That Elon Musk/Twitter Brouhaha: Why Should We Care?

NOTE: I wrote this piece on Friday, planning to post it on Wednesday. My original title was “Twitter, Twitter, What Have You Done?” But this morning’s news changes all that in what may be a more ominous way.

I’d originally asked:

What will happen to Twitter now that the richest (and some say the most obnoxious) man in the world has bought up enough stock to gain a seat on the board of directors?

On Saturday, Musk declared that he no longer chooses to serve on Twitter’s Board of Directors.

My post continues here essentially as written until the end, where I amplify my concerns. I’m leaving it in the present tense because at this point many questions remain.

I have a small presence on Twitter, and that suits me well. I’m there to learn for the most part. One feature I especially value is having timely access to discussions on Twitter Spaces, a sort of Zoom-fest, with the likes of voting rights champion Marc Elias, or experts on Ukraine meeting virtually with leaders there.

I appreciate the tweets of Constitutional Law expert Lawrence Tribe and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Sheldon Whitehouse, among many others.

People’s wacky photos of their pets delight me, and I recently engaged in a fun pun thread of comments started by a woman who asked why Iron Man wasn’t a fe-male. (Note to those who’ve forgotten or never known: fe is the chemical symbol for iron.)

And as I’ve noted before, the Twitter community can be embracing to people who are ailing, bereaved, or desolate. These folks document how helpful they find the kindness of strangers.

Sometimes a bit too embracing. Several men have sent me direct messages (DMs) in their hopes for friendship. Usually, their profiles depict them with a child or two, so I suspect they’re mate-shopping. One described himself as loving and considerate, accompanied by a photo showing him carrying an AR-15.

I’ve reduced such efforts by adding to my profile: “Sorry, no DMs seeking friendship.”

Though I know that Twitter can be an ugly place as well, I’ve been spared that side of it—with the rather mild exception of two guys who doubted my intelligence because I tweeted about the US being a democratic republic, in contrast to their views.

I’ve written about that exchange too. It was annoying, but not soul-sapping.

But there is plenty of soul-sapping stuff on Twitter. Black women who speak their minds report the worst of it.

Unlike Facebook, which is Mark Zuckerberg’s private fiefdom, Twitter has more decision-makers. They have attempted to curtail false information, most famously by barring the former Twitter-in-Chief from the platform. They are also seeking to create a less hostile environment.

Perhaps that’s why many Twitter employees are deeply concerned about the impact that Elon Musk, who now owns 9.2% of the company’s shares, will have on their work and their culture. A Reuters article reported that a “dusting off of resumes” has begun.

With that stock purchase, Musk became the largest shareholder, and though he filled out forms claiming he’d be a silent investor, he immediately began talking about a poll he’d taken of his Twitter followers confirming his belief that the platform violates free speech tenets and fails to uphold democracy.

Some question why he’d want a seat on the board if he plans to remain silent. Those forms notwithstanding, he clearly doesn’t expect to remain silent.

Musk refers to himself as a “free speech absolutist.” That sounds like a good thing, but I tend to be wary of billionaire free speech absolutists who have used their money to buy their way out of defamation lawsuits. Their speech must be protected; others…well…

Like other billionaires, he also seems to think no rules apply to him. He built Tesla with government subsidies, but Tesla’s tax payment for 2022 will be zero.

He delayed the announcement of his Twitter purchase illegally, reports CNBC. The SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) requires the disclosure of individual passive stakes within ten days.

By postponing his disclosure more than twenty days, Musk kept the share price low, making about $156 million when the price jumped after his actions were announced. If he’s taken to task, he’ll pay a fine of a mere $100,000 or so. According to CNBC, Musk has a “long history of brushing off SEC regulations.”

There’s been such internal concern at Twitter that the CEO, Parag Agrawal, has announced an “ask me anything” (AMA) meeting in which employees can question Musk directly.

Maybe there will be some happy surprises from that “ask me anything” meeting with Twitter employees. Or maybe not.

I share the employees’ concerns. Musk’s position on the Twitter board has been praised by the likes of Tucker Carlson and Lauren Boebert, who called for the reinstatement of Trump. No friends of democracy—or truthfulness—there.

That brings me to my greatest concern as we move into primaries and toward the November elections. Twitter has made inroads in preventing misinformation. Part of its policy states:

“You may not use Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes. This includes posting or sharing content that may suppress participation or mislead people about when, where, or how to participate in a civic process. In addition, we may label and reduce the visibility of Tweets containing false or misleading information about civic processes in order to provide additional context.”

Some commentators, such as political writer Anand Giridharadas, maintain that Twitter—as a private company—is not obliged to rigidly follow free speech dicta.

But even a First Amendment absolutist should acknowledge that you can’t falsely yell fire in a crowded theater.

Giridharadas calls Musk “the arsonist protecting the firehouse.”

Our democracy is being sorely tested by the Republicans’ false claims of voter fraud, which are leading to state election laws that suppress opportunities to vote and increasingly seek to subvert the counting of the vote.

If Musk uses his Twitter position to again muddy the confusion between facts and falsehoods, he will be doing more than damaging the Twitter culture. He will be further jeopardizing the democracy he’s claiming to undergird—but whose rules/laws he has demonstrated will not stand in the way of his getting his way.

My update: CNBC carried this article about Musk’s decision not to join the Board. It includes the CEO’s statement that Musk would have been appointed “contingent on a background check and formal acceptance.” I assume the “Ask Me Anything” meeting with the Twitter staff never occurred.

