In the ecosystem of the digital universe, the little blue bird is on top of the food chain. Twitter has a total of 217 million monetisable daily active users, sends out 500 million tweets a day and earns more than $5 billion per annum, according to the latest updates. The platform has around 330 million monthly active users based on the last available data reported in the 1st quarter of 2019. That is a powerful number. A number that the world’s richest man and unpredictably eccentric billionaire Elon Musk has in his pocket.
It is too much power for one man to have.
Musk’s own Twitter followers exceed 86 million. He is all set to go to Mars on the spacecraft his company SpaceX builds. He is a glamorous celebrity who dates entertainers like Amber Heard and Grimes. He loves to show off in public by feuding with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Is buying Twitter just part of an extravagant personality that builds flame throwers? Is it easy to decode Musk’s real reason for purchasing Twitter? Like all men in history wealthy beyond compare, Musk, too, is driven by power and the need to control the world; in this case, the Universe as well, by building space colonies. The eclectic tycoon’s self-expressed reason for spending $44 billion in cash to buy the bird is, “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy and Twitter is the digital town square where natters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
The Tesla technoking (Musk’s real job title: techno+king) has been openly critical of Twitter. In a TED 2022 interview with Chris Anderson, he snapped, “I think broadly, the civilisational risk is decreased the more we can increase the trust of Twitter as a public platform.” According to the respected The New Yorker, “Twitter is a notoriously dysfunctional business. It has failed to keep pace with its competitors, such as Facebook and TikTok, and its updates and new features have arrived only intermittently and confusingly, often angering users. Its advertising-based business model has barely changed since it launched in 2006. Yet Twitter is still at the centre of culture-war debates and remains a pulpit from which to troll public discourse, even after the ban of Donald Trump, in 2021. Twitter’s status as both a total mess and extremely influential makes it an eternal target: it inspires strong opinions, including strategies to fix it and calls to just shut it down entirely.” And Musk wants to control the way public discourse and private opinion shape society. Twitter is undoubtedly both the most potent and most toxic communication weapon in the world. He who owns Twitter controls minds. Political leaders need it. Autocrats fear it. Dictators try to control it or, like China, ban it altogether. The woke community uses it to express Leftist angst and take potshots at their right-wing tormentors. Trolls use it to brutishly opinion shame non-believers and liberals, and in extreme cases, issue vicious threats of personal harm. Journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, a favourite target for trolls who have threatened his family with rape and murder, says, “Twitter for me is a townsquare of a plethora of opinions as long as there is no hate or defamation. I hope Mr Musk addresses these issues.” Before the deal went through, Musk had tweeted, “If our Twitter bid succeeds, we will defeat the spam bots or die trying!” His mission is to “authenticate all real humans,” which could be a problem for bots who spread misinformation, and harass and influence users by spreading fake news.
Twitter’s bane is its dubious distinction, along with WhatsApp, as the purveyor of Fake News. Can the boastful bundle of contradictions named Elon Musk, power-hungry showman and humanitarian billionaire change all that? The South Africa-born, self-made tycoon tweeted late last month that “a social media platform’s policies are good if the most extreme 10 percent on left and right are equally unhappy.”
So, Musk has three boxes to tick.
Make Twitter transparent.
Include an edit button which users have been clamouring for.
Expose and end cryptocurrency scams online by destroying crypto scam bots.
Using fake Musk accounts, scamsters stole cryptocurrency from people in 2020. In January, the irate billionaire questioned Twitter for concentrating on profile pictures promoting NFTs instead of combating cryptobots he calls SM’s most “annoying problem.” Musk’s regime is guaranteed to change the way Twitter is used. Currently adverting makes up 90 percent of the company’s earnings. Musk advocates a subscription drive to build on its present business model. Believes Tamil Nadu Minister for Finance and Human Resources Management Dr P Thiaga Rajan whose Twitter profile describes himself as a self-respecting federalist, “Social Media platforms such as Twitter play a huge role in the global discourse. Due to the instantaneous nature of their platforms, they are largely shielded from the vagaries of Government interference, at least relative to traditional forms of media. This relative independence can be hugely beneficial to society (by enabling free speech) or its bane when not administered with responsibility, but purely to maximise profits.” Last year, Twitter Blue, a premium ad-free service with extra features like an undo button for recalling tweets before they are sent, was launched at $2.99 a month.
Ironically Musk hates advertising, and drove Tesla to the top with a zero-dollar marketing budget. Now he predicts a day will come when Twitter users can pay for subscriptions with Dogecoin. Musk and pal Jack Dorsey are on the same page on Bitcoin, praising its scope in a virtual panel chat in July. Ironically, Musk is a hard read: the man who champions free speech joined Dorsey to mock Web3, the online services system built using blockchain technology, where no one entity has total control. However, the most relevant poser is whether the tech baron will end opacity on Twitter? Musk has promised to make Twitter’s algorithm more transparent to allow people to see whether their tweets were promoted or demoted.
