April 28, 2022 - 1:15pm

Is Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter a threat to democracy? For some blue-tick Twitter accounts, it certainly appears to.

Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, is certainly concerned. Asking whether Twitter will be “Musked” he argues that “there is something intrinsically worrying [about] the rules for one of contemporary democracy’s most important public spaces being set by one man.”

However, it’s not as if Twitter was ever the social media equivalent of the BBC. Its ownership was dominated by a handful of powerful private interests including BlackRock and Morgan Stanley. If this select group of the world’s richest companies is now selling up to the world’s richest man, then the transfer of power is within the global elite not to it. 

One could argue that the real power of a corporation is exercised by its management, not its shareholders. Therefore, given Musk’s evident interest in Twitter’s inner workings, the fact of his ownership is more significant than the money men he’s buying the company from. 

But again what we see is not Musk wresting control from the general public, but from an oligarchy. In all the big social media companies, the decision-making power over what can and cannot be said is made by a small group of individuals. In the first instance, there are the executives who set the basic policy; and then, at a finer level of detail, a bureaucracy of moderators. Furthermore this is a narrow elite — drawn from the same knowledge class, influenced by the same ideologies and operating behind closed doors.

Well, fine — these are private companies and they can do what they like within the law. But by the same token, Musk can do what he likes – and that is to uphold the principle of free speech. 

Garton Ash worries that the “free speech we need for democracy requires certain minimum levels of civility” and “some procedures for checking basic factual veracity.” He adds that it’s “not clear” whether Elon Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist”, gets this. Perhaps the professor will be reassured by the following statement, which seems pretty clear to me: 

Of course, there have always been limits on free speech — and, arguably, there ought to be more. But in a free society these need to be decided openly and democratically, not sub-contracted to opaque, unaccountable corporations.

Because of the blood-soaked history of dictatorship it is understandable that we should see the “one man” as the eternal enemy of democracy. But it doesn’t take a monomaniacal autocrat to crush freedom — self-satisfied elitism powered by bureaucratic groupthink does the job just as effectively, if not more so.

Indeed, whether in the field of politics, culture, business or science — freedom and progress often depends on the stubborn individual who challenges the establishment. Whether Musk is truly such a man time will tell, but for the moment he deserves the benefit of the doubt. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.