Elon Musk’s Twitter Gambit
Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, pending approval, is led to a noisy open house debate everywhere. The floodgates have opened up and are unlikely to remain quiet. Does his “Free speech absolutism” drumbeat mean a free-for-all scenario with no content moderation? Unlikely.
Twitter is not the Almighty. Not even as powerful as the Vatican City ruler viz., the Pope lording over several billion Christians. It is just a corporate entity like any other business enterprise: General Electric, Amazon, Google, IBM, or Musk’s own Tesla or SpaceX. Companies have to meet the local laws to survive in any country. Otherwise, they will be shown the door.
Will China, for instance, permit Musk-owned Twitter freehand for anti-China sentiments both inside and outside? Unlikely. Within China, absolutely no chance of such negative expressions getting space. External voices against the Chinese regime may get exposure outside but never get access into the Dragonland. No ruling dispensation — democratic or despotic — would allow such luxury. Musk’s massive electric car investment in the Xi-ruled country is not to be forgotten. Nothing he would do to jeopardize his primary business interests.
Why China? Take the case of democratic India. It has its own rules and tolerance threshold toward free speech. Misinformation or hate speech that disturbs the nation’s social fabric on very large online platforms has been singled out and taken down of late under the existing legal provisions, while data protection specific legislative piece is awaiting Parliamentary approval. Refusal of government diktat means loss of business, perhaps preceded by the incarceration of the local representative of the overseas owner. No business person wants that.
European Commission, the forerunner in framing the Digital Services Act (DSA), has bluntly told Musk that the EU laws have to be complied with for Twitter to do business in the EU.
DSA will kick in in 2024. Violations attract a hefty penalty: 6% of global turnover. The message is loud and clear from EU Commissioner Thierry Breton. “Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules — regardless of their shareholding. Mr. Musk knows this well. He is familiar with European rules on automotive, and he will quickly adapt to the Digitial Services Act.”
Follow the rules lest you will be thrown out.
Contrary to the popular perception and past behavior of Musk crossing swords with regulators, the South African-born American successful business magnate is not stupid. Wherever he does business across the globe, he has been hauled up for transgression that he has contested and paid the penalty when proved guilty.
He has a sizeable debt component in the Twitter buyout, unlike his other ventures. Therefore, he is answerable to them, if not to anyone else. After all, they opened their Fort Knox not out of love for Musk’s bravery and brash talk but saw the possibility of making some good returns with Musk at the helm of affairs at Twitter.
Any investment is a risk, and the backers of this move possess a good risk appetite. Otherwise, they would not have signed up. So, content moderation will continue with Musk’s open-source algorithm to weed out the current practice of not enabling genuine freedom of expression to those not sharing the Twitter team’s ideology. The banning of former US President Donald Trump’s Twitter account in January 2021 is a case in point.
How serious is Musk about Twitter? Does he have time to reform Twitter? Barring him, none has a clue to these questions. If the past is any indication, Musk has something up his skills. Worth waiting. He is a shrewd business person, not a johnny-come-lately.