Elon Musk’s purchase may very well kill Twitter as we know it

But there are much more productive conversations to be had about the future of the internet than handwringing over the possible demise of a private company.

Elon Musk gives two thumbs up on the red carpet of an award show in Berlin, Germany
Elon Musk poses on the red carpet of the Axel Springer Award 2020 on December 1, 2020, in Berlin, Germany [Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images]

Elon Musk has struck a deal to buy Twitter.

After several weeks of ambiguity about whether or not he would join the board or remain an investor, on April 25, 2022, the world’s second-richest man reached a deal with the board of the 15th most popular social networking site in the world, triggering a wave of anxiety among users about what the future holds for the platform. Will Twitter be fundamentally altered? Will the site even survive Musk ownership?

Musk claims the objective of the purchase is to secure the site’s role as a “digital town square where matters vital to the future of democracy are debated”. For fans of Musk’s combative and problematic approach to both politics and business, it has been a moment of celebration. For those who have been encouraging Twitter to do more to protect users from individual and collective harm, it is a disappointing moment that may signal the unravelling of many key initiatives that have been put in place to protect them. Regardless of which side of the conversation you are on, this is, without doubt, a make or break moment for Twitter.

On paper, the level of interest shown in the sale of Twitter far outweighs the site’s commercial significance. Globally, Twitter doesn’t even crack the top 10 of the most popular social networking sites in the world, far outpaced even by relative newcomers like Tiktok. Twitter, the company, has only declared positive revenue twice in its entire history – in 2018 and 2019 – and in other years relies on metrics like engagement or growth in number of users to convince investors that it is worth keeping. The site has also been criticised for its mishandling of misinformation, particularly when disseminated by prominent people like former US President Donald Trump.

However, Twitter has a very specific and crucial cache that allows it to punch above its weight. It is the preferred platform for journalists and government representatives, particularly diplomats, two key constituencies whose participation in the site allows it to penetrate beyond those who are actually registered as users.

These are people that people listen to, and the site has only expanded their ability to organise and influence audiences. Both groups rely on the site not just to broadcast their work but increasingly it has become their actual work. Diplomats are debating and even berating each other about their stances on the war in Ukraine on Twitter. It means something that in the middle of a war both Russian and Ukrainian diplomats are not only maintaining an active presence on the site but also engaging with each other and using the site’s inbuilt capabilities to try and sway public opinion on the conflict. For journalists, Twitter has become a way to build audiences and to measure reach, thereby circumventing the challenges of slashed newsroom budgets and saturated media markets. Twitter matters to people whose opinions matter, and that matters.

In my own research, I refer to two effects that give the site expanded reach because of the presence of what I call “super users” – people who have large audiences offline and whose presence on social networks has a significant impact on analogue conversations. The first is the network effect, which is essentially the weighted impact of two super users engaging with each other and amplifying their content within each other’s networks. The network effect is the ability of super users to leverage each other’s networks to intensify the impact of their messages. It’s one thing for former US president Barack Obama to tweet a playlist for the summer: it is another thing altogether for him to engage in a public conversation with one of the artists on that playlist. That conversation draws both their audiences together and this expands the reach of their engagement by enormous orders of magnitude.

The second is the amplification effect, which occurs when traditional media pick up tweets and rebroadcast them onto television, radio or newspapers not as context to the news but as the news itself. This, for example, is what gave former US President Donald Trump particular media power. It was not just that he was tweeting but also that all of the world’s leading media houses reported on his tweets as if they were a news beat on their own, thereby expanding their impact beyond the users of the site.

In 2020, one study identified Trump as the number one source of misinformation on the COVID-19 pandemic in the world, going as far as affecting the popularity of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment alternative in countries like Uganda. This was not just because of what he was saying on the site, but also because what he was saying on the site was then rebroadcast, analysed and amplified around the world as news. The amplification effect means that Twitter is not just a place where news is reported but also where news is made, and a space where traditional media houses all over the world actually collect information that will then be rebroadcast into even the homes of those who do not have Twitter accounts.

