OTTAWA—Grand opening, grand closing. The tech party is over.
For 15 years, the FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) companies drove investment patterns and economic growth with the ostensible invincibility companies with such high valuations attain. However, the music has stopped, the last pot has been washed, and the party is over. Not since the early internet era of Pets.com have we seen such a massive slowdown in the technology establishment. Facebook, or Meta, is laying off 11,000 people in its largest trimming exercise in the company’s history; Twitter has been taken over by a megalomaniac and is swirling around the bowl; Instagram is what Facebook ruined with its choice of marketplace over connections; Snapchat is still irrelevant to most; and Netflix now has ads to drive subscriptions. At least we still have TikTok and Apple, who killed Facebook’s ad business.
And now we’re stuck with Trump-lite, Elon Musk.
Musk is a billionaire founder whose track record of success is mediocre at best. His “success” at PayPal was largely due to Peter Thiel; his electric vehicle company, Tesla, has a habit of its cars spontaneously combusting; and SpaceX, his aerospace company, has at least avoided that fate. In other words, Musk is a white man with a lot of money who failed up, and for that he is lauded as genius by unctuous nerds. He bought Twitter on Oct. 27 and is currently running it into the ground: advertisers are fleeing; Twitter’s chief privacy officer, chief information security officer, and chief compliance officer resigned last week after Musk laid off roughly half of the staff, many of whom worked in content moderation and monitored hate speech (and then later figured out that he actually needed them); he charged $8/month for a verified blue check, originally given free to identify those esteemed accounts from fakes or impersonators, before the internet clapped back forcing Musk to suspend the paid program, Twitter Blue, and putting him in greater hot water with advertisers. Oh, did I mention that through Musk’s great financing mind Twitter might go bankrupt and the Federal Trade Commission may be coming to get them?
For all the time that Musk has been actively online, you’d think he’d remember the golden rule of social media: the internet always wins.
Many people think Twitter is a waste-of-time, frivolous social media network, and that’s why I don’t consult those people on anything because they don’t understand the world in which they live. Twitter is one of—if not the—most powerful social media network on this side of the Atlantic. It is the watercooler of the 21st century where news breaks, social issues are unpacked, history is unearthed, and coups, uprisings, and revolutions foment and galvanize. However, given its importance, Twitter has never made a lot of money—if any. Its user acquisition profile has been flat over the years, and in 2021, Twitter only made $5-billion in revenues, whereas Instagram took in $47.6-billion in revenues.
But the issue is the idea of such an important communication resource being owned by a Libertarian (which is the gateway to fascism) who glorifies free speech. There is no such thing as a free-speech warrior; instead these are people who don’t like your speech, and Musk is no different. After years of talking up the explicit right to, say, call someone the n-word, he is systematically firing anyone who goes against him, who critiques him, or who impersonates him (Musk famously tweeted, “comedy is now legal on Twitter”before banning Kathy Griffin for jokingly impersonating him).
This was never about free speech, this was always about control.
As reported by The Toronto Star, the National Contagion Research Institute concluded that “use of the N-word on Twitter skyrocketed by over 500 per cent on Oct. 28.” This is a day after Musk took over. The Washington Postexpresses many people’s concerns, noting rising “fears that his pledge of unrestricted free speech could fuel a new wave of online hate.” And that is exactly the point. Musk doesn’t care about free speech, he cares about how much of the Overton window he can shift rightward at will.
The whole point of owning a social media network that features prominent societal actors is that one can control which speech is acceptable and which is not. And this can have far-reaching implications on society and will end up further marginalizing vulnerable groups through hate speech, which invariably leads to offline action. This is what happened to Clara Sorrenti (known as Keffals), a trans streamer who was doxxed through the internet message board Kiwi Farms. Unfortunately, these instances will continue to rise, without laws or enforcement being able to do much about it. And that’s why concentration of so much power in one man’s (and I do stress, man) hands is so destructive. Unfortunately, that’s the type of capitalism we have been told is the most productive and innovative. Maybe we should’ve taken a look at the consequences of that before promoting it as public policy.
Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.