If you are caught up on the latest Twitter drama, you probably tuned in to Elon Musk’s recent Tweets criticizing the platform’s lack of transparency, censorship and financial structure. Musk even put up an unsolicited offer to buy the social media giant in its entirety. Twitter’s board of trustees responded by putting in place a “poison pill,” which would make it difficult and expensive for Musk to increase his share of Twitter beyond 15 percent. Still, the board is formally considering his and other potential buyers’ offers.
Twitter users are split on Musk’s current endeavor. On one hand, Musk raises valid criticisms about how the platform is run. He believes that Twitter participates in selective censorship that undermines political and social discourse, and he also thinks that the platform should publicize its algorithm to ensure transparency. In an age where tech giants are being exposed for selling user data for nefarious purposes and ignoring escalatory discourse that has led to political violence (looking at you, Facebook), Musk’s desire for tech transparency is not niche and is rather understandable.
That being said, economists, politicians and Twitter board members alike are questioning Musk’s motivations for buying the platform. In addition to the SEC looking into Musk’s purchasing of Twitter stock and considering pursuing him for intentionally manipulating the market, many people are worried about what will happen if a controversial tech mogul gets his claws on a social media company.
I couldn’t help but think about Jeff Bezos when Musk announced his intentions to buy Twitter. Bezos, CEO of Amazon and its robust network of subsidiaries, has used his extreme wealth to purchase companies in every sector of American society. He recently bought Whole Foods and The Washington Post, meaning that Bezos has a stake not only in the things we buy every day but also in the food we eat and the news that we consume.
In the early 1900s, politicians pursued monopolists—like Carnegie and Rockefeller—in order to protect consumers and ensure that businesses did not have undue influence over consumer spending or take advantage of consumers. Antitrust laws designed to penalize corporations that harmed consumers were put into action to make sure that companies could not indiscriminately raise prices. With modern-day business giants like Musk and Bezos, the story is a little bit different.
The government has been unable to successfully pursue Jeff Bezos because he theoretically helps consumers by offering them products at low costs. In the long run, however, this is to increase his share of the market as much as possible. Bezos has also required users of Amazon and its subsidiaries to agree to turn over their data to the corporation.
This is because, in the information age, the most invaluable asset is not money or market share, it’s data. While Musk may say he wants to buy Twitter to make much-needed design changes, as an owner of many other companies, there is a serious ethical complication in allowing him to have control over a social media app, and in turn, an extensive network of user data.
We may think of big players in business like Musk and Bezos as powerful because of the way they are able to attract consumers to buy their products. But, in reality, a lot of their power comes from their access to our personal and commercial data. It is imperative that our laws are updated to reflect an increasingly technological marketplace. We also need to question the motives of large corporations when they attempt to buy platforms that are intended for democratic discourse.