Social Samosa gets in conversation with industry experts to understand what a free-speech Twitter means and how the Elon Musk reign impacts the platform's advertisers and users.
Matt Levine, an opinion columnist from Bloomberg who has been extensively covering the Twitter-Musk saga, described the latter as a “science-fiction character himself.” There probably couldn’t have been a better description as Elon Musk buying Twitter, seems like something straight out of a utopian fictional book.
Over the last few years, Musk has become somewhat of a youth icon. A futurist who has been able to make and break companies with just one tweet. His acquiring Twitter, may not be entirely alien, for Musk at least. Not to mention, how the acquisition and the manner in which it was done plays right into his brand - a futuristic and bold move, that could lead to some dramatic if not impactful changes.
The Free Speech Dilemma
Musk describes himself as a ‘free speech absolutist’ and has at various times called for an “uncontrolled” internet. While he did clarify in a tweet today that by free speech he doesn’t imply that anyone will be above the law, the speculations around how he will be dealing with hate speech, unlawful content, and even government laws that require regulation, persist.
“That (free speech) vision while seemingly benign and democratic is audacious and dangerous. Remember that Twitter is the world’s favourite market square for conversations and to have a private individual own it – is a bit scary,” Lloyd Mathias, Business strategist and Independent Board Director, tells Social Samosa.
Mathias explains that in every social media platform, someone needs to make the call on the way the algorithms are designed, how they evolve, what they hide, and what they reveal. As of now, Elon Musk has said that he will be enhancing the product with new features and making the algorithm open source to increase trust, defeat spambots, and authenticate all humans.
Echoing the thought, Sanjay Mehta, Joint CEO, Mirum India shares that while free speech can lead to a lot of openness and transparency on the platform, it can give rise to security issues.
"Since Twitter plays a huge role in driving conversations that are political in nature, and can also impact security issues, I don't think Musk will be able to protect Twitter from the demands of governments around the world, on certain strictures, from time to time,” Mehta adds.
While it is possible that Musk’s free speech proposition might have been blown out of proportion (especially in the light of his recent tweet), the conjecture around it cannot be called entirely uncalled for. With Twitter becoming a private company, Musk and the platform are no longer answerable to anyone.
“While Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, YouTube, and Instagram are large platforms too, and have significant shareholders (Zuckerberg, Brin, Page) they are still publicly listed companies and open to some shareholder scrutiny. Twitter in its new form will not be,” Mathias highlights.
As it is, the results of billionaires taking control of media giants have been mixed and Mathias feels that Musk’s moves might cause users to look for other options of free speech.
Rohan Mehta, CEO, kinnect, shares that for Twitter, India is one of the leading growth markets with more than 20 million users and as a platform, has a purpose and relevance that impacts the entire globe. "While I see the need for content moderation in India, 'free speech' will bring leniency. Musk's advocacy of an "uncontrolled" internet may have to face specific challenges when it comes to our country and its norms," he adds.
Former Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, has condoned Musk acquiring Twitter and shared in a series of tweets that how separating the company from Wall Street is the first step in the right direction. Dorsey said in the tweet, "Elon’s goal of creating a platform that is “maximally trusted and broadly inclusive” is the right one."
He also shared that Parag Agrawal shares this dream and hence was chosen by his predecessors.
From an Indian context, Musk’s free speech objective comes with even more conditions. The microblogging platform was embroiled in a long tussle with the Indian government over the hiring of an official Chief Compliance Officer who would enable the platform to adhere to the country’s new IT rules.
For the unacquainted, the IT Rules released in February 2021, required social media platforms and OTT companies to acknowledge requests for the takedown of unlawful, misinformation and violent content within 24 hours. Companies also need to deliver a complete redressal within 15 days.
The Business Side
All said and done, Elon Musk is a business visionary who has been known for his ambitious goals such as underground transportation, space travel, and eclectic vehicles. His vision might work in Twitter’s favour, as the platform has been struggling with market cap, DAUs, and revenue.
“This is where Musk can actively bring about change, with possible options like some paid services (say, ad-free Twitter for you, for example),” says, Mehta.
Mehta shares that Musk has not been a big fan of advertising as a key revenue model. However, Twitter does not have too many other revenue channels, besides advertising. So, even while Musk and the Twitter team explore other revenue ideas, they will need to bring some efficiencies on the existing advertising model.
“The last thing Musk or users want is a very large number of ads on their feed. Something that other platforms like Instagram are getting guilty of. But some more optimisation and personalisation on advertising is what we may get to see now,” he opines.
Mathias too shares a similar opinion, “Going by his tweet polls over the past month, Musk clearly sees Twitter differently and sees bigger monetizing possibilities than the current management had envisaged.”
However, he feels that how users of this hugely popular platform see some of these moves and the fact that a privately-owned platform has the ability to shape narratives and break global news live, remains to be seen.
All in all, Elon Musk is almost like a cult hero and his followers, and also those who invest in his companies, swear by him.
“We should be looking at the stock price of Twitter being driven high, thanks to the hype, and if beyond that, there are other improvements that we get to see, it may well be a very fortuitous turning point in the life of Twitter,” Mehta concludes.