Who can stop Elon Musk?

Who can stop Elon Musk?

Is there still a limit to the power of multi-billionaires? The $44 billion takeover of Twitter by the world’s richest man illustrates the possibilities of extreme wealth accumulation.

At the head of a fortune oscillating between 200 and 300 billion dollars, composed overwhelmingly of Tesla shares whose price has soared, Elon Musk has a heritage equivalent to the gross domestic product (GDP) of Portugal. And he buys himself a company worth twice the budget of the French Ministry of the Interior.

Musk now has the upper hand on a platform where more than 400 million people trade. A network with a strong impact on public debate, as it is popular in political, economic and media circles. A week after its takeover, the entrepreneur, faithful to his taste for disruption, laid off 3,500 people, or half of the company’s employees. And he begins to implement his reforms.

“By becoming the majority shareholder, Elon Musk has no real counter-power. It’s the same within the Meta group which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Most social networks are companies with very centralized and opaque governance”points out Anne Bellon, political scientist at the Technological University of Compiègne.

Minimum moderation

What are the motivations for this takeover? “There is an ideological dimension that should not be underestimated. Elon Musk has an absolutist view of freedom of expression, stipulating that more freedom means less intervention”, adds Anne Bellon. Either content moderation reduced to the legal minimum.

Musk blames former Twitter management for over-intervention and anti-conservative bias. And he regrets the suspensions of accounts operated on the network, like that concerning Donald Trump. Like the former President whose account has already been reinstated, several previously banned people could return. The consequence of this policy should be an increased brutalization of the debate through a greater dissemination of content deemed problematic, because hateful or relaying false information.

DSA, European bulwark?

The multi-billionaire, however, assured him: he will respect the law. If American legislation contains very few constraints in this area, European regulations are stricter and the Commission repeats it: on the Old Continent, Twitter will have to respect them. Brussels stands as a bulwark, highlighting its new tool to regulate the content of digital platforms: the Digital Services Act (DSA).

With the dismissal of half of its employees, Twitter’s capacity for human moderation is reduced to a trickle

Part of this European device could hinder the ambitions of the American. The DSA indeed obliges large platforms to take into account “systemic risks”, which encompass both gender harassment and “adverse effects” on elections or public safety.

It thus forces them to closely follow what is happening on their network and not just to delete a few clearly illegal messages (child pornography, apology for terrorism, etc.). But with the dismissal of half of its employees, Twitter’s capacity for human moderation is reduced to a trickle.

“Elon Musk has a very strong belief in technology and will surely reinforce the role of algorithmic tools in moderationthinks Anne Bellon. Such a development would make moderation decisions more opaque, thus reducing their possible challenge. »

It would also require regulators to step up their skills to enter the black box of platform technology. Elon Musk’s big plans for Twitter, however, mainly concern the United States. The rest of the world seems to be secondary in its plans, even if it represents the vast majority of the company’s activity.

chaotic recovery

Beyond the ideological aspect, is there an economic logic to Elon Musk’s project?

“This takeover may seem paradoxical, because Twitter has always struggled to find an economic model and displays a fragility that is out of step with the scope of this network, which sees people of global influence intervene, whether they are heads of state or managers of large firms”points out Julien Nocetti, researcher at the Geode center (Geopolitics of the datasphere).

The blue bird network certainly has a strong impact on the terms of the public debate, but it only points to the 16e place of the most used social networks in the world and its accounts oscillate depending on the year between red and green.

Elon Musk said as much in mid-November: “The prospect of bankruptcy cannot be ruled out. » Four days after its takeover, 875,000 users had deactivated their account – double the usual rate – according to Bot Sentinel. For their part, General Motors, Dyson, Disney, Coca-Cola and even Stellantis have in turn suspended their advertising campaign on the network.

“Advertisers can play a role of counter-power because they prefer not to see their messages next to content deemed problematic. Bankruptcy is indeed not impossible.says Annabelle Gawer, professor of digital economics at the University of Surrey.

A risk aggravated by the bleeding in the workforce, to which are added at least several hundred departures of the remaining employees. These leave the ship because of the authoritarian methods of the new boss who asks them to give themselves “thoroughly, unconditionally” and of “working long hours at high intensity”.

