The technological solutionism of Elon Musk | After the purchase of Twitter

It hasn’t been a month since Elon Musk finally made good on his promise to buy Twitter for $44 billion. The purchase, which seemed impulsive and for an excessive amount, made the South African businessman will seek to withdraw the offer with different excuses, something that, paradoxically, damaged the reputation of the company that ended up buying.

For now, he personally assumed full control of the social network, which became private, and fired the entire leadership, with whom he had clashed during the conflictive purchase process. Now, with absolute control, the challenges that open up for the new owner are numerous and involve various contradictory objectives. They are worth reviewing.

in the same mud

One of the main challenges is to make Twitter a profitable company, recover its own fortune and pay the investorsseveral of which come from the Arab world. Since 2010, the year it went public, the company has only posted positive annual net income in 2017 (nearly), 2018 and 2019. The company’s business model is based on advertising: in 2021 90% of the billing came from this item. The online advertising market is heavily concentrated in the hands of Google and Facebook, with a growing weight of Amazon, and they keep most of what the cake grows. Also, since the number of Twitter users remains stable, you don’t have much room to increase the number of ads displayed.

For all this, Musk is looking for new forms of income. Somewhat chaotically, he announced that certified accounts would cost 8 dollars monthly and would also allow access to the “Twitter Blue” premium service that until then cost USD4.99. On the other hand, certified accounts are not a guarantee of civilized behavior and they can function as a license to say anything. Will Twitter be able to unsubscribe the few accounts that pay to use it?

Another idea that has been around for months is to use a subscription model more similar to OnlyFans, but the problems of moderation of content hindered progress. If achieving profit is already a challenge, creating the tools to achieve it while laying off half the employees seems impossible: many of them had been working against the clock on projects such as Twitter Blue, something that was evident, for example, in a Tweet which showed one of the project leaders sleeping in the office.

Everything seems so chaotic that some laid-off engineers were called back to work. To further complicate matters, the directives do not seem consistent and it is possible to see in real time, through the tweets of employees, how news is launched and canceled in a matter of hours.

technology and society

Adjusting and growing simultaneously seems impossible, even more so if the objective is to transform Twitter into an unquestionable agora. On several occasions Musk declared himself an absolutist of freedom of expression, which he considers “the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital square in which vital problems for the future of humanity are debated“. Although Twitter has a certain weight in the political discussion overall, the statement seems unconscionable.

The Little Bird Network has always had trouble limiting the circulation of disinformation campaigns and hate speech in a systematic way. These kinds of deliberate campaigns are commonplace on social media; Facebook has been the most pointed out but Twitter is far from being an example in this regard. Musk himself, to cancel the purchase of Twitter, argued that the inauthentic accounts (used, above all, to carry out disinformation campaigns) were more than the 5% recognized by the company.

Technological and “absolutist” views of freedom of expression do not go well together. Creating tools that reduce automated accounts is complicated, but even more so is detecting hate speech and differentiating it from, for example, irony. A very restrictive algorithm could affect the right of thousands of people to express themselves. Artificial intelligence is not enough to do fine content analysis and an army of moderators is needed to manage the hundreds of languages ​​spoken in the world, something that poses serious difficulties even for companies with enormous profits such as Facebook either Google. Not to mention a company that is making losses and seems more willing to reduce employees than to add new ones.

But probably Musk’s biggest problem is conceptual: his reductionist view of social problems pushes him towards “technological solutionism”, a concept of Evgeny Morozov that refers to the habit of believing that it is possible to solve social problems with technology. Very much in vogue a few years ago, this perspective predicted, for example, that social networks would be a space for the democratization of discourses and that they would lead to a more egalitarian society or that the decentralized architecture of the internet itself would solve the problems of concentration of power.

While it would be unfair to hold social media responsible for the current problems of humanity, it is clear that they have been more effective in enriching their shareholders than in solving issues such as polarization or the manipulation of social narratives. Musk’s idea to fix Twitter with more technology, delayed.

altered balances

thus posed, The main goals of Twitter’s new owner seem difficult to articulate, to say the least. Transforming the social network into a profitable company and reducing misinformation or hate speech without increasing the number of employees seems impossible. Eliminate inauthentic accounts while considering increasing the number of users as well. Offering account authentication tools at a cost that a large part of the planet could not afford does not help transform Twitter into an agora of access for everyone.

Musk set himself all these goals at the same time, something more complicated to achieve than launching rockets to Mars, manufacturing electric cars capable of dethroning combustion cars, making tunnels for the circulation of cars or creating brain-machine interfaces, some of the activities to which are dedicated to the other companies of the South African businessman.

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The technological solutionism of Elon Musk | After the purchase of Twitter