, Musk has pledged to revamp the suppression of content on Twitter, intending to create a ‘moderation council’ to review existing rules – “comedy is now legal on Twitter”, he said upon the takeover. Yet, while this may seem like a win for freedom of expression, it is easy to tell that Musk’s vision of free speech comes more as a way of justifying his own comments than a sincere whole-hearted commitment to a human right. Within days of the acquisition, Musk shared a conspiracy tweet questioning the violent attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of US Speaker of the House Nancy.
The consequences of Musk’s policy have already been somewhat clear. Uses of racial slurs and hate speech skyrocketed by nearly 500% in just 12 hours after the acquisition, to the outcry of activists worldwide. The verification program has prompted concerns that non-verified users could have Tweets suppressed, with Musk suggesting that “you’ll have to scroll very far to find unverified users”, cancelling out the very ‘free speech’ Musk holds so dearly. Hundreds of thousands of Twitter users, including celebrities, have exited the app, as have several advertisers, such as Pfizer and General Motors, causing grave damage to the company’s revenue, something Musk blamed on “the activists”. Elsewhere, there are concerns that potential 2024 Presidential candidate Donald Trump, permanently banned from Twitter for using it to literally inciting an attack on the US Capitol, could make a return to the app. If someone as politically outspoken as Musk can have the final say in who gets a platform and who doesn’t, a possible dangerous precedent could be set.
Twitter was not perfect pre-Musk, but it has always been powerful, defining elections, wars, pandemics – it is well and truly ingrained in all facets of modern society. And placing such a powerful global tool in the hands of an insecure, egotistical, controversial billionaire is possibly one of the worst things that could happen to it. The firm is losing more than $4 million in revenue a day, coupled with fierce criticism and a mass exodus of users, employees, and advertisers. While a complete rescission of the ambitious scope of his plans is unlikely, Musk will need to think more carefully on some of his proposals. Otherwise, that iconic blue bird, once dubbed ‘the SMS of the internet’, may end up as dead as a dodo.