Quote card by Opinion.

We seem to be living in an era where “memes” are becoming reality. When Kanye West announced in 2015 his plan to run for the presidency in 2020, nobody believed him until he actually did it. Thankfully, that event turned out to be largely inconsequential. A current meme becoming reality is Elon Musk’s recent decision to purchase Twitter — one of the most popular social media apps and a source of news information for many — which has the potential to alter the shape of our public discourse dramatically and give a private individual societal influence on par with our most powerful elected officials. 

Billionaires like Elon Musk having as much — if not more — power than some well-known elected government officials is a huge issue in a modern, technologically advanced society. These wealthy individuals can already alter markets with a single post, but with complete control of media institutions, they remove what little content filtering does exist and risk allowing other users to spread dangerous misinformation.

Musk wouldn’t be the only billionaire with sizable media power, either. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the world’s third richest man, bought The Washington Post in 2013. In the past 10 years, numerous other trusted media institutions have come to be owned by the mega-rich. And, of course, Facebook — a constant source of social media scandal — is run by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who is so often at the center of the platform’s controversies. In short, Musk’s purchase would continue the consolidation of media power in the hands of the incredibly wealthy.

What makes Musk’s Twitter purchase unique, though, is the effect Twitter’s policies have on public discourse — especially its use to spread dangerous misinformation — as well as the fact that Musk plans to take Twitter private, removing him from having to be accountable to public shareholders. By taking such actions, Musk has more ability to resist the will of regulators and investors. 

On top of the broader issue of a billionaire having significant media power, Musk himself brings a long list of problems — sometimes with the law — making his Twitter takeover even more alarming. For instance, in February of 2022, Musk and his brother were placed under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for potential insider trading. 

Another issue is Musk’s stance on content moderation. He is a big fan of increasing “free speech” on Twitter and, as a result, may allow Donald Trump back on the platform after he was banned. This decision is not surprising, as Musk has made his desire to embolden public figures that spread misinformation clear. Additionally, Musk recently revealed — through a Tweet — that he will be voting Republican from now on, stating that “The reality is that Twitter at this point, you know, has a very far left bias.” With extensive control of Twitter, some worry that Musk’s political leanings would cause him to limit the speech of liberals or amplify speech that is disparaging towards minority groups.  

While one man owning a company that is the outlet for such high levels of public discourse is worrisome — and Musk being that one person is even more worrisome — Musk’s purchase has drawn attention to serious issues throughout social media. Even more, Musk has spoken about surprisingly reasonable — if underdeveloped — solutions. 

For starters, it genuinely appears that Musk wants to strengthen trust between Twitter and the American public. Opening up the source code of aspects of Twitter such as the algorithm, something whose opacity many Twitter users are wary of and complain about, can only be a positive. His discussions of user authentication have been relatively broad, but depending on scope, it could produce tangible benefits. If by authentication and limiting spam, Musk means users must use their real name, photo, etc., the risk of disinformation along with violent rhetoric would likely shrink dramatically. People are much more likely to express poorly-thought out opinions when they can do so with anonymity, and attaching one’s true identity to their comments would serve well to hold individuals accountable. This, however, seems unlikely. Musk probably means a more targeted approach, where bot accounts are more stringently monitored and taken down. Even this narrower scope has real benefits. Bots are not only annoying (they fog up true public discourse and opinion), but they often work to amplify disinformation, division and violent rhetoric.

Concern about what Musk will be able to do with Twitter points to another important issue — regulation of social media companies. If the American government were more willing to strictly regulate social media, the damage Musk could do would be much more limited. A majority of U.S. adults believe that the government should increase regulation of technology and social media companies, though some worry that the First Amendment might complicate things. At this point, it’s tough to know whether the Twitter deal will close. If anything, it seems Musk will back out of the deal, not Twitter. This outcome still seems unlikely, though, since — on top of the damage to his reputation — Musk could lose billions. If the deal does go through, Musk will currently have only everyday Twitter users to try to push him in the right direction. We can only hope they will succeed.