The billionaire, however, has the ambition to find a new economic model for the network, which today relies almost exclusively on advertising revenue. That’s why in mid-November it launched an $8 per month subscription to obtain account certification, paving the way for better content visibility.

This option was previously offered free of charge to personalities or companies whose identity had been verified. A real godsend for trolls, the offer was quickly suspended after the deception of many users impersonating companies or public figures. Despite this initial fiasco, the offer was to return at the end of November, “bug fixed”. Thus paving the way for a partially paid model.

Tesla, presented today as a success storycame close to bankruptcy several times in the late 2010s

This is not the first time that Elon Musk has taken a perilous path for a company he leads. Tesla, presented today as a success storycame close to bankruptcy several times at the end of the 2010s, resulting in particular in delivery delays and supply difficulties.

The premium electric car maker has also been accused of scrapping a safety test to speed up production or downplaying other issues to avoid vehicle recalls that could have been financially destructive. The Musk method is well known.

In the longer term, the dream of the new boss of Twitter is to make it a “universal app”. In the mode of Chinese WeChat, an application that concentrates a maximum of uses: tweeting, ordering a taxi, a meal, making a medical appointment, etc.

“Musk’s X App is a total technological ecosystem, in this case totally closed in on itself, where all digital services would be available and interconnected, thus concentrating all uses. A seamless system effect that would organize algorithmic confinement and allow seamless capture of data. The primary technological base of the X App would therefore be based on the existing architecture of Twitter”explains Sciences Po teacher Asma Mhalla, in an article in the Great Continent.

With the blue bird network, Elon Musk also grabs a powerful informational tool to interfere even more on the geopolitical scene. The billionaire has indeed already “offered” – with the financial assistance of the American State – to the Ukrainian authorities access to its constellation of Starlink satellites, the largest in the world, allowing connection to the Internet via space, thus avoiding land infrastructure damaged by the fighting.

As powerful as States

From his proposed peace plan for this war to the one formulated to settle the conflict between China and Taiwan, what is he getting involved in? Is it simply the expression of a megalomaniac wanting to find solutions to everything, regardless of his knowledge of the situation? Or rather the proof that the giants of the technology are becoming geostrategic powers? One does not prevent the other.

“Tech companies are increasingly taking a stand on international issues, in a very visible way for Elon Musk or more discreetly like Microsoft or Google for Ukraine”explains Julien Nocetti, also a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri).

“The power of the largest digital platforms is equivalent to that of certain States, in terms of financial resources but not onlysummarizes Annabelle Gawer. They are private regulators who authorize or not authorize companies and individuals to operate on their networks which have become essential infrastructures. » The European Union made no mistake about it and this year sent a permanent ambassador to Silicon Valley to exchange directly with these “big tech”.

Elon Musk and his companies are also the products of the American government and the expression of his soft-power

Is Elon Musk the symbol of this new power that would escape the States? It is more complex, because the big tech maintain a close link with the public authorities, in this case American. SpaceX, the satellite launch company founded in 2002 by the future boss of Twitter, has developed thanks to funds from NASA, via the contract to supply its stations.

Similar situation for Tesla: the company benefited for years from subsidies worth several billion dollars. “Without the political support of Washington, Tesla could never have built its factory in Shanghai”, observes Julien Nocetti. A strategic factory, because it allows Tesla to serve the Chinese market, the second in size after that of the United States. One in four Teslas is sold there.

In short, Elon Musk and his companies are also the products of the American government and the expression of its soft-power. Certainly, the multibillionaire calls to vote openly for the Republicans. Admittedly, he has strained relations with the Democratic administration of Joe Biden. However, the latter did not cut its funding and even financially supported SpaceX, which operates Starlink, in its aid to Ukraine. For Asma Mhalla, “Like the much less noisy Microsoft, Palantir or Google, Elon Musk participates, to his extent, in shaping the role of the United States in global geopolitics”.

The bursts of an Elon Musk are thus only the reflection of an economy which sees the big tech weigh more and more heavily in a world of conflict. Can Europe still limit itself to brandishing its standards as the only response?