The worry is that as a board member, Musk would have faced constraints that he now won’t have. Some Twitterers suggest that the background check may have discouraged him, or he may have decided the fiduciary duties were not in his self-interest.

Others, aware that the amount of stock he could amass as a board member was limited, conjecture that he may simply buy up enough stock to control the platform in time. Or he may start a competing platform.

I am reminded of the Sinclair Corporation’s efforts to control the news by buying up local newspapers and broadcast outlets. Musk is someone with the wherewithal to do so writ large on the national/international stage. In the absence of government regulation, he can do a hell of a lot of harm via misinformation or controlled information–all in the guise of being a “free speech absolutist.”

What do you think—whether or not you use Twitter? I know Musk is widely admired for his daring and brilliance—Tesla and SpaceX, etc. Does that earn him a pass? Do you agree or disagree with my being all atwitter about Musk’s moves?

Annie

22 thoughts on “That Elon Musk/Twitter Brouhaha: Why Should We Care?

  1. I’m not a ‘Twitterer” and until recently had barely heard of Elon Musk, but in general, I agree with what you say. We have more than enough people in positions of power in this world who have nothing better to do than seek more power.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “You may not use Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections…” This policy will be difficult to implement. How can twitter keep up with a flood of posts, which might or might not be seen as violating the policy. Some will see anything censored for whatever reason as a political act. The late Justice Wm. Douglas reportedly believed than nothing could be censored without negating The First Amendment. Some in Congress claim that twitter’s policy cost DJT the election; probably many believe it. Can those with an unfounded belief in “alternate facts” be silenced? What would be the justification for that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. whungerford: Twitter banned trump on January 8, 2021, so anyone who believes it was responsible for his losing the November, 2020, election has no argument.

      As a society, we continue to grapple with the power of social media for good and ill.
      I agree that these are difficult issues, and I appreciate your comment. I do try to adhere to the position that the response to odious speech is more speech. But people who want to express their belief in “alternate facts” aren’t being stopped from doing so; they have plenty of other places apart from Twitter.

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      1. I think the root of the problem is the expectation that twitter is unbiased. There are Democratic newspapers and Republican newspapers, Democratic radio and TV outlets and Republican ones. The FCC abandoned the fairness doctrine in 1987. If we accept that twitter may lean left or right, it would matter little who the owners are or what policies they have. As you suggest, Annie, if people think twitter is pro-Republican and don’t like that, they could take their business elsewhere. However, twitter’s commercial interest is in being a friend to all.

        Note: Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) claims that twitter cost Trump the election by censoring a story that she refers to as “Hunter Biden’s laptop from Hell.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. whungerford: Perhaps it’s time to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.

        I think the bubble rationale applies broadly. To me, the “liberal media” is being unduly negative on Biden—minimizing accomplishments and exaggerating so-called “gaffes.”

        But there’s no liberal equivalent of Fox “News.”

        Is Tenney your representative? From what I’ve read, the Hunter Biden stories have been investigated and there’s been no “there” there.

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      3. Rep. Tenney isn’t my representative, but after redistricting she might be.

        Your article and discussion raises many interesting questions; thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t use Twitter, have never actually even been on it. I prefer living under a rock…..seriously these big social media companies have way too much power and influence as it is. Sometimes I long for the days when they didn’t exist. When I heard that bit of news I can see trouble ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I saw that today. I don’t know much about him but he has an extra $43 billion sitting around? I didn’t realize he was quite that rich? Perhaps he was just perturbed by all the negative criticism about his share purchase and wanted to stir the pot more?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Richest man in the world, Joni–Tesla and SpaceX. Kind of a grown-up bad boy looking for where he can stir the pot next. He tweeted “I [emoji heart] you” on Twitter yesterday–clearly having fun with all this, though he may also have been assembling an enemies list. I didn’t respond.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Never had twitter account. Bumper sticker discusssions (as limited text in Twitter promotes)
    If Musk buys it and “runs” it the way he claims he wants to I expect that hate and racism will make it an even greater cesspool then it already is. ( but pro union voices banned as threat to billionaires)
    I keep thinking that it will, hopefully, emulate the “My Space” arc after ms bought it.

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    1. As someone who avails herself of a number of Twitter benefits, I have a much more ambivalent view at this point. People aren’t confined to one tweet: they go on and on with long threads that are often gems from highly knowledgeable, thoughtful people–information that doesn’t appear elsewhere. And as I mention in my post, the discussions on Twitter Spaces are immensely valuable.
      But I agree that the impact of Musk’s “free speech absolutism” will be checkered at best, more likely firehose-worthy. A woman running as a Republican for Senator in Pennsylvania just touted Elon Musk as the last best hope for free speech on the Internet. Interesting assessment coming from a candidate whose party is weaponizing banning books and laws disallowing discussions of race and lgbtq issues in schools.

      Like

  5. To be truly Democratic, social media platforms should be publicly owned and the wealth generated used to serve communities, not to enrich obscenely wealthy billionaires who crave power and control of the masses.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve been waiting for the bottom line on this drama to decide how I feel about it, but it could be a while. I have a hard time believing that free speech / democratizing opinion is really at the heart of his interest. And yes — $43 billion just sitting around? I would love to see those billionaires pay their fair share.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In my corner of the Twitterverse and from what I’ve read elsewhere, there is broad agreement that Musk is not motivated by free speech/democratizing opinion. He has talked about the need for Twitter to become a public square—while also saying he would privatize it and charge user fees. The Sisters-in-Law podcast discussed him vis-a-vis free speech: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/kushner-musk-and-another-police-shootings/id1551206847?i=1000557773113

      Like

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