He wants to make this algorithm, which decides the tweet’s fate, “open source,”—it will be available for the public to see. In a TED Talk in early April, Musk insisted that this move will prevent “behind-the-scenes manipulation.” A worry among Internet activists is that a spammer or malicious agent can use Twitter's visible algorithm to exploit the system. Twitter currently bans harassment, abuse and posts that threaten physical harm. Contrarians worry that loosening such restrictions will actually enable dissemination of “misinformation and lies about political events, government officials and matters related to public health and safety,” according to NPR. Says Congress MP and celebrated author Shashi Tharoor who chairs the IT Standing Committee in Parliament, “If we find Twitter either interfering with free speech in India, or the opposite—permitting hate speech and abuse in our volatile environment—then we will have to contemplate action. The Committee is interested in their behaviour, not their ownership.”
Before he gained control of the company, Tesla Inc’s technoking had been asking Twitter to put its code up on Github, a data repository platform that enables users to spot errors and suggest changes. Twitter’s computer code is its digital brain, because the algorithm prioritises any tweet, broadening its visibility or limiting the number of people who can see it. Which means not everyone sees the same tweet at the same time. How does the code work? Through “Machine Learning,” which uses pattern recognition. The computer programme will check millions of tweets and factors like likes, shares and retweets to predict which tweets will grab the best eyeballs. Transparency is a tough call since the tweet’s underlying data must be visible to the user, based on which, the algorithm prioritises its decisions. Twitter processes billions of posts. The process is so complex that Twitter’s own software engineers can’t figure out the logic it uses. Moreover, since Twitter will keep user data private, the algorithm cannot reveal how its ranking process works. “Even if Twitter made its secret formula public, including the math it uses to ‘train’ its Machine Learning algorithms, an outsider looking at it wouldn’t be able to make meaningful conclusions from it,” Michael Ekstrand, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Boise State, who researches recommendation engines, told The Washington Post. Twitter already has an in-house research team, Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency and Accountability, which watches out for potential biases in its algorithms. Tesla uses Machine Learning to test self-driving cars and has expert engineers working on it—an added advantage for Musk.
A vital promise of the new Twitter owner is to include an edit button for user accounts. The demand for it had been growing even before the takeover. How does the button work? The current process goes like this. First, type out the 280 characters. Press the “Tweet” button. Suddenly you catch a typo. Presently all the user can do is delete and resend a new one with the correction. To Musk’s Twitter poll question on including the edit button, 73.6 percent of followers of the over four million voters said yes. The next day, Twitter tweeted that it was already in the works. Musk has far more Twitter followers than CEO Parag Agrawal and Twitter co-founder Dorsey combined. Now that Dorsey, an old friend, is back on board, things are bound to be not interesting at the company. Dorsey had said of Musk, “He gets into conversation, he loves what he does, he’s a scientist and he geeks out on the platform, and he has conversations about this as well.” In February 2019, he named Musk the most exciting person on Twitter. Musk thanked him and tweeted, “Twitter rocks!” The enigmatic billionaire also attached a string of 11 emojis such as the clown, the tornado, the pile of poo, the peanut, and the leaf fluttering in the wind.
Musk is likely to get Dorsey back as Twitter’s CEO. The two friends have a similar vision of how the company functions. The Tesla CEO doesn’t pull his punches either. He posted a meme on December 1, 2021, superimposing Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal’s face onto Joseph Stalin’s, accusing Agrawal of getting Dorsey out, like Stalin executed his secret police chief Nikolai Yezhov. Agrawal is likely to go but will serve on the board for a limited period. If Musk fires Agrawal, he will have to fork out a compensation of around $42 million. Agrawal’s stance on free speech has been slammed by critics as “terrifying”. In 2018, he told an interviewer that Twitter must “focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.” Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger lambasted him. “So this is how he feels about free speech. Of course. Another Silicon Valley jerk engaging in doublespeak, using what should be an open public square for manipulation and indoctrination,” Sanger tweeted. Says Amar Patnaik, BJD Rajya Sabha MP and head of the party’s IT wing, “I don't think the essential character of the platform will change much as merely the ownership will change from one Dorsey to another, Musk. However, if Musk can bring in architectural changes in how the platform operates so as not to be the sole arbiter of truth, then the platform will win the trust of users. All social media platforms currently face this trust deficit.” The CEO of Tesla Inc, a company which surpassed $1 trillion market value in October 2021, had asked in a Twitter poll, “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” Nearly 70 percent of two million respondents answered ‘No.’
