Home/ Opinion / Views/  Musk should get real on Twitter’s feudal effects

It is a testament to Twitter’s role in public discourse that its $44 billion takeover by Elon Musk has caused such a flutter, not just on this online platform for snippety messages, but far beyond. In a display of what earned him his spurs as a Twitter warrior—or its ‘Chief Twit’ as Musk called himself—he made a snappy case last week for asking users to start paying a monthly fee for identity verification. While his firing of the acquired company’s top management and ungainly reduction of staff overnight were widely anticipated, the argument he advanced for this pay model stood out as a surprise for its egalitarian-sounding aim. The company had split users into “lords and peasants", he said, referring to its old policy of deciding who was either famous or important enough to merit an ID check so that a ‘blue tick’ elite could be trusted by followers for not being fake. By offering to verify anyone’s ID for a service fee of $8 per month in the US and its equivalent by purchasing-power parity elsewhere (i.e. about 190 in India), Musk cleverly pitched a levelled platform. Yet, it would be foolhardy to bet on Twitter doing the world at large a good turn under the world’s richest man as its owner.

First, note that Twitter Inc has been taken private by Musk, which gives its operations an extra layer of opacity to go with the hugely concentrated power he wields over it. If the platform turns on his whim, users must either grin and bear it or leave. Second, Musk’s call for blue-tick equality is not as impressive as it may seem. Paying users have been promised a package that privileges their tweets over others’ in replies, mentions and searches. This amounts to a reshuffle of the platform’s elite by a willingness to pay. For accounts whose authenticity has already been verified, the scheme is extortive. It has been amply clear that Musk overpaid for the platform and now needs new streams of revenue, no matter how modest, to supplement its weak advertising inflows and help reduce its losses. Analysts say the billionaire’s buyout has saddled its books with such an outsized loan that its annual interest outgoes alone will require a big boost in cash flows. Even if a sizeable chunk of its global base of active users—almost 240 million of them with about a tenth in India—is ready to pay for web-casting their tweets, it still doesn’t assure the business a path to profitability. This being so, the conclusion that Twitter is just a hobby horse for Musk, as his own utterances had led observers to suspect, is hard to escape.

It follows that Musk’s acquisition will be judged largely by its impact on free speech in particular and politics in general. By the record of his tweets, his interest in Twitter was stirred by gags imposed by its moderators on rightist rabble-rousers after events like the US Capitol attack and Delhi’s 2020 mob violence made say-what-you-like untenable. Twitter users with large political followings effectively had a megaphone in their hands, lending the platform its potency as a mobilizer of flash mobs. While Musk has lately revised his free-speech absolutism by saying he does not want a “free-for-all hellscape", this avowal will be taken as just an empty ploy to retain anxious advertisers in the absence of hate mitigation. Reports have surfaced of a spike in hateful tweets over the weekend. And a platform bristling with trolls cannot claim to foster any kind of equality. If anything, feudal forces, the sort whose words are laced with the unstated menace of actual strong-arm action, will find it easier to prevail.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Updated: 07 Nov 2022, 10:26 PM IST
Recommended For You
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My Reads Watchlist Feedback Redeem a Gift Card Logout