Comment: Elon Musk owns the town square now — might he be tempted to offer free parking to Tesla?
The human impulse towards acquisition is age-old and likely behind the billionaire’s purchase of Twitter
If Max Weber, the German sociologist who was born about a decade before Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, were alive today and able to tweet, he might have selected the following paragraph from his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to comment on Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter.
“The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism. This impulse exists and has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers, and beggars.”
Sadly, his comment would exceed the Twitter limit by 30 characters.
The following extract from Elon Musk’s recent speech at TED, however, would be acceptable, with three characters to spare: “I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech. Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have the . . . reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”
Many people believe that one of the first tests for free speech “within the bounds of the law” will be whether Donald Trump is allowed to return to Twitter. Mr Trump, however, seems to be content to use his own homegrown platform, with the much more appealing name of Truth Social. Truth Social can already be downloaded on the App Store and is described as “an open, free, and honest global conversation without discriminating against political ideology”.
The line between free speech and hate speech is not always clear, but must be regulated. Protection of the vulnerable and the preservation of a basic threshold for the respect of human dignity are some of the objectives of the new Digital Services Act that will come into force in the European Union in 2024. In terms of the new act, huge fines can be imposed in cases where advertising is aimed at children or based on sensitive data, or where content promotes terrorism, sexual abuse or hate speech.
The response from Twitter’s new owner is fool-proof from a legal perspective, as can be seen from the quote above: “Speak freely within the bounds of the law”. It is not illegal to promote right-wing ideology or to make subtle and sophisticated comments in favour of inequality or discrimination. In a democracy, both Emmanuel Macron and Marine le Pen should be allowed to tweet.
The problem for both Musk and the regulators is the inherent limitation of compliance. This is illustrated by the cynical challenge often posed by employees or executives: “Show me where it says I cannot do this”. And so we see the endless race between regulators and big tech to close loopholes and find new ones. Finding the balance between profitability, compliance and reputation is not easy.
Is Elon Musk paying $44 billion in cash to boost his ego, to make even more money or to promote free speech? While all of these might be true, the real reason is probably closer to the point made by Weber – it is the human impulse to acquisition. And given the huge levels of inequality in the world, the mindboggling amount, larger than the GDP of many countries, makes the Twitter example extreme. But in principle it is not much different from the impulse to buy a bigger house or drive a bigger car than the neighbour.
The sale of Twitter is a complex one that could be approached from many angles. From a corporate governance angle, does it make a difference that Musk is using his own money and therefore this is not a classical hostile corporate takeover? Does the transaction make sense from a brand value perspective? Musk could probably use less than 10 per cent of the money he has paid for Twitter to build a platform that would be more sophisticated than Twitter and would make Truth Social look like a fax machine. But it would not be Twitter.
The message from Musk is a mixed one. Using phrases like “the reality and perception that they are able to speak freely” is not helpful. Describing Twitter as the “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated” is a bit grandiose. However, stating that the algorithm for prioritising tweets should be public is a step forward in terms of transparency.
Musk now owns the town square, and one of the concerns is that he might be tempted to offer free parking to Tesla. The regulators will do their best to ensure fair access to influencers, marketers, politicians and activists. And waiting in the wings will be the waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers, and beggars.
Daniel Malan is an assistant professor in business ethics at Trinity College Dublin. He is the co-chair of the B20 Integrity and Compliance Task Force and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Transparency and Anti-Corruption