The same week of the buyout, Musk tweeted his definition of free speech: “I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.” But is open-sourcing data just a diversion while Musk allows conservative and extreme RW users to get away with murder? Swati Chaturvedi, troll magnet and author of I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, warns that the platform cannot be allowed to become a plaything of a billionaire. Musk can be pretty brutal on occasion. Soon after the takeover, he eviscerated Twitter’s legal head and India-born lawyer Vijaya Gadde by tweeting that “suspending the Twitter account of a major news organisation for publishing a truthful story was obviously incredibly inappropriate.” Gadde, in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential elections, had suspended the account of the New York Post for publishing an exclusive on Hunter Biden’s laptop. She broke down sobbing at an internal meeting after her new boss’s comment. Says Tharoor, “Who owns which social media company is not our concern. What matters is what they do and how they do it.” Conservatives, especially in the US, allege that Twitter is biased after the platform banned Donald Trump to prevent further risk of “incitement to violence”—the former president and compulsive tweeter had encouraged goons to storm the US Capitol on January 6 last year.
Top Republicans are delirious that Musk bought Twitter and have asked for Trump’s account to be restored. Human rights organisation Amnesty International, now banned in India, posted, “Two words: toxic Twitter.” Some other influential tweeples whose accounts were suspended are Donald Trump, Jr, singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya who posted a string of “offensive” tweets against women, rapper Azealia Banks who unleashed a racist and homophobic rant against singer Zayn Malik, Bollywood producer-actor Kamaal Rashid Khan who insulted Aamir Khan and his then-wife Kiran Rao (Kamaal’s account was reinstated in November last year), far-right British commentator Katie Hopkins who made racist comments about immigrants and Muslims, and actor Kangana Ranaut’s sister Rangoli Chandel who called for the murder of secular media and others. Musk who calls himself a “free speech absolutist” believes that offensive comments, if they are still legal, should not be erased. “If it’s a grey area, let the tweet exist,” he avers. Dr Rajan is not so sure about this. “In the worst cases, they can provide global amplification for extreme instances of bigotry, demagoguery, or hate speech. Time will tell the effects of the likely change in management control of Twitter, one of the world’s most important Social Media platforms,” he believes. Musk’s view could clash with new Indian IT laws that assure the government overwhelming control of commentary.
Also, instead of blocking trolls and other abusers, they would have a free run. Analyses Chaturvedi, “The right wing thinks that free speech is hate speech, and women and journalists in India receive so much hate with all the rape threats and death threats, even with Twitter (before the takeover) having certain safeguards in place. Social media is the primary source of information for most people and dissemination of fake news leads to riots on the streets (in India).” It is doubtful whether Musk, who considers himself a law unto himself, will bother about what governments or sceptics think of him. He has the billions, the backing and the bluster not to care. Twitter and the Indian government have gone head to head on the new IT rules. The SM platform refused to take down accounts and posts during the farmers’ agitation last year, which the Modi government had accused of spreading misinformation.
Twitter’s argument was that the IT ministry was not acting in accordance with Indian laws. Twitter has removed various tweets and accounts which criticised the government and stuck a ‘Manipulated Media’ label on tweets by five BJP leaders, including party spokesman Sambit Patra who had accused the Congress of using an anti-Modi toolkit. The BJP has been rooting Indian alternatives to Twitter, such as Koo and Tooter. With this tense background, Musk’s concept of 'absolute' freedom of speech could escalate the hostility. Musk is not a person who can be easily cowed, and in spite of business interests he will not buckle down; he can afford it. Musk’s other business interest in India is cars. He wants the Modi government to slash higher import duties on its cars, whose superior technology will give Musk an advantage over Indian electric car makers. In January 2022, Musk spoke about “a lot of challenges” to launching Teslas in India. The government also banned Musk’s satellite broadband services Starlink from accepting pre-orders without a licence and asked to issue refunds. Its India chief Sanjay Bhargava quit in January. Twitter faces cases filed against it for reportedly publishing an incorrect map of India, showing PoK as not part of the country and allegations that it carried child pornography. Says BJP’s National Vice President and Spokesperson Baijayant Panda, “Twitter had been repeatedly accused of having a leftist bias and shutting down other views. In India too, courts have ruled against such actions by the platform. Hopefully, their new commitment to free speech will address these issues. They also need to be mindful of Indian regulations and commit to abiding by them.”
