Sunday

14th Apr 2024

Opinion

Elon Musk is already turning Twitter into MySpace

  • Expect Twitter accounts of populists like former president Donald Trump to be given a second life (Photo: Marco Verch)
Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

Author bio

Nicolas Petit is the author of Big Tech and the Digital Economy: The Moligopoly Scenario (Oxford University Press, 2019) and joint chair in competition law at the department of law at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. He is also invited professor at the College of Europe in Bruges.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Twitter 'best' at applying EU disinformation code

The European Commission has introduced beefed-up rules tackling disinformation. Although the code is voluntary, it is set to be embedded into the Digital Services Act, where sanctions could be imposed.

Populist MEPs lead Twitter ranking

European citizens are due to elect a new parliament in less than two weeks. With two-thirds of MEPs on Twitter, part of the election is being fought on social media.

Column

Can Mastodon be the first big social network 'Made in Europe'?

Mastodon is much more than a company registered in Berlin with one employee — founder, chief executive and only shareholder, the young programmer Eugen Rochko. He designed Mastodon as open software that allows people and groups to build a network.

The problem of corruption in Ukraine — and a solution

Sunlight is the best disinfectant— so in a way, it is encouraging to see corruption scandals coming to the fore, as this may deter potential future graft, a key prerequisite for Kyiv's eventual EU accession.

This 'deregulation' lobbying now threatens EU economy

Next week's EU summit (17-18 April) will discuss the strategic agenda for the next five years. The current "competitiveness agenda" is to a large extent driven by a big lobbying campaign — so far, not well covered by the media.

Latest News

  1. UK-EU deal on Gibraltar only 'weeks away'
  2. Belgium declares war on MEPs who took Russian 'cash'
  3. Brussels Dispatches: Foreign interference in the spotlight
  4. Calling time on Amazon's monopolism and exploitation
  5. Resist backlash on deforestation law, green groups tell EU
  6. China's high-quality development brings opportunities to the world
  7. Ukraine tops aid list again, but EU spending slumps
  8. Who did Russia pay? MEPs urge spies to give names

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us