Will things go south with Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter? Most users who are today flying to Mastodon think the answer deserves a clear yes.
Yet, none of them has yet explained what will go wrong. So far, exodus calls are more moral posturing than political forecasting. Twitter quitters signal their refusal of Musk’s conservative leanings, and a rejection of techno-capitalist economics.
To see what can go wrong in Musk’s Twitter, we need to ask where we stand today, and why.
In the Western world, Twitter performs vital democratic functions. Like a public square, Twitter is an agenda-setting, coalition-forming, and information-sharing platform.
But Twitter is also an uncivil, polarising, and violent place. On Twitter, user assassination is the rule, and due process the exception.
The ‘why’ is more complex.
The forces that made Twitter a necessary evil are legal, technological and political.
Of US origins, Twitter emerged in an country where law reifies free speech. The result has been an early attitude of carelessness towards content moderation. Twitter could not be bothered. Public authorities turned a blind eye. Content moderation was de facto left to individual users.
But this is not all.
Twitter’s algorithms promote engagement by means of what economists call a “network effect”, in plain English snowballing. The more users like or retweet (RT) a tweet, the more the tweet is shown to like-prone or RT-prone users, the more users like or RT a tweet.
The logic of network effects creates groups of users that end up unconsciously doing content moderation. Behind big numbers of likes and RT, lie zombie Twitter militias that censor or ordain speech.
A last, and more controversial factor, is political.
Hayek vs Musk
In 1949, Frederik Hayek made the point that left-minded people assume that the world can be changed, and from there tend to lean towards activism. This contrasts with the less politically engaged right-leaning people, who start from an assumption that many constraints limit humans’ ability to change the world.
With this in mind, we have the beginning of an understanding of why content moderation on Twitter tends to cluster around liberal norms and social practices, including controversial ones like identity politics, cancel culture, and virtue-signaling.
Now, back to our initial question. How does a Musk’s ownership change this state of affairs? To start, Musk is a patented free-speech absolutist. With this, there is every reason to believe that Musk will rescind past Twitter policies considered an attack on free speech. To be clear, expect Twitter accounts of populists like former president Donald Trump to be given a second life.
Another safe bet is that Musk will not solve Twitter’s norms of identity politics by adding ethical rules or due process requirements.
So what options does Musk have in hands? In a tweet to advertisers, Musk hinted that echo chambers are his main concern. The tweet suggests that Musk want to break silos, to raise levels of what political scientists call ‘competition in the marketplace of ideas’.
And Musk appears to favour technological solutions like evolving Twitter into a protocol. It is open to question whether this entails creating Twitter interoperability with Trump’s own replica ‘Truth Social’.
Now think about it for a minute.
If Musk’s orbital trajectory is towards multiplying political dog fights and opening the platform’s gates to far out opinions, the promise is not a better Twitter. The promise is MySpace, a successful social network from the 2000s that fizzled when users started to share obscene, nasty, and outrageous content.
There is a silver lining though. If Musk MySpaces Twitter, it will not take us long to figure out whether we should leave the platform. The only problem is this: the Musks of this world have not yet invented the planet on which we can civilly resettle.