MANY SUPER-RICH PEOPLE, including the richest, Elon Musk, became even richer during the pandemic, as governments printed even more money than usual. In between overseeing his various companies, Musk is fond of playing the stock and cryptocurrency markets. His critics say that this hobby is his main source of wealth, along with government subsidies. It’s part of how he came to bid to buy Twitter. The offer was priced at $44 billion, nearly as much as Zuma’s nuclear deal would have cost South Africa. Negotiations are ongoing, leading to legal proceedings by shareholders.
Twitter is a brand with few tangible assets. Its value lies in it being the platform of choice for the (Western and West-adjacent)
world’s “thought leaders”, whether acclaimed, self-anointed or wannabe. It sometimes yields a profit from advertising, but nowhere near other mass platforms like Facebook or YouTube. Because many of his numerous Twitter followers belong to the investing classes, Musk used to influence share prices by tweeting about companies. He (and anyone he shared his plans with) could profit by buying or selling before or after the price shifts. The US Securities & Exchange Commission (which regulates the stock exchange) then obtained a court order restraining such tweets. Thus began his “free speech” crusade.
Twitter started off paying lip service to freedom of speech, other than hate speech. But the market forces of 21st century surveillance capitalism obliged it to emphasise some speech at the expense of the rest. The selection process is automated, and the sets of instructions used are “algorithms”. Most visibly, this leads to “flame wars” where users are attracted by controversy. This translates into ad sales. The addictive value of outrage inevitably led to toleration of some hate speech, as long as its targets were outside the core of Western patriarchy and/or capitalism.
Twitter’s algorithms determine one’s “reach” (how many people see your tweets). They are influenced by how many followers you have and how much they interact with your tweets. So, enterprising third parties began to offer followers for sale. These followers are either human or “bots”. The bots are automated accounts which fake human identities, by the thousand. The humans are low-income citizens who are paid a pittance for each “like”, retweet or comment from a given list.
Twitter has responded to this by assuring the public that it has taken steps to limit such manipulation. However, the details remain confidential, other than occasional announcements of bulk disconnection of bot accounts.
More subtly, political censorship began to be institutionalised under the banner of protecting users from hate speech and disinformation. This was ramped up with the emergence of the Trump phenomenon, which was built largely on Twitter. It was redoubled with the pandemic and its accompanying “conspiracy theories”.
Twitter has an “application programming interface” (API) which permits investigation of the interactions between users. As a result, a cottage industry has emerged of data analysts mapping the influence of networks of prominent users and swarms of bots. In South Africa, this made big news when the Gupta project was boosted by London-based PR agency Bell Pottinger.
Who is Musk?
Musk threatens all this in several ways. He says he will “open-source” the algorithms. He has also said he will retrench about a thousand employees since his free-speech policy will reduce the need for content, loss of online soon. moderation. He speaks of “authenticating” human users so as to eliminate bots. However, loss of online anonymity would in fact threaten the freedom of speech of users facing repression. This would include LGBTIQ+ people in most countries. Which brings us to the question of Musk’s personal value, which presumably determines his definition of free speech.
He scorns many concerns people have about the planet. He glibly refers to humankind spreading its wings to inhabit other planets and perhaps space stations. Like a typical engineer (although he isn’t one), he seems not to understand the lack of certainty in ecological complexity; to him, everything is a machine. Never mind if biodiversity is rapidly disappearing; gene synthesis and editing will provide tailored organisms for every need. Profitably, of course.
Musk mentions climate change when promoting electric cars, but his rockets use vast amounts of fossil fuel. He has infamously said the US will “coup whoever it wants to”. Regarding Twitter itself, he declares it to have a “left-wing” bias. By that he means that it favours the centre-right US Democratic party over the far-right Republican one. After all, Twitter closed Trump’s account. They did this after he broke its rules against hate speech many times over several years, then added the final straw by rejecting the election result granting Biden the presidency.
Musk’s vast following on Twitter largely shares his views and fantasies. It’s hardly surprising that its public expressions display similar demographics to his own: white, male, and libertarian-imperialist.
Migration to the Fediverse
One result of the announcement of Musk’s purchase of Twitter was a surge of users looking for alternative “microblogging” platforms. Many had previously shrugged off criticisms of the “virtual town square” being controlled by private capital. But now they saw the point. Previous owners include the barbaric Saudi royal family, so it reflects badly on those who waited until Musk’s move before becoming uncomfortable. Some of these sudden converts have even organised a campaign to stop the deal.
The most-mentioned alternative microblogging service was Mastodon, which had passed its five-millionth user account milestone days before the Twitter announcement. Although its user interface resembles that of Twitter, it’s a very different beast. It’s open-source. And it’s not a company. It’s a federation of independent servers controlled by anyone who can afford one, and today these can be quite cheap. And Mastodon servers can also federate with other decentralised social media such as Pixelfed, an Instagram equivalent. The collective term for all of these is the Fediverse. This interoperability is like that of email systems, where a client of any provider may message any other user/s, whether on the same or other servers. By contrast, a user of a “walled garden” like Twitter can only interact with other Twitter users there.
The political significance of federated social media is that rules of conduct are made independently for each server. Some are controlled by a single administrator – some people run their own server with no other users. But most require some degree of community consensus. Furthermore, whoever controls a server decides which other servers it federates with.
A dramatic illustration of this was when Gab, a right-wing social network, migrated onto its own version of Mastodon. Gab had been denied further conventional web hosting. Very few existing servers chose to federate with it, and several mobile apps for the Fediverse blacklisted the Gab domains. Most Mastodon servers adhere to the Mastodon Server Covenant, a commitment to content moderation.
Twitter has also been working on decentralised social media; its Blue-Sky project recently open-sourced its first batch of code for potential collaborators to experiment with. Although Blue Sky is said to be independent of Twitter management, it seems to have telepathically foreseen the wish of its future owner. The code batch is named Authenticated Data Experiment (ADX). Each user will “own” their content, being able to publish it not only on Twitter but other platforms, each with their own
Decentralised social media
The economic significance of decentralised social media is that a spectrum is now possible, ranging from commercial entities like Twitter and Gab, with millions of users, to a teenager running their own $10 server with no other users. The “walled garden” effect of being obliged to use the specific social network that your peers are using will no longer apply. How advertisers will adapt, remains to be seen.
In what could be a crucial swing factor, the European Commission has funded the fediverse via its Next Generation Internet project. It has also put its mouth where its money is, by starting its own Mastodon server, where, among other things, media releases are shared. Institutions associated with the EU are following suit, such as the German government and some universities. Journalists, notoriously reliant on Twitter for their content, may eventually have to migrate. Not to be outdone, crypto cultists are also jumping on the fediverse bandwagon.
Besides laws and policies promoting interoperability, there’s a chance that anti-monopoly laws and policies could somewhat level the playing fields. Owning publishing platforms is even more traditional for billionaires than owning rocket companies. Trump too commissioned a version of Mastodon, though if, as seems likely, Musk allows him back on Twitter, he may lose interest in Truth Social. Then again, he’s probably canny (or at least, well-advised) enough to hedge his bets by synchronising his Twitter and Truth Social accounts. This could lead to a bigger surge of new Fediverse users than Musk’s offered purchase of Twitter has. Interesting times indeed.
Michael Graaf is a community informatics practitioner and activist based in Cape Town.