Elon Musk, the billionaire Tesla CEO notorious for posting asinine tweets to his 80 million–plus Twitter followers, has purchased himself a position of power within the platform itself by becoming the company’s largest shareholder.
For a few tumultuous days, it seemed he’d also become a vocal board member, promising to help implement “significant improvements.” That decision was reversed, but even without an explicit advisory role, Musk can still exert his agenda by shaping the discourse around Twitter’s future. As if to underscore this point, Twitter’s chief executive, Parag Agrawal, made clear following Musk’s sudden reversal that “We have and will always value input from our shareholders whether they are on our Board or not. Elon is our biggest shareholder and we will remain open to his input.”
It’s difficult to predict what influence Musk could wield with his “input,” especially since he’s now no longer prevented from purchasing more than 14.9 percent of Twitter’s stock and could increase his holdings, even to the point of owning a controlling stake in the company. And at the very least, he will likely continue to use Twitter to attack his enemies and broadcast his views about the company.
Indeed, Musk’s tweets contain troubling clues about his hopes for Twitter. Beyond advocating for creating an edit button on individual posts and other, more eccentric proposals, Musk has implied that Twitter should amend or abandon its content moderation policies and follow his preferred version of free speech, which should give us pause.
While Musk has described himself as a “free speech absolutist,” it’s clear that this commitment doesn’t apply to those in his employ. Under Musk’s rule, Tesla has worked to stifle dissent, including trying to silence a Black employee for coming forward with allegations of racial discrimination and firing a female engineer after she detailed a culture of “pervasive harassment” at the company. It appears that Musk’s allegiance to free speech applies only to powerful people like himself, while those working under him are forced to settle for quiet obedience.
Regardless of Musk’s dubious principles, any move to relax content moderation standards warrants legitimate concern. For example, changing the policies by which Twitter restricts or suspends accounts that cause social harm could yield more harassment, hate speech, incitement to violence, and dangerous misinformation about voting and vaccines. Twitter’s uneven adherence to its own rules has been rightly criticized, but having no rules would be a troll’s paradise—a Hobbesian hellscape of all against all, with the most vulnerable having the most to lose.
Meanwhile, the policy changes that some anticipated would result from Musk’s appointment elicited gleeful triumphalism within the conservative media sphere, especially regarding the prospects of reinstating Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Representative Lauren Boebert tweeted, “Now that @ElonMusk is Twitter’s largest shareholder, it’s time to lift the political censorship. Oh… and BRING BACK TRUMP!”
Despite such alarming scenarios, too much focus on Musk’s antics misses the bigger picture: Core communications systems like Twitter shouldn’t be left to the whims of billionaires and profit-driven monopolies in the first place. Until we radically democratize such platforms and treat them as the essential public infrastructures they are—shared resources that shouldn’t be governed by market forces alone—Musk, Trump, or some other petulant billionaire can come along and make them their playthings.
What would such radically democratized platforms look like? Ideas for structural reform are flourishing, though you wouldn’t know it from the narrowed parameters of mainstream policy debates. Some analysts and activists have argued for transitioning the platforms into public utilities, or devolving their ownership and control to tech workers and users as cooperatives, or breaking up platform monopolies into smaller firms. Others have suggested creating an entire public stack in which each layer of our digital media—from the platforms to the pipes that carry the Internet into your home—is democratized.
Many variations of these proposals exist, but the key point here is to broaden our conversations about how platforms should be designed, financed, and governed. Given Twitter’s outsize role in political discourse, more public scrutiny of its governance is necessary. And more radical reforms should be on the table.
For too many liberals and conservatives alike, the horizons of our imagination about what’s politically possible are dictated by market imperatives. But if we allow the marketplace of ideas to be conflated with the capitalist market, wealthy white men like Musk will continue to have much louder voices—amplified by their tens of millions of Twitter followers, their obscene wealth, and their unquestioned fealty to market libertarianism.
Another social media is possible, but we must fight to make it so. Just as, according to the bumper sticker adage, “every billionaire is a policy failure,” so is every unregulated platform monopoly. We must reframe policy debates and radically democratize our media infrastructures to prevent their capture by billionaires. Otherwise we’re reduced to hurling angry tweets at run-amok oligarchs.