Elon Musk has started to run Twitter into the ground. He has laid off about half of the company’s full-time employees, caused chaos after making blue check mark verifications a purchasable commodity, and lost 877,00 users in just six days. This apparent decline in the service has come as a disappointment for many. For years, Twitter has been a place for people to connect and communicate. It has been a receptacle for change on many occasions. At the same time, it has also been co-opted by authoritarian governments and those seeking to damage democratic institutions. Twitter is a tool that can be used for any purpose, good or bad. The apparent net value of its influence, while impossible to fully quantify, seems to skew to the harmful side. These harmful effects have seemingly multiplied in the time Musk has been at the helm of the company. Twitter may decrease in popularity or even go under in the future under Musk’s supervision. Democracy will be better off because of its potential demise.
Twitter has been instrumental as a tool in many social and political movements across the world. In the US, the Black Lives Matter movement found a lot of support and was able to spread its message using the platform. In the Middle East, during the Arab Spring, many activists were able to spread their messages over social media like Twitter in defiance of their government’s suppression of their organizing efforts. Twitter’s usefulness for spreading important messages is undeniable, but that is a double-edged sword. Pro-democracy and social justice movements can spread their messages, but authoritarian governments are also able to use the site to monitor their citizens’ activity. Additionally, disinformation is spread just as easily as real information on the platform.
Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has been messy ever since he first announced his intention to purchase it. On April 14th, 2022, Musk made an offer to buy Twitter for 44 billion dollars. He indicated that one of his intentions behind buying Twitter was to promote free speech on the platform. Only months later, he attempted to terminate the deal based on his claim that Twitter had failed to provide the information requested concerning spam accounts on the platform. After he rescinded his offer, Twitter sued. Musk changed his mind once again before the trial and the deal eventually went through.
Musk is the wealthiest man in the world, valued at $199.8 billion. As wealthy as he is, he did not have $44 billion on hand to purchase Twitter outright. Many of his assets are stocks meaning that in order to buy the company he needed help financing the deal. The $44 billion deal was financed with $27 billion of his own money with the other $17 million coming from investors and loans. Some of the sources of funding included Qatar’s wealth fund and a very wealthy Saudi prince. Both will become shareholders in Twitter, holding a significant position of power within the company. This is ironic and in contrast with Musk’s declared intent to protect free speech. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both countries that have heavily restricted free speech in the past. Musk, like many others, questionably views Twitter as a town square and believes it should act as such. But his actions have yet to live up to this ideal.
The conceptualization of Twitter as a town square is not a new one. The idea is that anyone can add their opinion on any issue, and they would be able to meet in the open just like in a town square. Democratic values would shine through the promotion of free speech and civil discourse. The problem is Twitter has never really been a town square. In an interview, Musk himself referred to Twitter as both a “town square” and an “arena” in the same sentence. His later assessment as an arena seems more applicable. Musk has taken Twitter private, meaning he will be subject to less public scrutiny and will be able to appoint a board of friends and investors. This makes Musk less of a metaphorical mayor of a town square and positions him more akin to an emperor presiding over an arena for entertainment. While civil discussion and harmless Tweets might be dominant in terms of volume, arguments certainly attract the most attention. Whatever democratic principles Twitter itself held in the past have eroded alongside real-life democracy.
Twitter has been damaging democracy and bolstering authoritarianism for years. Nigeria is a prominent example of how Twitter has bowed to authoritarian governments. After President Muhammadu Buhari tweeted a thinly veiled threat that targeted the Igbo people, Twitter deleted his tweet and suspended him. Twitter has strict rules concerning violence. Users on the platform may not threaten, incite, or promote violence of any kind. While this is not always uniformly enforced, it certainly is when high-profile figures such as Buhari engage in it. Shortly after Twitter suspended Buhari, Nigeria banned Twitter in the country. This caused immediate international backlash as it was a clear sign of democratic backsliding and a disregard for human rights. Twitter was a useful tool during the End SARS movement in the country, and it is also used quite frequently by young people in Nigeria. Nigeria made a list of demands which had to be met in order for them to allow the platform back into the country, and after some negotiations, Twitter agreed to them and returned to Nigeria. The company showed its willingness to support authoritarian forces rather than support the demands of the people who regularly use the platform. This is far from the only case in which Twitter has supported authoritarian governments, intentionally or not. Governments have been able to successfully run troll campaigns to target dissidents and sometimes even interfere in foreign elections all on Twitter.
While it may not be devastating for some to see Twitter potentially go, one cannot deny its utility. As a tool, it has done good over the years. However, the potential and real detrimental effects it has had on democracy are difficult to ignore. Twitter is definitely not the only culprit in this regard. Facebook, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms have also contributed to the problem. Under Elon Musk’s leadership, moderation practices on the site could decrease leading to even more problems. Social media is here to stay, so we need to figure out how to manage it in a way that upholds democratic principles like free speech but at the same time does not put democratic institutions or people in danger. It may be too late for Twitter, but it is not for future platforms to avoid making the same mistakes.