Musk, Twitter and the need to vet new media owners

Elon Musk is either a jester or a genius, if commentary since the world’s richest man bid $44bn for Twitter is anything to go by. But Musk’s loud and divisive personality, perfectly suited to the platform, risks diverting attention from bigger questions about who should control social media. No matter whether his audacious debt-fuelled bid survives or expires, now is the time for lawmakers, particularly in the US as Big Tech’s home market, to grapple with that debate.

There is a long history of wealthy individuals buying media outlets to cement their power. But the prospect of Musk owning Twitter has prompted concern in a way that, for instance, the 2013 purchase of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, did not. Partly that is down to Musk himself — likened by a US judge this week to a “serial violator of the securities laws” — and whether he would be a suitable guardian of a company with 229mn users.

It is also because of the inadequate regulation overseeing social media and its ownership. That should change. Antitrust and mergers watchdogs can scrutinise Musk’s Twitter bid within traditional parameters. But such is the reach of big social networks that when they change hands, regulators should also have the ability to decide whether that new ownership will be in the public interest. Broadcast ownership is vetted in part because lawmakers have understood that the airwaves can be used to enhance or subvert the democratic process. Twitter is no different. Underneath Musk’s grandiose language over Twitter’s importance to humanity is the correct premise that the platform wields massive influence.

This is not to argue against Musk as the right person to lead Twitter. He may well be. He is correct to want to crack down on “bot” accounts, and to point out that Twitter’s moderation might tip into censorship — conservatives claim with a liberal bias. Musk may be well suited to trying to unlock the potential of a company with huge reach but meagre profits. This is not only because he has a proven record of taking fanciful ideas, from electric cars to space travel, and transforming them into valuable companies. It is also because he is one of Twitter’s most prolific users, who understands how it can be deployed to boost his vast business interests, much to securities regulators’ chagrin.

But Musk has repeatedly demonstrated his disdain for rules and those who uphold them, both watchdogs and boards. That suggests his plans to roll back moderation at Twitter under the banner of absolute free speech may collide quickly with regulations on the other side of the Atlantic that force Big Tech to police content posted by users more aggressively.

The EU’s new, and welcome, Digital Services Act demands that Big Tech reveal to watchdogs how they are tackling illegal content, as well as disinformation and war propaganda. Tech companies face fines as high as 6 per cent of global turnover or a ban for repeated breaches. Musk has not even begun to outline how his vision for Twitter will be able to pick its way through mature democracies’ different definitions of free speech, let alone how it will operate in more authoritarian jurisdictions where what is deemed to be harmful speech is far more ethically thorny.

Another hurdle to Musk’s plans for free speech is Twitter’s own business model, which relies on advertising. Companies will be loath to advertise alongside an unmoderated free-for-all.

Only someone foolhardy or brave would want to take on huge debt to buy a high-profile company, facing regulatory headwinds, that boasts only paltry profits. Musk is possibly both. He may yet be shocked by what ownership of social media entails.

Letter in response to this article:

EU rules on plurality of the media can put manners on Musk / From Craig Pouncey, Tervuren, Belgium