A few years ago, I asked the chief executive of one of the world’s mightiest tech giants what his true ambition for the company was. He answered without hesitation or irony: “Oh, a seat for us on the UN Security Council.”
It is remarks like this, and the rapid aggregation of extraordinary power in the hands of a tiny caste of digital multi-
billionaires, that have already made so many wary of Elon Musk’s successful $44 billion (£34.5 billion) bid for Twitter. What is he going to do with the social media network? And is it right that an individual, any individual, should have control over what he himself described on April 14 as the world’s “de facto town square”?
Famously one of the inspirations for Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Tony Stark — the tech genius who suits up as Iron Man in the Marvel movies — Musk might, it is perfectly true, morph into a comic book supervillain and turn Twitter into a private force for global evil.
Nobody can be completely sure what the world’s richest man will do next: that’s what being the world’s richest man means. But I have a hunch that the net outcome of Musk’s grand purchase might be good news for the company and for its role in the digital ecosphere.
Since April 4, when he disclosed that he already owned nine per cent of the company, making him its largest shareholder, much of the anxiety about his intentions has focused upon his declaration that he is a “free speech absolutist”.
Does this mean that Twitter will now become a digital hellscape corroding the very fabric of democracy? I mean, more than it already does? For a lot of people the question boils down to this: will Musk give Donald Trump his account back, lifting the lifelong ban that was imposed on the former president after the storming of the US Capitol?
For what it’s worth, Trump said yesterday that he has no intention of heading back to the platform that was so integral to his presidency. We’ll see. If The Donald formally enters the race for the 2024 Republican nomination, it will be increasingly hard for Twitter to justify its continued prohibition, irrespective of its ownership structure.
The much more important point is that, even if Musk wants to make Twitter a home for absolute freedom of expression, the option is not open to him. After years of online mayhem, national and supranational jurisdictions are cracking down significantly with legislation that will make it harder for social media to carry genuinely toxic material (the EU’s new Digital Services Act being but one example).
Musk is a maverick, but he is not a criminal. In practice, he will have to devote a lot more of his new company’s time and energy to content moderation than his present rhetoric suggests simply to stay within the bounds of the law. Too little attention has been paid to the most radical feature by far of Musk’s vision: to make Twitter’s algorithms open source (possibly by posting them on GitHub, the collaborative code hosting platform). This would be a genuinely revolutionary measure and one that would shame the other tech giants.
There is a legitimate argument to be had about the concentration of power in the hands of digital plutocrats. But the secrecy surrounding algorithms — the code that dictates what we see in our feeds, when and how often — is much more sinister.
How can we possibly hold the tech giants to account when we don’t know how and why they decide what is given prominence on their sites (and what isn’t)? If Musk is serious about making the Twitter algorithm transparent, he is proposing the most significant change to the internet since the World Wide Web was invented in 1989.
Will Musk, as his opponents claim, be no more than a latter day Charles Foster Kane, the press tycoon of Orson Welles’s masterpiece? In the film, Kane’s best friend Jed Leland tells him: “You talk about the people as though you owned them, as though they belong to you. As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights, as if you can make them a present of liberty, as a reward for services rendered.”
A similar charge is levelled at Musk today: that his claims to be a liberator conceal the megalomania of a hyper-wealthy troll. By pulling off this remarkable business coup, he has bought himself the best chance he will ever get to prove the naysayers wrong.