What can Elon Musk really do with Twitter?

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

With 217 million subscribers globally, Twitter punches far above its weight in terms of its political and socio-cultural consequences. That would have been the main attraction for the gadfly billionaire Elon Musk because otherwise as a business enterprise, the social media platform so far has almost nothing to offer him.

The company has not made any profit for eight out of the last ten years and has generally been mediocre in its performance as a tech giant with so much name recognition. It is a case of much cry and little wool so far. In the last three months of 2021, its revenue was $1.56 billion, which represented a 22 percent increase over 2020. The total revenue for 2021 was $5.08 billion, a 37 percent increase over the year prior. Its income was $176 million which was a 34 percent drop from the year before.

With figures like that clearly, Musk’s primary justification to buy it for $44 billion could not have been cash but potentially as a tool of great influence that he can wield around the world and perhaps create a societal legacy for himself. However, even on that front as the country-wise figures show the U.S. leads the table with 76.9 million users and the notions of global influence become questionable.

According to Statista, the next five biggest user bases as of January this year are Japan (58.95 million), India (23.6 million), Brazil (19.05 million), Indonesia (18.45 million) and the United Kingdom (18.4 million).  The next six country with users exceeding 10 million are Turkey (16.1 million), Saudi Arabia (14.1 million), Mexico (13.9 million), Thailand (11.45 million), the Philippines (10.5 million) and France (10 million).

Purely in statistical terms, these numbers do not have the heft to fundamentally alter global discourse, let alone transform it, in a world whose population now stands at 7.9 billion. Perhaps the rationale for Musk is that rather than the numbers Twitter’s importance as a social media platform comes from its ability to set agendas since many of its big-hitting users are among the movers and shakers internationally. Interestingly though he himself has pointed out somewhat derisively that the “top 10 most followed Twitter accounts” hardly tweet and “post very little content.” In fact, in a tweet recently he even wondered “Is Twitter dying?”

The top Twitter accounts include former US President Barack Obama and pop icons Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga.

On the face of it, it does not make immediate sense for him to have coughed up so much cash except that by taking its private he might be able to do things with it which it could not have done as a public company. In a statement in the midst of his offer being accepted by the Twitter board, Musk said, “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 he wants to make Twitter “better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential—I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it,” he said.

There is some truth to his contention that “matters vital to the future of humanity are debated” on Twitter. But there is a great deal of drivel and free-floating rage too. However, his self-proclaimed status as a “free speech absolutist” runs into some serious problems in the fact that close to 200 million of its users are outside America and in countries with wildly differing notions of free speech. That will be his biggest challenge as he goes about trying to transform the world. Free speech in Saudi Arabia or even Turkey, for instance, may have a wholly different meaning than what it might have in Japan and India. None of these countries is reputed to be free speech absolutist. So even if Musk is a free speech absolutist his new tool’s efficacy will not be any dramatically different under him than what it was under the old ownership.

He tweeted today, “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter because that is what free speech means.” It is a laudable thought but in the final analysis, it means nothing much in practical terms.

It is somewhat baffling how he has leapt from wondering “Is Twitter dying?” to the view that it is a platform where issues vital to the future of humanity are debated. So which one is it? It could not be both.