Is Twitter becoming a right-wing network?
The takeover of one of the biggest social networks by Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, means for many the end of free speech on Twitter. Technology experts, journalists and activists around the world are now asking – did this freedom ever exist?
The purchase of Twitter is also one of the biggest deals ever, in both the tech and corporate worlds. At $44 billion, more than the combined value of many of the world’s so-called ‘club 500’ companies, it was not a problem for Musk, whose wealth is estimated at more than $200 billion.
Musk’s first move after taking over the company was the expected dissolution of the board of directors. Musk has been highly critical of Twitter for several years, believing that it “stifles free speech and prevents the spread of information”. On the other hand, the company has described it as a “beacon of freedom and expression”, citing the tens of thousands of activists, NGOs and foundations around the world that use Twitter primarily to communicate with the media and the public.
Elon Musk’s first offer in the middle of the year included around $40 billion, of which $6.5 billion was for Tesla shares and the rest for various bank loans. The company has labelled this a classic “hostile takeover” attempt. Incidentally, this type of business is relatively common in American business and essentially involves ‘making an offer that cannot be refused’, usually to the shareholders of the target company. Twitter has also responded to the initial offer with a ‘poison pill’, which is a system of buying shares in a company within the same group of large shareholders, thereby increasing their value. Financial experts were initially surprised by Twitter’s refusal, given that it has a total annual turnover of less than two billion dollars.
After this first offer, Musk sold part of his shares in Tesla for around seven billion dollars in an attempt to convince Twitter shareholders that he was serious about taking over the company. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) got involved, as it was potentially the biggest deal in California’s history, as well as one of the biggest stock transactions in Wall Street history. Some shareholders have even taken Musk to court, alleging that he violated California’s anti-market manipulation laws. Then the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) got involved.
Musk responded in style by withdrawing the offer, citing “inaccurate information about the company’s own operations”. He repeatedly asked Twitter to explain how the algorithm that displays users’ tweets works and the total number of fake accounts (so-called bots) on the network. Although Twitter itself claimed that the number of fake accounts was less than two per cent, a large number of technology experts, including Musk himself, claimed that the figure was much higher, as high as 28 per cent of the total number of users.
Even compared to other social networks, such as the very popular TikTok or Instagram, Twitter has been experiencing a decline in the number of new users for several years. This is also due to the fact that most people consider Twitter to be a “professional network”, used mainly by public figures and companies for public posts. Although this is partly true, most users are actually ordinary people who use Twitter as a kind of “bulletin board”.
For many years, there was also a misconception that the “blue star” next to the account name was a sign of network support for a particular user. In reality, the “verified account” label only means that the network confirms that the user is the real and only user with that personal or company name.
In early October, Musk reactivated his offer after federal agencies and local authorities in California ruled that the offer did not violate regulations. On 27 October, the work was completed and Musk wrote on his profile “The bird is freed”, as the network’s trademark is a blue bird. The company’s previous CEO, Parag Agrawal, was immediately fired with a severance package of 38.7 million dollars, while CEO Med Segal received a severance package of 25.4 million dollars.
The return of Trump
In the biggest news, Elon Musk has announced a change in the company’s policy towards its “most famous tweeters”, one of them being former US President Donald Trump, whose official Twitter account (as well as other social networks) was suspended following the events of 6 January 2021 and the attempted violent storming of the US Congress by protesters. During his time in office, Trump was already known as the “President of Twitter”, as he often used the network to make official public addresses and to announce important decisions by the White House. Trump was also one of the tweeters with the largest number of followers.
Trump’s way of communicating with the public has been an inspiration for a large number of politicians around the world, especially those on the right of the political spectrum. They include Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and a host of minor party leaders and local public office holders. Marine Le Pen, a French opposition politician, once described Trump on Twitter as “a modern beacon of free speech”. Right-wing leaders in Italy, Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are no less enthusiastic about the former US President.
And in the Balkan countries, the “Trump effect” has led to the almost exclusive use of Twitter by leaders of smaller parties and movements, both to address the media and the public and to engage in political exchanges with each other.
Another controversial tweeter is the hugely popular American musician and producer Kanye West, who has since changed his name to Ye. West is an open admirer of Donald Trump, and in recent years has often been seen in public wearing a Trump campaign hat (and the slogan “Make America Great Again”). West himself has announced his own candidacy for the 2024 presidential elections, which he has so far abandoned. After a series of tweets using profanity and inaccurate historical information, Twitter suspended his account, even though it was verified and had over 32 million followers.
Pay to become a ‘ Tweeter’
Along with a change of the entire board of directors, Musk announced a few days ago a “fundamental change” (a complete overhaul) of the algorithms that underpin the network, as well as of the very way it selects the tweets that will be shown to users.
It is also likely that accounts with a large number of followers or high “content traffic” will now have to pay for this service. There is also the possibility that accounts with a “blue badge” will now pay around 20 dollars per month to use the network, and this will apply to both new and pre-verified profiles. Musk plans to bring in well-known technology investor Jason Calacanis, who is likely to be the new CEO of the company.
Activists and free speech campaigners are already criticising Musk’s move, saying it will have a negative impact on global organisations and individuals whose only contact with the public is Twitter. In recent weeks, US Republican websites supporting Donald Trump announced his return to Twitter with the phrase “Commander in Tweet is back!”
The recently concluded elections in Italy are another indication of how Twitter is influencing the political situation. The new Prime Minister from the centre-right coalition, Giorgia Meloni, who is also supported by far-right parties, spent a good part of her campaign on Twitter, and on the night of her election victory, the hashtag #GiorgaMeloni had more than 3.2 million posts, of which more than 1.4 million were sent in less than an hour./AL JAZEERA/