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A self-confessed Twitter addict and ‘give Musk a chance’ proponent, Paddi Clay, spends an inordinate amount of time following what Elon Musk says about his new acquisition and what the fiercely divided Twitterati believe. The veteran journalist who’s become a digital expert says it’s all speculation and that Musk is hardly consistent; although his official press statement portrays him as a good guy intent on improving Twitter, not manipulating it for his own ends. This is, of course, where the speculative debate lies. Writing in the Daily Friend, Clay adopts a wait-and-see attitude, which seems sensible given that nobody can reverse Musk’s purchase. Her introspective conclusion on the book that everybody involved needs to read, is to me, the best advice. – Chris Bateman
Perhaps it’s time to think deeply again
By Paddi Clay*
What fun and excitement we denizens of Twitter have been having with the richest man in the world buying the social media platform that many, including the new owner himself, like to think of as ‘the town square’.
The online hysteria has been spectacular. Weeping and wailing on the left hand, presumptive triumphalism and exultation on the right. The panic among the human-rights set was palpable. The unexpected possibility of victory made free speech idealists giddy and smug.
The takeover by Musk was the end of freedom of speech, it was the return of free speech.
South African Twitter was not immune to the outburst of the partisan passions on US Twitter. For some the redeemer had come. For others, like Eusebius McKaiser, the devil had taken human form, specifically the form of a white male, born in Pretoria, with a penchant for trolling (in the old pre-Twitter days, we called it stirring the pot), a planned path to Mars and enough money to buy outright ownership of the platform that is itself both saint and sinner.
Twitter has been loss-making recently, but Musk simply offered over the premium $54.20 a share.
I pin my colours to the mast. I was an early adopter of this innovative platform and have been signed up to Twitter since the start of 2008, only 18 months after it launched. I had, last time I checked, a modest 1,163 followers (I’m not on it for the followers) and I follow an eclectic 962 sources of information, opinion, news and amusement.
I post under my own name and what you see is what you get, a human. That may prove handy under Elon Musk control.
What Musk will do now that his hands are on Twitter is the question of the moment.
Here for the record – before we fall prey to Russian or Chinese bots, ‘misinformation’ or the broken telephone syndrome that afflicts discussion of any action or utterance of our own lightning rod of Twitter, Helen Zille – is what Musk said in his official press release on the takeover:
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.
“I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”
Standard business ‘good guy’, ‘value add’ statement if you ask me.
Scolds and victims
While the socialist-inclined media, privileged scolds, and eternal victims of Twitter seem intent on fulminating at the iniquity of some people having, through luck, their own devices or work or ideas or skills, much more money than others, not everyone has animus towards those who have millions or even billions. Unless, of course, they came about their fortune in dubious, immoral fashion. Nor do all of us think we have the right to dictate to them what to do with all their money.
But back to what to expect of Musk? It’s the question at the centre of the discussion forums, talk shows and written screeds that have followed the Tesla CEO’s sudden acquisition of the social media platform.
Kevin Williamson of the National Review has warned conservatives who are hoping that Musk can fix what they think is wrong with Twitter that they will be disappointed. According to Williamson, “Musk sometimes talks like a techno-libertarian, particularly on the issue of free speech, but his admittedly incoherent public political statements have been in the main … progressive in the most conventional and ordinary sense.”
Williamson describes Musk as being “a little bit all over the map”. Still, he does think Musk is serious about enabling free speech on the platform.
Over on the American liberal, progressive front, there was a quick resurrection of the capitalist as anti-rights bogeyman and the spectre of Donald Trump’s possible return to social media. Clearly there is some trepidation. Amnesty International USA said it feared an erosion “of enforcement of the policies and mechanism designed to protect users”.
Activist Evan Greer, the director of Fight for the Future which describes itself as fighting campaigns in defence of Internet openness and basic freedoms, told PBS that Musk was erratic so there was no knowing what he would do, “but the bigger problem is too few companies that have too much power over what can be heard and seen online”.
Roy Gutterman, of the Tully Centre for Free Speech, Syracuse University took a similar line: … “this much power concentrated in a single person is always something to be concerned about”.
In January 2021, Twitter permanently suspended former President Trump’s Twitter account, citing as reason the attack on the US Capitol by protesters who supported him. Trump has said he won’t return if Musk should reverse the ban on him. But whether he really, really means that is anyone’s guess.
Diversity of thought
I’m holding out hope that Musk will enable greater diversity of thought and opinion and end the monocultural manipulation that’s been on the go at Twitter under the guise of moderation for the past few years. While he’s at it, he could also introduce a sarcasm font, and that longed-for edit button.
But I do think Twitter users may be suffering some delusions. Twitter is not really a global ‘town square’. It may never be the major ‘democratic’ force some would wish it. It is probably not the key to world peace or the ultimate weapon of destruction of libertarian thought and opinion.
Musk himself may not be quite the maverick that he would have us believe with his often-gnomic tweets and off-the-cuff utterances. When it comes to political party donations, according to The Independent he has been, like many businessmen, boringly even-handed.
Still, although I’m no believer in mortal redeemers, I confess a penchant for disruptors. I rather like the prospect of a bit of a shake-up of the status quo, whether at Twitter or in government, every few decades. You can count me as a Musk for the Moment.
If Musk fails to deliver what people like me hope for, it will probably do me good to take a break from Twitter. Bari Weiss, on her ‘Common Sense’ Substack site, says Americans spend on average three hours staring at their phones. I’ve exceeded that by some hours in recent weeks, mostly tracking what Musk was up to on and apropos Twitter.
It is time, perhaps, to settle down with a copy of Stolen Focus: Why you can’t pay attention and how to think deeply again, by Johann Hari.
- Paddi Clay spent 40 years in journalism, as a reporter and consultant, manager, editor and trainer in radio, print and online. She was a correspondent for foreign networks during the 80s and 90s and, more recently, a judge on the Alan Paton Book Awards. She has an MA in Digital Journalism Leadership and received the Vodacom National Columnist award in 2007. Now retired she feels she has earned the right to indulge in her hobbies of politics, history, the arts, popular culture and good food. She values curiosity, humour, and freedom of speech, opinion and choice.
- The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR. If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend.
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