“[T]he bird is freed.” (Elon Musk)
According to Foreign Policy, Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter will be a “geopolitical catastrophe not only for the United States but also for the democratic world in general.”
Twitter, which opened the social media era in 2006 with its distinctive 140-character posts, is now facing the greatest threat in its history. Twitter experienced rapid growth as a place of relationship-building, information distribution and public opinion formation for people with common interests in not only the U.S. but also South Korea. 140-character-long messages delivered by Twitter’s mascot, the “bluebird,” has exerted phenomenal influence in supporting democracy and the socially disadvantaged, outperforming the virtually dysfunctional established media from the “Arab Spring” in 2010 to the ongoing “Iran hijab protests.”
In recent days, however, opinion leaders, influencers and users around the world who have used Twitter as a communication channel are leaving and searching for alternative platforms. Large companies, which used to be Twitter’s main source of income, are also cutting advertisements one after another and preparing for departure. This happened a month after Tesla CEO Musk, who is widely regarded in multiple ways, having been called the “world’s richest person,” a “genius innovator” and “attention seeker,” acquired Twitter for $44 billion on Oct. 27.
Musk fired four major Twitter executives the day he acquired the site and announced the launch of a Musk-led Twitter one day later by firing half his employees. He also restored the account of former President Donald Trump, which was permanently suspended for publicly urging his supporters to overturn the presidential election by encouraging violence during the Capitol attack in January 2021 and promoting conspiracy theories. Trump responded, “I’m happy that someone in his right mind owns Twitter.”*
The move stems from Musk’s view of free speech. Twitter has hired a large workforce and spent considerable funds on systems maintenance to remove harmful content from its platform, including the deletion of fake news and hateful posts and blocking related accounts. Musk has expressed dissatisfaction with these operations, saying that Twitter is silencing its own users with “political correctness.”
Musk is pointing to freedom of expression and speech as the reason he acquired Twitter despite its persistent financial deficit. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he said, claiming to be a “free speech absolutist.” It seems as if he plans to ultimately create a “censorship-free zone” by minimizing intervention in content.
Even if false claims and hateful comments are permitted free expression on Twitter, “knowledgeable citizens” will be able to distinguish between good and bad through lively discussions in forums of public opinion. According to Musk, this is the essence of democracy based on free speech.
But Musk’s seemingly idealistic view is sending Twitter into turmoil. As fears grow that Twitter will overflow with fake news and inflammatory messages under Musk’s “freedom of expression” outlook, regular users as well as major players in the advertising industry concerned about damaging their brand image are dropping Twitter. In fact, an empirical analysis showed that racially discriminatory posts on Twitter increased 13-fold, and fake news increased 29-fold, after Oct. 27, when Musk announced the acquisition of Twitter.
In response, Musk introduced a paid service called “Twitter Blue” to strengthen profitability while clarifying that he will stick to his principles in multiples posts that Twitter usage has hit an “all-time high.”
Musk is ostensibly advocating for freedom of expression, but there are also doubts that he is actually trying to exert political pull as an influencer and a media owner by taking control of Twitter.
Musk may be able to overcome many obstacles and concerns and bring about a revolution in the existing social media system with his “Twitter experiment” as he did in the automobile industry. However, Musk’s alleged free speech absolutism is likely to lead to irresponsible behavior and self-indulgence, and his promise of “unlimited free expression” is likely to turn the bluebirds’ garden into a hunting ground for birds of prey. This is why opinion leaders both inside and outside the U.S. are arguing that Musk will not only destroy Twitter but also become a detriment to democracy.
This is something worth pondering even for us Koreans when we live in a reality where fake news sites and even some established media obsessed with certain political views are recklessly spreading conspiracy theories and attacks on the opposing camp.
*Editor’s Note: This quote, while accurately translated, could not be independently verified.