By Vincent Kilbride

How we can take social media back from the billionaires

Frenzied speculation over the fate of Elon Musk's Twitter deal masks a deeper point about digital democracy
July 21, 2022

In April, billionaire CEO Elon Musk announced his intention to buy Twitter for $44bn. A few weeks later, Musk declared that the deal was on hold while he investigated to what degree Twitter’s user numbers were inflated by spam and bot accounts. By the beginning of July, the business press was breathlessly reporting that Musk hadn't tweeted in several days, speculating either that he had fallen out of love with the platform, or that he was trying—unusually in his career—not to run afoul of market regulators with his online statements. As Prospect heads to press, Musk has declared that the deal is off, though Twitter’s lawyers surely disagree.

Musk is a fascinating figure. Depending on Tesla’s stock price, he is sometimes the world’s wealthiest man. Unlike some of his billionaire peers, he seems utterly unburdened by propriety or restraint, publicly sharing jokes, taunts, memes and market-moving information with his 100m Twitter followers. This occasionally leads to inconvenient situations, like a $40m US Securities and Exchange Commission settlement over a 2018 tweet in which Musk allegedly misled investors by announcing that he had secured funding to take Tesla private.

And Twitter, in turn, is a fascinating media platform. Less popular than Facebook or YouTube, Twitter punches above its weight in terms of social influence because it has become so popular as raw material for journalism. Brief, pithy and often funny, tweets have become an imperfect vox populi for the age of social media, a slice of public opinion that probably skews more elite and vastly more connected than a representative sample of voters. And the fact that all tweets are public—unlike posts on Facebook—makes Twitter fair game to quote and cite, even when individuals assumed they were talking to just a few friends, rather than to the press. Politicians from Narendra Modi to Donald Trump have embraced Twitter as a way of speaking directly to voters (though Trump was finally removed from the platform after appearing to cheerlead for violent insurrection in the US).

So it makes perfect sense that a drama about Musk buying Twitter would become an obsession for the technology press. Musk claimed to be interested in purchasing Twitter to encourage “free speech” on the platform, arguing that Twitter had become “the de facto public town square” and thus had to be freed to preserve democracy. Musk’s critics countered that Twitter has become vastly more inclusive and welcoming in recent years by blocking abusive and harassing speech. They—and I include myself in the ­chorus—worried about Twitter under new leadership giving a platform to serial harassers, and even reinstating Trump’s account. Musk has said banning the former president was “morally wrong and flat-out stupid.”

Now the social media world is asking what happens to the platform if Musk is forced to go through with a sale he doesn’t want, what happens if Twitter successfully sues him, and what this botched sale does to Twitter itself. The cynical might conclude that Musk’s antics are simply a tactic to reduce the price of a deal that no longer looks wise in the face of a falling stock market.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is embrace social media sites we can actually control

Enjoyable as all the speculation may be, it misses a much larger point: a world in which eccentric billionaires control our public spheres is a very dangerous world to live in. Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and ­WhatsApp, is a public company, but remains closely controlled by founder Mark Zuckerberg. Most of Zuckerberg’s shares in Facebook have 10 times the voting power of the standard publicly traded shares. As a result, Zuckerberg can individually block any action taken in a proxy vote by all of Meta’s shareholders. A similar share structure gives amplified power to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google (now Alphabet), which controls YouTube. If Musk’s acquisition of Twitter goes ahead, four middle-aged white, male technology entrepreneurs would control the four most popular digital town squares (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram).

Faced with the uncomfortable reality that some mercurial individual might change the rules of the road for our online conversations, European regulators have responded with legislation (the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act) that seeks much greater transparency of these platforms, particularly of the algorithms that prioritise and penalise which conversations a system’s users can see. Increased transparency is an excellent first step, but what’s needed is a much broader rethinking of who owns and governs our social media spaces.

Professors José van Dijck and Bart Jacobs are embarking on a remarkable experiment in the Netherlands. They are launching a new model of social networking based around existing public institutions: schools, neighbourhood centres, local sports clubs. Instead of using Facebook or Twitter to host their conversations, a group of parents would have access to this platform, called PubHubs, to host a small social network associated with their school. A clever authentication model designed by Jacobs allows users not to use their names if they prefer, but present credentials that prove that they live in a particular city or have a child in a specific school, helping limit access to these networks to confirmed community members. The networks are designed to be supported either via subscription or sponsored by the community organisation—they do not support advertising or the surveillance of users that accompanies most advertising models.

There are dozens of other projects designed to create smaller social networks and help groups move some or all of their online social interactions away from the billionaire-owned, ad-supported tools that have come to dominate social media. Projects like Mastodon, Friendica, PeerTube and Planetary face some common problems that PubHubs shares. Small networks by definition have much less traffic than large, established platforms like Facebook—if your friends are quiet on Facebook, algorithms will helpfully fill in your timeline with posts from the other three billion users they “think” you might be interested in. Indeed, special purpose social networks like those envisioned by PubHubs will almost always be less active than broad social platforms. As users, we will need to find ways to prioritise messages from these communities, which might be more important to us than yet another set of baby photos from a university friend. Small online communities require us to remember to pay attention to them—existing networks like Twitter and Facebook are often already well integrated into our daily routines.

The upside of these new communities could be profound: networks like PubHubs could be run by primary school administrators. But at best they would be run by whoever the most active members of the digital community happen to be. Many small social networks have the tools to facilitate polling, which could lead towards elections of people responsible for setting the terms of service for them—and enforcing those terms when users behave badly. Moderation—currently an opaque process, usually handled by outsourcing firms following a set of instructions from a company’s corporate counsel—would become an opportunity to practise governance at a local and community level.

Perhaps Musk will succeed in weaseling out of the Twitter deal. Perhaps he—or some other billionaire—will execute the purchase and take Twitter back to its earliest years, with rampant harassment and toxicity. But perhaps the best thing we can do is ignore speculation about unpredictable billionaires and begin embracing social media sites we can actually own and control, rather than hoping that impossibly wealthy people might deign to give us better digital public spaces.