Platform Monarchy: Elon Musk and the Future of Twitter

“Elon Musk Completes $44 Billion Deal to Own Twitter” read the headline in the New York Times at the end of last week, referring to the public discourse surrounding Elon Musk’s takeover of the social media platform Twitter [1]. Known as a controversial entrepreneur, Musk fired several high-level executives shortly after the deal was completed, further fuelling the debate over the buy-out [2]. Prospectively, the expected transformation of the platform, initiated by the new owner, also casts the deal in a problematic light.

Musk, who in the past described himself as a “free speech absolutist”, plans among other things to introduce an “expanded” freedom of expression on Twitter, in line with his idiosyncratic worldview [3]. This would mean that excluded persons would be given access to the platform again, such as Donald Trump, who used Twitter in the past to deny election results and as a result was permanently banned [4]. The case of the former US president reveals the problematic nature of Musk’s social media strategy: potentially democracy-damaging free speech is dictated by private business and the negative consequences are willingly accepted.

The current events surrounding the Twitter deal illustrate that it remains unclear whether the control of a platform should be in the hands of a single person, in this case, a controversial entrepreneur. For this very reason, it is worth taking a closer look at the relevance of social media platforms, specifically to interpret their importance to society.

Characterising Digital Intermediaries

The fact that digital social media platforms are changing social interaction dynamics has been observable since the early days of the internet. Websites like ClassMates or SixDegrees initially dominated the market, but have been replaced by competitors (Twitter, Facebook or Instagram) over the years [5]. These companies are characterised by the so-called business-to-consumer business model, which can also be attributed to other intermediaries such as Amazon, Netflix or eBay, although different principles and transactions serve as the economic basis for the latter.

Despite existing peculiarities, the functional logics of platforms are somewhat similar. At their core, they fulfil the purpose of connecting different actors through the use of information technologies and thus enable new interactions that would not have occurred in the absence of the platform due to significant coordination problems [6].

Within this range of capabilities, social media platforms have a dedicated focus. They primarily structure and curate content provided by third parties and thus determine the information processes of the participating actors. As a result, they define the behaviour of individuals, the public and social relationships in digital space [7].

Consolidation Processes and Network Effects

As complex socio-technical systems, digital intermediaries can be seen as one of the most important economic developments of our time. Examples such as Facebook or Instagram show that companies implementing the platform paradigm are particularly successful economically as a result of the underlying market dynamics [8]. Since the beginning of the internet, so-called direct network effects have led to consolidation processes of platform companies, so that the majority of internet traffic is now limited to a few market participants and oligopoly structures are to be found [7]. This is exemplified by the use of platforms on mobile devices: 93% of social media consumption takes place on Instagram and Facebook [9].

Profit-optimising Algorithms

Operators of social media platforms are primarily focused on economic profit optimisation, although the use of digital intermediaries also promises to exploit social opportunities. The only difference is that the focus is not on fruitful exchange between the actors involved, but on the attempt to motivate users to consume content for as long as possible. As a result, the principle of virality or, in other words, the attention economy, dominates on social media platforms. The goal is to increase individual time spent consuming content in order to increase the company’s profit by displaying more advertisements [10].

In order to implement this paradigm, social rules are defined on the platforms via algorithms and thus it is decided which information, news, photos, videos etc. are arranged or ranked in which way. The formulation of social rules takes place via the general terms and conditions, while the implementation takes place via technical artefacts. Although the content displayed is highly personalised, it remains unclear to those affected (users of the service) how a ranking on the digital platforms comes about, as well as what decisions third parties make by analysing collected data. Due to this lack of transparency, the term “black box society” is used in platform debates [11].

Gatekeeping and Regulatory Approaches

The historically grown influence of digital platforms on a microscopic as well as macroscopic level has meanwhile resulted in the attention of governmental bodies. Nooren et al [12] summarise this as follows:

“Digital platforms put pressure on existing government policies for stimulating innovation and economic development and for safeguarding public interests. Platform owners present themselves as bridge builders or gatekeepers, […] [they] offer new and attractively priced services to consumers, but at the same time they affect the possibility for new players to enter the market and change the ways consumers interact with services and service providers. For these reasons, digital platforms currently are of particular interest to policymakers. They wish to understand the positive and negative impacts that these platforms may have on public interests in order to be able to determine if, how, and when to intervene.”

This development in the political arena can be observed, for example, in various initiatives within Europe. Activities for the regulation of social media platforms are to be identified, e.g. within the framework of the Network Enforcement Act in Germany [13], or at the European level with the Digital Services/Markets Act. Due to the DSA/DMA, the European Union now has legal tools to compel large digital platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, to consistently implement competition obligations and user rights [14].

And although initial regulatory measures have been implemented by state bodies, social media platforms hold a comfortable but threatening position of power. In particular, the existing melange of competition dominance, profit orientation and non-transparent algorithms must be seen as problematic, with actors such as Elon Musk reproducing or even reinforcing the existing platform principles.

Elon, the Saviour

First, the absolute free speech propagated by Musk is to be seen as problematic, especially due to the lack of external control mechanisms for platforms, such as those that exist in the German public broadcasting system. As distributors of content with high consumption rates, digital intermediaries are to be regarded as relevant elements of the public opinion-forming process, but are so far subject to only a few content-related standardisations for the selection and presentation of content (NEA, DSA/DMA). Under these circumstances, unrestricted freedom of expression then implies that anti-democratic stances, messages of terrorism and religious hatred are also increasingly spread publicly, thus reinforcing a dismantling of democracy as well as a polarisation of society.

Musk’s proposal to open up the algorithmic functional logics of Twitter, on the other hand, is a sound first approach to resolving the existing intransparency on digital intermediaries. In this context, however, it must be taken into account that algorithms and the data basis used are extremely multifaceted. It therefore remains unclear whether such a proposition is feasible at all due to the technical complexity [15] and how an appropriate form of communication of these algorithmic logics is to be designed.

Finally, with regard to the acquisition, it remains uncertain how Twitter will address the economic dimension. That Elon Musk’s understanding of the economy can rather be considered as neoliberalism is well known, at the latest since the union busting activities in the context of Tesla. By now, the employees of the social media platform have also become more familiar with deregulated digital capitalism, as Musk announced the introduction of an 84-hour working week [16]. Consequently, it can be assumed that Twitter’s profit orientation will be reinforced due to the takeover and no paradigm shift within the platform economy is to be expected.

  6. Parker, G. G., Van Alstyne, M. W., & Choudary, S. P. (2016). Platform revolution: How networked markets are transforming the economy and how to make them work for you. WW Norton & Company.
  7. Dolata, U. (2022). Platform Regulation: Coordination of markets and curation of sociality on the internet. In The Routledge Handbook of Smart Technologies (pp. 457-477). Routledge.
  8. Parker, G., Van Alstyne, M. W., & Jiang, X. (2016). Platform ecosystems: How developers invert the firm. Boston University Questrom School of Business Research Paper, (2861574).
  10. Wu, T. (2017). The attention merchants: The epic scramble to get inside our heads. Vintage.
  11. Pasquale, F. (2015). The black box society: The secret algorithms that control money and information. Harvard University Press.
  12. Nooren, P., van Gorp, N., van Eijk, N., & Fathaigh, R. Ó. (2018). Should we regulate digital platforms? A new framework for evaluating policy options. Policy & Internet, 10(3), 264-301.
Pepe Bellin

Pepe Bellin

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