Throughout history, communications scholars have ascribed varying degrees of power to technology. In the 1940s and 50s, movies and television were viewed as powerful mediums that could alter the worldviews, opinions and beliefs of viewers. Some labeled these mediums as “magic bullets” that could at once impact an entire society. It was for this reason that the House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, sought to rout out Communists working in Hollywood. For if there were only one Communist working in Hollywood, then he or she could use the all-powerful medium of movies to subvert the entire nation, and supposedly destroy the American notion of freedom.
Scholars working in 40s and 50s were heavily influenced by the Nazis’ use of movies to propagate fascism in Germany. It was believed that thanks to mass media the Nazis were able to rally public support for unimaginable atrocities. Yet during the 1960s and 70s, communications scholars began to doubt the power of movies and television. A new generation of scholars that grew up with televisions in their homes knew the viewers could reject the messages they were exposed to; that they could doubt the information provided on screen and that they could even misinterpret messages integrated into television shows. These scholars did not fly out of a window simply because they saw Superman do so on television, nor did they act violently simply because they watched crime shows.
A similar trajectory of scholarship has accompanied the rise of social media. What were once seen as tools for managing personal ties were transformed during the Arab Spring to the weapon of revolutionaries and reformers. Suddenly, Facebook and the like were viewed as important mediums so powerful that they could overthrow mighty dictators who had ruled for decades. Then, research suggested that it was not Posts and Tweets that led people to stand opposite tanks and armed soldiers. These individuals were all part of social movements that utilized social media to organize protests. Thus, social media was not omnipotent. Then came the scourge of disinformation, conspiracy theories and Bots and once again social media were viewed as all-powerful. Russia, it was said, was able to trigger Brexit, and get Trump elected, all thanks to fake advertisements and misleading information. Overtime, however, the pendulum turned yet again, and scholars began to view social media as one important component in an individuals’ information ecology.
Even the most ardent users of Twitter or Facebook do not reside solely on social media. He or she gathers information from diverse sources including work-place conversations, family meetings, social gatherings and television or news sites. The notion that one Russian advertisement could turn a Clinton supporter into a Trump supporter was abandoned.
What, then, is the importance of Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter? If Twitter is but a component in our information ecology, should we fear its acquisition by an eccentric billionaire with a panache for embroiling himself in scandals? Is there now a new risk to society? Or even democracy?? Over the past week these questions have been debated passionately by Twitter users, influencers, journalists and pundits. None have offered a clear answer. My answer is “yes”. It matters. For three main reasons.
First, it matters as Twitter is not merely a “platform”. For users, Twitter is a tool for learning about the world. It is a place where matters of the day can be discussed, where opinions can be formed and where worldviews can be tested and validated. It is a place where publics can be formed, constituted and heard. It is a place where world events can be made intelligible, it is an arena where free speech can be celebrated and it is a tool for social and political action. It is a place where ignorance can be celebrated and where hate can prosper. But it is also a place where fact can defeat fiction and lies.
Despite his remarks, Musk did not buy Twitter to protect this digital town square, which at times is similar to a Roman mob and other times similar to an Ancient Greek assembly. Musk bought Twitter to make money, to turn a profit and therein lies his logic and the logic that already governs Twitter. For those who call themselves “Twitter Users” are really the products that Twitter sells. Every tweet, every call for help, every plea for action and every revolution is monetized as users’ data is sold to the highest bidder. If he is to increase his wealth, Musk must find new ways to monetize users’ data. That means more sophisticated forms of digital surveillance, more intricate ways of analyzing users’ data, more deductions that can be made about users and more information that can be sold to advertisers and world governments.
Second, President Eisenhower famously warned about the influence of the military-industrial complex whose revenue relied on war. Now we must be weary of the Billionaire-industrial complex whose revenue relies on gathering and monetizing personal data. There is another element here and that is the Messiah complex that many tech Billionaires suffer from. Bill Gates promised to cure the world; Musk promises to save humanity. Yet making money, writing code and solving complex socio-economic problems do not require the same skillset. Tech billionaires are dilettantes when it comes to solving crises and pandemics. In a world mired by conflict, war and complex geo-political rivalries, the last thing we need nor desire is Messiahs whose ego writes checks his body can’t cash.
Lastly, the owner of Twitter is a powerful gatekeeper. True, Musk’s actions and policies could be tempered by public outcry, user rage and stockholders’ dismay. Yet Musk now has the power to ban or grant access to a medium that shapes society and politics. He may choose to grant Trump access to Twitter, or allow the Kremlin back onto the platform. Conversely, he may choose to silence opposition voices across the world. The main concern is Musk’s motive. As a businessman, there is a genuine concern that Musk will base his decisions on profit and his other business interests. Perhaps he will allow Putin back onto Twitter if Russia invests in fleets of Teslas, or perhaps he will refuse to ban Chinese bots once President Xi promises to arm China with thousands of SpaceX rockets. Musk’s’ diverging financial interests could translate into platform policies that will reverberate across societies and nations.
The revolution will not be Tweeted. It never was. But Twitter is home to revolutionary ideas. These are too precious and fragile to be left in the hands of tech billionaires.