Why do talented technologists and successful tech entrepreneurs become political activists?
Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is a case in point. Is Musk looking to “fix” Twitter’s technology? Or is he looking for a platform to influence public policy? The first motivation is consistent with a technologist’s calling, but the second is something else entirely.
Apparently anyone can buy anything. Even very expensive things if he has the money. That said, tens of billions of dollars were lost by the time the deal closed. Was Musk “forced” into the deal or – despite the ridiculous price tag – was there another motive?
There is precedent for such acquisitions: Jeff Bezos acquired it Washington Post and acquired by Marc Benioff year. But this is different. Bezos and Benioff don’t send provocative tweets every day about what they’re up to on Tuesdays, but not on Wednesdays. They don’t troll for a living.
Zachary Karabell describes it well:
“The fear that Musk will somehow turn Twitter into his personal megaphone belies the fact that it already is — and so are many others. And the fear that it will turn Twitter into an ungovernable sphere of false information belies the fact that in many ways right now it is just that, along with a wonderful sphere of finding information and like-minded people and groups.”
So why do so many see Musk’s acquisition of Twitter as “different”? Karabell again:
“Why then is Musk’s purchase of Twitter considered a dangerous anomaly? In part, it’s because Twitter isn’t a publication distributed in the public square (digitally or physically), it’s one of the squares. In that way it’s more like a very large network than a single media property.”
You bet it’s different. Not just why “It’s more like a very large network than a single media property,” but because it now belongs to a social celebrity. For that reason alone it will influence public policy. Not sure? Anything Musk says—now in his own public square—about free speech will be covered over and over again, coverage that will itself affect the context, definition, and politics surrounding free speech in the same way they do politics TV stars, doctors and retired football players.
The free speech debate has been going on for decades – centuries, in fact. Has Musk Published a Definitive Essay on Free Speech? (Tweets don’t count.) Is he a credentialed free speech expert? Then why is it part of the free speech debate? Much more important, why does he do it I want be part of the free speech debate? Obviously, anyone can have an opinion about free speech – which is what free speech is all about! But credentials are important when dealing with existential politics. Would you listen to your young grandchildren about how to stop global warming?
Or maybe credibility for sale?
The platform needs technology help
There’s plenty to do on the platform – plenty to keep Elon busy for a long time. The interface needs work. Scalability, accessibility, integration and security – among other “fixes” – are on the list. Real time should mean “real time”. Bot control is essential. Pay-for-tweets is another innovation (for Twitter) that needs to be explored. The elephant in the room is the technological control of hate speech and the spread of misinformation. Musk seems to want to “regulate” certain speech through a content moderation board, or some such entity, while serving his definition of free speech. The clues it provides are, as usual, opaque, but all this is technologically possible. It’s also relatively easy to give Twitter users the ability to precisely filter the content they see far beyond current tools. Machine learning can help here. These are just some of the technological challenges – in the technologist’s swimming lane – that Twitter faces.
Magnificent or Naive?
“The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important for the future of culture to have a common digital square where a wide variety of beliefs can be discussed in a healthy way, without resorting to violence. There is currently a great danger that social media will split into far-right and far-left echo chambers that create more hatred and divide our society.”
The future of civilization somehow depends on it on Twitter? This is News.
But since Musk closed the deal, the volume of racist “free speech” has exploded:
“A bold cast of anonymous trolls hurled racist slurs and Nazi memes on Twitter in the hours after billionaire industrialist Elon Musk took over the social network, raising fears that his promise of unfettered free speech could spark a new wave of online hate.”
In smug language: “How’s that going for you?”
Problems of your own acquisition
Some problems are unsolvable – especially when you think they aren’t. Scott Galloway said it best: “basically dug a hole for himself, filled it with cobras and grenades and jumped in.”
When you’re a world-class swimmer, swim lanes are your friend. But when you leave the pool, you can drown.