Ever since Elon Musk completed his takeover of Twitter, debate has been raging over what impact this will have on society, with some seeing this as a much needed overhaul of a broken platform while others worry that another billionaire owning a renowned outlet is only in the name of personal interests.
Some argue that the platform was in dire need of change and that oligarchs with a commitment to free speech like Musk are preferable to those with arbitrary and opaque moderation (or censorship) policies. Others see Musk as the latest member of a new ruling class, eager to turn us into 21st-century serfs using the power of cloud capital.
On our latest DiEM25 panel, we went through all of this and more, with some snippets of what was discussed featured below. Yanis Varoufakis kicked off the debate, where he stressed his concern of this new digital oligarchy conquering cloud capital more than the debate over moderation.
“We know that Twitter and Facebook in particular have been highly censorious,” Yanis said. “So I reject wholeheartedly the notion that Elon Musk took over Twitter and now suddenly we have a problem. We’ve always had a problem.”
“Concentrated corporate power when it comes to opinion making and behaviour-modifying Big Tech algorithms, that has always been a problem and I don’t believe Elon Musk has made it worse.”
Yanis feels that Musk’s motive for buying Twitter goes far beyond controlling the narrative over a social media platform.
“Jeff Bezos with Amazon, Bill Gates with Microsoft, Google with the various platforms they have, Mark Zuckerberg with Meta… they have had something that Elon Musk lacked until he purchased Twitter – in other words, they had a form of capital in their ownership which I call cloud capital.”
Unlike machines of yesteryear, Yanis points out that these platforms are a “produced means of modifying behaviour” and that “the only person who didn’t have any of that was Elon Musk”.
Despite Tesla and Space X absorbing a wealth of data, they “did not give Musk the opportunity to use this cloud capital as an automated, capitalised, behaviour-modification instrument”.
“The only platform that was up for sale and that Elon Musk could purchase and could give him this capability was Twitter,” he said, mentioning Musk’s desire to turn Twitter ‘into an everything app’. In Yanis’ estimation, Musk “wants to acquire the cloud capital facility, the capacity ownership of produced means of behaviour modification that all the other Big Tech moguls had and he didn’t.”
“For me the major question is this: do we understand that once we have cloud capital taking over as the main form of capital, and the owners of cloud capital have exorbitant power even in comparison to capitalists? Do we understand that as we are shifting into a world ruled by cloud capital, that there is no government, no regulation, no intervention that politics can affect, which is going to create a semblance of civilisation and a semblance of democracy? I think most people don’t understand it.
“People still think that it is still possible to regulate cloud capital. I don’t think it is possible.
“Either we take it over as a society and we socialise cloud capital, or we end up in a situation where it’s either Elon or somebody else doing whatever they are doing, and the rest of us are going to be indulging and engaging and being consumed by pointless, boring conversations.”
DiEM25 policy coordinator Amir Kiyaei also made the point of changing social media platforms from a legal perspective.
“On this issue, we have to remind ourselves that this goes beyond Elon Musk and Twitter, or for that matter Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook and so on,” Amir said.
“It’s about the bid for mass democracies to actually exist, since the technological monopolies are affecting what we see, what we hear, and alter our opinions.
“It’s important to reconsider democratic control over public policy and thus then democratic control over these platforms because regulation is not possible. As Yanis mentioned, the only alternative to this would be to socialise these platforms.
“Then there are the global laws and regulations. This would essentially mean moving a significant chunk – in a legal sense – of these platforms away from Silicon Valley and away from US jurisdiction.”
How can this be done? So far, as Amir says, the Internet Governance Forum – a UN conference – “continues to be a talking shop” and “hasn’t been effective in pushing this idea of democratising public policy and democratising these platforms”. Meanwhile, the International Telecommunications Union hasn’t been effective either while the UN itself doesn’t have a specific body for this matter.
While the matter of a new generation of cloud capitalists emerging, as well as the vague regulatory framework under which they operate, is alarming, Mehran Khalili turned the focus towards the current situation the online arena finds itself in, particularly on the matter of freedom of speech.
“I’m interested in what we can do right now, and that’s why the issue of speech on the platform and how it has been moderated to date is really something that jumps out at me,” he said.
“I’m interested in activism… and like it or not, Twitter is the prime domain in which elite opinion is influenced. It’s not the only domain, but it’s a key part of that.”
Mehran referenced the harsh censorship that was taking place on Twitter over a wide-range of topics surrounding COVID-19, and reiterated the need for anything, even those things we disagree with, to be debated.
“What has happened since Musk’s takeover is quite fascinating because you see the establishment media clashing brutally with Musk. You see that the stories about Musk are incredibly negative and every time there is a leak about how the old Twitter regime was censoring posts, colluding with the Democratic Party, with the FBI, with the CIA, maybe other governments, in order to suppress the speech of their political opponents or legitimate news stories, it’s poo-pooed – and it’s very telling.
“And I think that is something which we need to keep a close eye on because if the landscape is not free then we’re in big trouble in terms of what we can influence and what we can’t,” he concluded.
Watch the full episode below
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