2022: The World This Year

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2022: The World This Year
Digital world: Elon Musk and the Twitter Chaos

  Bhoomika Sesharaj

TWTW#196, 31 December 2022, Vol. 4, No. 45


What happened?

On 27 October, Elon Musk became the owner and CEO of Twitter, after buying the social media company for USD 44 billion. Musk’s takeover of the social media giant comes after he remarked that the company was in a “precarious” financial position and that his ownership would transform the platform into one that provides real “free speech.” He said that he wanted to take the company in a “different direction” and that content on the platform would be mildly moderated and would endorse unlimited digital rights to its audience. The takeover also entailed the firing of nearly 7,500 Twitter employees which has gone against Musk’s content moderation efforts into a toss. On 19 December, Musk posted an informal poll on the platform asking its users if he should step down as the head of the company, which ended with a majority of 57.5 per cent of respondents calling for Musk to leave his post. Nearly 17 million users participated in the poll, and the results of the polls impacted the value of his shares in Tesla.

On 5 November, Twitter’s co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey said that he had “grown” the size of the company “too quickly.” This statement laid the continuous endorsement of Dorsey’s support to Musk’s taking over of Twitter since April, where he said that Musk was a “singular solution” that he “trusted” and that the takeover was the “right path” to Twitter’s sustained success. 

What is the background?

First, Twitter is increasingly becoming a platform for speech and expression. Musk spoke of buying Twitter because he wanted to “try to help humanity,” and said that he wanted “civilisation to have a digital town square.”  Musk’s remarks come after he has voiced in the past, he has spoken about wanting to lighten moderation and amplify voices that could be heard more freely to bring his vision of a “hardcore” Twitter 2.0 into fruition. Musk describes himself as an advocate of “absolutist free speech” and that his idea of Twitter would cease to have clutches on freedom of expression and suppression of free speech. He said: “in a battle for the future civilisation, if free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead.” Since Musk’s takeover of Twitter, the platform has seen the reinstatement and banning of celebrities and politicians alike on the grounds of inciting violence and misconduct. Musk’s clashes with Kanye West for his anti-Semitic outbursts contrastingly laid the half-baked free speech ideology. 

Second, suspension of immediate services and workers. On 12 December, Twitter on Monday night abruptly dissolved its Trust and Safety Council which laid bare the years of work and institutions created to make the social network safer and more civil. Members of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council received an email with the subject line, “Thank You,” that informed them the council was no longer “the best structure” to bring “external insights into our product and policy development work.” One of the council’s members said that the move was just “throwing away years of institutional memory.”  Twitter first formed the council as a part of their scrutiny network for their role in amplifying hate, terrorism, child exploitation and other content. 

Third, the enigma of twitter bot accounts. The immediate suspension of services also included Musk’s intentions to bar spam and bot accounts from the platform, where he encouraged the company to “do more” to prevent spam bots from taking over the platform. In May, Parag Agarwal, the company’s former chief executive clashed with Musk over the company’s spam bot detecting skills. In June, Musk’s lawyers demanded information from Twitter and said that the company was “refusing” Musk’s data requests to disclose the number of fake accounts on the platform and that it amounted to a “clear material breach” of the deal. Musk’s takeover questions the legitimacy of Twitter’s earlier mechanisms to allow spam bot accounts, where estimates calculated nearly one million spam bot accounts each day. 

Fourth, the changing political scenario in the US.  When Elon Musk struck a deal with Twitter to buy the company in late April, he reassured that he intended to lift the site’s permanent ban on Donald Trump after a 52 percent majority of users in a Twitter poll, which he conducted, voted in favour of the decision. Preceding the ban and the open clashes with Musk, Trump called him “one of our great geniuses, and we have to protect our genius,” and led civil rights advocacy groups claiming that Musk’s successfully buying of Twitter a month before the midterms has the potential to “cause significant chaos” in the country.  Along with his connections to major Republican leaders in the US, Musk’s involvement with banks like Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and others lead to a daunting math complication with Twitter needing nearly USD 44 dollars a month to recoup its advertising value if it relied on subscriptions. These banks would help finance Musk’s increased borrowings and play an imperative role if the company goes under. 

Fifth, Twitter files. The Twitter Files story, released in December, is an important and consequential piece that provided an unexpected peek at the workings of Twitter’s opaque censorship workings and laid open the merger of social media companies and the US national security state. The files said that the FBI had regular meetings with the Twitter officials and that the two shared “intelligence” and communicated through private channels. They said that there was a “stark contrast” at how the FBI treated foreign propaganda as compared to the US equivalents, who were “given a free pass” and that the website is used as a “geopolitical tool” to “service” the US’s foreign policy interests. 

About the author

Bhoomika Sesharaj is a Research Intern at the National Institute of Advanced Studies.

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