It is perhaps this cache that makes Twitter a particularly tantalising morsel for Musk, who styles himself as a free-speech radical and has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the site’s recent crackdowns on unfettered free speech.

Analysts, myself included, hold that of all the social networking sites that exist in the world today, Twitter comes closest to simulating a digital public sphere, not least because of the sheer number of people using the site to discuss politics. But this is the tension between him and those who oppose his purchase of the site. There is no unfettered free speech in the analogue public sphere. Even in the United States where free speech is protected as a constitutional right, there remains a crucial distinction between your right to say whatever you choose and the right of others to impose consequences on that speech if it causes harm. Certainly for those who have endured abuse, or who live with the social and political consequences of the misinformation that had taken root there, the offer of unfettered free speech on Twitter doesn’t feel like a promise but a threat.

Musk’s purchase of Twitter is a direct response to developments in US politics. Super users on the US far-right have successfully learnt how to rig the peculiarities of the various social networking sites and to turn them into misinformation mills for various extremist positions. The recent crackdowns on these groups on Twitter came in the wake of evidence that prioritising advertising over healthy or inclusive engagements was creating a reliable playbook for the creation and dissemination of misinformation and disinformation around the 2020 US election.

Still, or perhaps because of this, Musk’s purchase is a timely reminder to users outside the US who have incorporated the site into domestic political practices that Twitter is a US company that will first and foremost respond to the vagaries of US politics and legislation before it considers the rest of the world.

In my book, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, I chart the many ways that different groups in Kenya have used the site to articulate both positive and negative politics, and how the impact of foreign capital on information flows on social networking sites is impacting domestic politics through highly organised, well-funded information manipulation campaigns. I end the discussion with a warning to activists: use the sites because they exist, but social media cannot be the sum total of a political movement for change.

This warning speaks precisely to moments like this, where a purchase driven by US politics might fundamentally alter a platform that has become integral to organising and movement building in more vulnerable political contexts. Twitter has so far avoided the weighty criticisms that have been levelled against rival site Facebook for incitement to genocide in countries like Myanmar and Ethiopia due to the way the sites are structured to privilege certain types of engagement over others, and without the back end support for content moderation. How long will this hold after a purchase by a person who has been so publicly opposed to efforts to rein in extremist discourse on the site?

Does the Musk purchase represent the end of Twitter as we know it? It’s possible. The prospect of a return of some of the far-right voices that have been removed from the site might make it intolerable or unusable for the majority of users. The rise of the alt-right and some of the trends in online misogyny in the US has been echoed in countries like Mexico, Brazil, India and Kenya. A resurgence in the US will have effects all over the world, particularly if Twitter continues to pursue its international expansion plans. Certainly, a reversal on some of the meagre yet absolutely necessary efforts to make Twitter a more global company, responding to international scenarios like Nigeria’s End SARS movement, would be a significant loss.

Nonetheless, it is important to recall that social media is a highly iterative space and that in reality, these sites have always generally had a lifespan of 15 to 20 years. No one remembers their Myspace or their Friendster logins, and yet we survive. These are private companies that are subject to the vulnerabilities and vagaries of private capital. More important than anxieties about this purchase is thinking clearly, inclusively and soberly about what we want all social media to represent in our public spheres.

What are the lessons that we can draw from the historical arc of Twitter – from the mistakes that were made and the opportunities that were created – so that we can build a context in which the opportunities can be consolidated and the harms will never be repeated?

Musk’s purchase may very well kill Twitter, at least as we know it, but we will still have a planet of billions of people who have demonstrated an interest in an internet that allows them to engage in substantive social and political discourse with people outside their analogue social spheres. Beyond Twitter, what rules and systems will we need to have in place to prevent whatever the next iteration of social media will be from repeating the harms of the platforms we have now? This is a far more productive conversation than handwringing over the possible demise of a private company.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.