About the author: Paul M. Barrett is the deputy director and senior research scholar at the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
There was reason to worry about Elon Musk making
a private plaything even before his recent games of long-distance footsie with Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party. Now, one can add the danger that the tech tycoon would use the platform to muck up US foreign policy and provide cover for brutal dictators.
Musk is the world’s richest person, based largely on his shares in Tesla, the pioneering electric vehicle manufacturer he founded. He agreed in April to acquire Twitter for $44 billion, backed out, and then changed his mind again. He says he now intends to close the deal. For months, the prospect of the mercurial mogul single-handedly controlling the influential micro-blogging site has prompted fears on the political left. Liberal critics warned that if Musk follows through on his criticism that Twitter has been too restrictive of speech that is legal but false and hateful, the platform under his leadership might welcome back the racists, antisemites, and other unsavory characters it has recently excluded.
Over the past several days, Musk has illustrated why his potential purchase of the social media platform could have geopolitical implications as well. A quick review of recent events:
On Oct. 3, Musk tweeted a “peace plan” to resolve the war in Ukraine. His proposal closely resembled official Russian demands—namely, that Ukraine acquiesce in the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, rule out NATO membership to remain militarily “neutral,” and accept the outcome of a new UN-run referendum in four eastern Ukrainian regions that Russia has forcibly occupied and claimed as Russian territory. Ukrainian officials angrily rejected Musk’s plan, while Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, praised it as “very positive.”
The episode became more ominous when Ian Bremmer, president of the consulting firm Eurasia Group and a frequently quoted expert on international affairs, subsequently said that Musk had told him that he had spoken personally with Putin before tweeting the pro-Russian peace plan. Musk denied Bremmer’s account, but Bremmer stood by it, putting his reputation and that of his company behind the accuracy of his claim.
And there’s more. After Musk tweeted his Ukraine plan, a commentator for the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times attacked Musk, saying that the tech executive “believes too much in the US and West’s ‘freedom of speech.’ He will be taught a lesson. In an interview with the Financial Times, Musk then endorsed China’s top foreign policy goal: that independent and democratic Taiwan submit to Beijing’s control. The Chinese government promptly changed its tune, praising Musk. Taiwan’s premier, Su Tseng-chang, rejected the idea in a speech, pointing out that Tesla has a large factory in Shanghai and is banking on China as a major market for electric cars.
The first thing to note about Musk’s recent media adventures is that he could be flirting with a violation of the Logan Act, which makes it a crime for a private citizen to engage in unauthorized negotiations with a US enemy. But even apart from that long-dormant law, Musk’s egregious kibbitzing on behalf of authoritarians could become more troubling if he acquired Twitter. Some US Republicans have opposed aid to support Ukraine, and early on in the war, former President Donald Trump praised Putin’s strategic savvy. If a Musk-run platform reinstated Trump and some of his most extreme allies on the right, Twitter could become a more potent weapon for promoting Musk’s—and Trump’s—Kremlin-friendly ideas.
Another concern is whether the two leading sources of digital threats—Russia and China, in that order—would do more damage in the US if Musk were at the helm of Twitter. He has said he’s concerned about the prevalence on the platform of automated bot accounts, which are sometimes used by digital vandals, but given Musk’s recently displayed sympathy for Moscow and Beijing, one has to wonder how vigilant the company would be about hack-and- leak forays aimed at prominent Twitter accounts.
Although popular with politicians, media figures, and celebrities, Twitter is the weakest, financially speaking, of the fraternity of major social media sites that also includes
and Instagram, Google’s YouTube, and ByteDance’s TikTok. A Musk takeover would further weaken Twitter, as numerous employees who have tried to secure the site against hateful and false speech would likely leave; some already have. A sudden wave of departures, combined with Musk’s anything-goes attitude, would make the platform even more vulnerable to manipulation, whether foreign or domestic.
That said, Twitter’s potential as a tool for global mischief won’t matter if any number of grim scenarios come to pass for its underlying business. If Musk did substantially loosen content rules and enforcement, Twitter would quickly become a cesspool of pornography, harassment, bigotry, and misinformation. Users would flee, and advertisers—the main source of Twitter’s revenue—would quit as well. In other words, the business would likely collapse as a money-making enterprise and either shrink vastly in influence or disappear altogether.
Musk has never laid out a coherent business plan for Twitter. His run at the company has always seemed more like a play for attention than profit. Some might mourn the platform’s decline or extinction, but at least it would no longer be a soapbox for Elon Musk.
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