About the Author: Anamitra Deb is the CEO of Omidyar Network.
Can Elon Musk generate new revenue streams and turn around Twitter’s bottom line? How will it handle issues such as free speech, content moderation, open source algorithms and bots? These questions caused much ink to flow last week when
the board accepted Musk’s offer. But there’s another $44 billion question too few people are asking: Should Twitter even be a business?
To be clear, Twitter is not your average business. It serves two main purposes of the utmost public importance, one positive, the other significantly less so. The positive: Twitter has arguably become one of the primary digital public spaces where borderless elites engage in democratic discourse and is part of civil society’s ongoing attempts for diversity, truth, learning and transparency. Although this is a low bar, Twitter has probably performed better than other social media platforms in these roles. The negative: Twitter has become the attention economy’s loudest megaphone, amplifying harmful content, populist demagogues, trolls and scammers. The future direction of both functions is now in question because the company they are embedded in is being sold by its profit-maximizing board of directors to a billionaire engineer, so he can play the role of “referee, moderator and funder.” It is very worrying.
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey does not share our concerns and made his known positive feelings on that platform. Dorsey is correct that Twitter is today motivated by commercial incentives that do not serve its highest potential, that of an evolving public square. Like other social media giants, Twitter is largely unregulated and barely accountable to the public interest even as it stands today. Thus, his bold argument that making it private will allow it to better serve the public interest is totally backward.
Twitter’s challenges go beyond issues around market incentives and business models that prioritize shareholder profits. They are those of the complex governance of content and the balancing of the public interest. Organizing and maintaining a viable digital public square, without counterbalancing nefarious interests or demagogues, is likely to prove too difficult even for a man who has shown innovative temerity in landing rockets on drone platforms. and create large-scale electric cars. Even without juggling the leadership of multiple companies, trying to make Twitter a “platform that is maximum trust and broadly inclusiveas Dorsey has described it, pits the the challenges of content moderation against a business model based on advertising and encouraging engagement. Free-speech easy bromides don’t inspire much confidence.
More importantly, tucked away in Dorsey’s thread is the question we started with: Should Twitter even be a business in the first place? Dorsey argues that Twitter is best designed as “a public good at the protocol level, not a company.” Contradicting this vision, in the same breath, he also applauds Musk’s choice to “solve the problem of being a business”, probably in the traditional sense of one that aims to provide outsized returns to owners, shareholders and advertisers.
A broader discussion should focus on three decisions implicit in Musk’s takeover of the company. (Unfortunately, the public currently has little or no say in any of these points.). First, the sale allows for the complete privatization of an essential piece of public democratic infrastructure, which is unregulated even in its public form. Second, it accepts the premise that this preeminent public square should operate as a business, not to mention a hostage of a toxic business model. Third, it concentrates all power and decision-making in the hands of a billionaire engineer. Each of these decisions that leans toward Musk and his investors and away from the public are more likely than not to have deleterious effects on public discourse and accountability. The combined effect of all three is a public catastrophe in the making.
It doesn’t have to be that way. As a democratic society, we should focus on how we can apply imaginative yet accountable models that can fund, govern and sustain media infrastructure in the public interest. These include rethinking ownership structures, governance and funding models, and accountability requirements. Even private physical public spaces come with a set of obligations and responsibilities to elevate the democratic commons. To remember Occupy Wall Street? New York’s Zuccotti Park is such a space, and it’s been home to thousands of protesters for months — and is ironically co-owned by Goldman Sachs. With respect to Twitter and similar platforms, we may choose to host them in publicly-benefit, publicly-funded or endowed-trust social media models, with proportional ownership and governance models.
As audiences who turn to these platforms to inform much of our daily lives, we need to have a say in how this new list of mainstream media companies serves our interests. Any engineer would agree that we now have enough data to reject the harmful combination of private incentives that combines the surveillance capitalism model with shareholder primacy. It is time to explore new paradigms for meaningful public governance that elevates the public interest in achieving trustworthy, transparent, and sustainably funded public squares.
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