Abiding by rules is not an Elon Musk characteristic. Growing up an introverted schoolboy in South Africa, Musk was bullied mercilessly at school, even left for dead once after a brutal beating. He was determined to prove himself—“gain control of your world, one that you didn't have control over when you were younger,” as Sir Cary Cooper, President of the British Academy of Management, put it during the screening of the documentary, Elon Musk: The Real Life Iron Man. Today, Musk is an alternative cult in himself, with dazzling charisma and outlier ideas, a living breathing advertisement for his projects. He has his own troll army labelled Muskateers; people like artist Salina Gomez who created an illuminated book, Tweeting Me Softly, of Musk’s tweets. A single tweet from their idol can send the army of Musk Irregulars to attack anyone or anything Musk disapproves of. They go after anyone they think has offended him such as journalists. The Muskateer strategy is to carpet-bomb all social media platforms, not with abuse but bad-faith questions—an argument that creates rhetorical false positions by denying the facts instead of a direct engagement on issues, beliefs, and values. For example, when in March 2018, Tesla’s stock plunged to its lowest point that year, and Moody’s downgraded the e-car company’s credit rating, Musk took to Twitter to attack his detractors in the media.
It was a signal for Musketeers to unleash a barrage of comments against journalists he identified as his targets. The reason why Musketeers are believers is simple—Musk has more credibility than any other living mogul. He does what he says. He sold all seven of his homes in California for $128 million and moved to a small rental home worth $50,000, near his aerospace company in Boca Chica, Texas. Musk’s SpaceX rockets actually get built and take off. Tesla cars are real and drive as he said they will. Government permission for Musk’s The Boring Company to dig tunnels for the underground travel loop Neuralink is given although the funding is never enough. Some of these endeavours could fail, which only makes Musk an even more tangible quantity. The ones that succeed make him greater than the sum of all his parts. As Bijan Stephen reported in The Verge, “Even if Tesla fails and the government contracts that fund SpaceX dry up, they will have still existed, and they will have made electric cars that were real to people and will have begun to humanise the stars. It will have existed, even if, like Ozymandias, only the legs of the companies he’s built remain.” Therein lies the Elon Musk paradox.
“If we find Twitter either interfering with free speech in India, or the opposite —permitting hate speech and abuse in our volatile environment—then we will have to contemplate action. The Committee is interested in their behaviour, not their ownership.”
-Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP and celebrated author, who chairs the IT Standing Committee in Parliament
“Twitter had been repeatedly accused of having a leftist bias and shutting down other views. In India too, courts have ruled against such actions by the platform. Hopefully, their new commitment to free speech will address these issues. They also need to be mindful of Indian regulations and commit to abiding by them.”
-Baijayant Panda, BJP’s National Vice President and Spokesperson
“Social Media platforms such as Twitter play a huge role in the global discourse. Due to the instantaneous nature of their platforms, they are largely shielded from the vagaries of Government interference, at least relative to traditional forms of media. This relative independence can be hugely beneficial to society (by enabling free speech) or its bane when not administered with responsibility, but purely to maximise profits.”
-Dr P Thiaga Rajan, Tamil Nadu Minister for Finance and Human Resources Management
“I don't think the essential character of the platform will change much as merely the ownership will change from one Dorsey to another, Musk. However, if Musk can bring in architectural changes in how the platform operates so as not to be the sole arbiter of truth, then the platform will win the trust of users. All social media platforms currently face this trust deficit.”
-Amar Patnaik, BJD Rajya Sabha MP and head of the party’s IT wing
THE MUSK BUY
Jan 31, 2022: Musk starts buying Twitter.
Mar 14: Acquires more than five percent stake.
Mar 24: Starts openly critiquing the company: “Worried about de facto bias in the Twitter algorithm having a major effect on public; Twitter algorithm should be open source.”
Mar 25-26: Puts out a poll asking his Twitter followers: “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle… Is a new platform needed?”
Apr 4: Becomes a part of Twitter’s board as his stakes go public.
Apr 5: Is now an active investor but a few hours later, refiles the disclosure of his stake after indicating that he would accept a seat on the social media company’s board.
Apr 9: The board position is rejected by Musk. Twitter waits for 36 hours in hope that he would change his mind. In the interim, Musk asks his followers:
“Is Twitter dying?”
He says that anyone who signs up for the subscription version for power users called Twitter Blue should get the blue tick.
Apr 10: Denies joining the Twitter board and CEO Parag Agrawal shares a note on the platform informing everybody about the move.
Apr 14: Offers to buy the company for $43 billion—all-cash.
Apr 15: Twitter adopts a ‘poison pill’ to make it harder for Musk to acquire more shares.
Apr 18: Tweets the song
“Love me tender”
by Elvis Presley. Some belief this to be a ‘tender’ offer by Musk to Twitter shareholders in hope of gaining more control.
Apr 24: The board now holds discussions with Musk. He puts forth his financial details.
Apr 25: Musk acquires a 100 percent stake in Twitter for approximately $44 billion (approx.)—$54.20 per share.