Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla has decided to pull out of a $44 billion bid to buy micro blogging platform Twitter. In return, the social media platform has threatened legal action to enforce the deal.
Musk’s legal team asserts that he has not received adequate data in order to make an independent assessment of spambot accounts or fake accounts on Twitter, despite repeated requests. Also, the firing of top executives by Twitter is a breach of contract. Twitter has refuted the accusations and claimed that the fake accounts make up less than 5% of its total users.
One strong view is that Musk’s decision is influenced by the decline in the stocks of both Twitter and Tesla. Questions are also being raised about Musk’s ability to finance the $44 billion deal.
Both parties now seem to be heading for a heady legal battle.
Implications of the fallout
The Tesla genius is known for his anti-establishment stance and steadfast support for freedom of speech. Had the deal gone through, his influence on Twitter would have possibly imbued the micro-blogging platform with the same energy.
Importantly, over the past few years, the India government has been trying to police social media with limited success. To refresh memory, Twitter was compelled to hire a grievance redressal officer in India and file a transparency report under the IT Rules, 2021. A more assertive and vocal Twitter under Musk would have been an eyesore for the government. With him out of the picture (for now), the government-Twitter tussle over control vs. freedom will retain its earlier contours.
Also, Twitter has been providing a free run to the vocal left liberal ideology supporters while muffling the voices from the right through bans for incendiary content. While billionaire politics typically aligns with their business interests; Musk professedly identifies with the political right. Him at the helm of affairs in Twitter would have presumably led to a course correction by Twitter to offer a more equal platform to users irrespective of their political inclination. The deal falling through means that on Twitter, things stand as they are.
Significantly, Musk’s technological expertise and business acumen could have helped develop the social media platform further in a major way. That possibility is, for now, ruled out.
Spambots and fake accounts
Twitter has been accused of being instrumental in manipulation of the 2016 American elections with Russian spambots. For the uninitiated, a spambot is a computer programme designed to assist in spending spams. Fake accounts have also aided in spreading misinformation on various issues of national and international importance.
Back home in India, IT cells of major political parties have also tried to mould the public opinion in their favour. Multiple fake accounts by party workers are used to increase the number of social media followers and the associated prestige of prominent leaders across the political spectrum.
Many real twitter users (living, breathing human beings and not computer-generated bots) also hold multiple accounts to escape open and unfiltered hostility on Twitter. American sociologist Erving Goffman called this kind of activity as “face-work”. The aim of face- work is to avoid conflict and create a positive impression of oneself in front of others in social interactions. Simply put, twitter users put on multiple, metaphorical ‘Twitter-faces’ to garner a positive perception of themselves on the social media platform. This also adds to the fake accounts tally and somehow ended up being a headache for one of the richest men in the world.
As both parties prepare for a long and tedious battle in the Delaware court, legal pundits believe that there is a good chance of Twitter receiving a handsome billion dollars in compensation. However, the chances of the court forcing Musk to go through the deal remains slim.
As the deal flounders, the microblogging platform confronts demoralized employees, some very public embarrassment and an uncertain future.
However, it isn’t possible to write off a phenomenon that has ushered in many a colored revolutions with tweets. The advent of Black Twitter and #MeToo also highlighted the importance of twitter as a counter-public arena to stream an alternative to the mainstream narratives and ensure a more deliberative democracy.
As social media becomes the birthing ground of many online and offline revolutions, Twitter has contributed sufficiently in many intellectual discourses and the shaping of public opinion.
The future of Twitter
It needs to be seen how both Elon Musk and Twitter will come out at the end of the court decision. Deal or no deal, twitter’s legacy and reach will ensure that it continues to reshape societies for many more years.
On Twitter, minor changes can further enhance user experience. The earlier character limit for tweets (word count) often led to brief and impulsive exchanges. Although the slight increase in character limit has give more room for proper expression and right perception by the target audience, users still need to place all the relevant tweets in the proper context.
Many times, a tweet meant for a limited audience unexpectedly gets an unprecedented audience. Then, the context in which the tweet was intentioned goes missing and the real meaning of the decontextualized tweet is lost.
While twitter has facilitated social interaction and expression like never before, it has also substituted clear articulation and balanced deliberation with terse, often ambiguous messaging and manufactured outrage.
The present and future of twitter is entwined with the social experience of the current generation. Whatever its fate re Musk, one hopes and prays that going ahead, Twitter is used for wide dissemination of accurate information and free expression of a multitude of viewpoints.
(The author is Mr. Pranay Aggarwal and the views expressed in this article are his own, Pranay Aggarwal is an eminent sociologist and public intellectual. He is India representative in UNESCO’s International Sociological Association and a member of Indian Sociological Society’s research committee on sociology of social movements. Having completed a course in sociology from Stanford University, he presently mentors civil services aspirants at IAS Gurukul and is Convenor of Indian Civil Services Association.)