Musk-owned Twitter echoes an earlier oligarch takeover of British newspapers
Elon Musk is finally ‘chief twit’, and Twitter is being placed in the pocket of the world’s richest man. This feels a little bit like the moment when The Independent, a British newspaper created in the 1980s as a rival to the country’s many tycoon-owned dailies, was bought by a Russian billionaire, except vastly more consequential since by then no one really read The Independent anyway.
- “Twitter’s purpose is to serve the public conversation,” states Twitter in the first sentence of “The Twitter Rules”.
- “Journalism of the highest standard cannot easily flourish when impeded by … the political prejudices of the typical newspaper proprietor,” stated the Independent’s first editorial back in 1986.
There isn’t much money in serving the public though, so here we are, just like there wasn’t in producing journalism of the highest standard, and luckily Musk says he’s fine with that.
- “I didn’t do it to make money. I did it to help humanity, whom I love,” said Musk in a personal note to Twitter advertisers, which he tweeted to his 112 million followers. “The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square.”
That may be the case, but now that the digital square has been bought by the town’s wealthiest citizen, what should oligarchy-concerned folks do about it? Quite a few Twitter users have just upped and gone.
- “Not hanging around for whatever Elon has planned. Bye,” tweeted producer Shonda Rhimes. Her profile appears to still be active so perhaps she’s hedging her bets on that, but quite a lot of Twitter users (including me) have noticed drops in their follower numbers, so perhaps a fair few folks have followed through with their threats to leave to new pastures like Mastodon.
And quite a few Twitter employees are very concerned, even though Musk himself has denied plans to fire three-quarters of them, in order to save money.
- “A threat of this magnitude is reckless, undermines our users’ and customers’ trust in our platform,” they said in an open letter. “Twitter has significant effects on societies and communities across the globe. As we speak, Twitter is helping to uplift independent journalism in Ukraine and Iran, as well as empowering social movements.”
We’re all good at spending other people’s money but the problem that Twitter has is of course the same one that The Independent had: good content moderation is expensive, just like good journalism is expensive. If you want to serve the public conversation, while not serving child pornographers and/or Nazis, you need to invest in that. And, since the company now has to service all the debt taken on by Musk to buy it, it has a lot less money to invest. And all of that will get in the way of making a profit.
I’m a journalist and, like most journalists, I spend too much time on Twitter. I pretty much stopped using Facebook a couple of years ago, barely use Instagram, never go on TikTok, but find Twitter too useful to stop using. The most convincing analyses that I’ve read suggest that there is no way for Musk to make anything but a loss from his new toy, and that he’ll probably break it in his efforts to make it work better.
- “Twitter is a disaster clown car company that is successful despite itself, and there is no possible way to grow users and revenue without making a series of enormous compromises that will ultimately destroy your reputation and possibly cause grievous damage to your other companies,” is one particularly bleak assessment.
- “What can he do? It’s not easy. There’s no simple solution, no magic wand. Free speech is bloody difficult. I’d suggest he read Habermas, but of course he won’t. So it’ll be messy, and I suspect he’ll just get bored eventually, but who knows?” said Professor Paul Bernal in this insightful thread on, of course, Twitter.
So, yes, I am concerned that Musk’s stewardship of the company will result in more spam, more abuse, and more annoyance, but in the meantime I’m happy for him to subsidize a platform I find very helpful, and I’m not going anywhere. However, like Stephen King, I’m insufficiently bothered by my blue “verified” tick, to want to spend $20 a month to keep it.
But you know what, if Musk can’t find a way to make Twitter pay, and the site either gets flooded with Nazis or else shrivels and dies, I’ll miss it the way it is. It remains an amazing resource for spreading information, discovering new sources, and meeting people. So, despite my deeply ingrained suspicion of everything Musk does, I’m hoping he succeeds.
Last week I was in Norway, talking about Butler to the World, which has just been published in Norwegian. It was a great trip though I wouldn’t recommend the brown cheese if you’re looking for a local delicacy to take home to your family. Its taste is a little like a cross between a Kraft cheese slice and an Activia yogurt, with a lingering and claggy aftertaste that left everyone we had over for lunch on Sunday speechless.
Anyway, I didn’t come here to talk about odd Scandinavian dairy products, but instead about the Norwegian pension fund, which was established after Oslo found oil in the North Sea to save some of the profits for future generations, and which has done an astonishingly good job of it. The fund is now worth more than a trillion dollars. Most of its investments are in shares (including, as of Musk’s take-over, a healthy 2.7 million shares in Twitter, worth $309 million), and it owns an awful lot of them — something like 1.5 percent of all the shares on the world’s main stock exchanges — in the manner of a standard fund manager.
- “Norges Bank manages the Fund with the objective to achieve the highest possible return within the requirements set out in the management mandate. The Fund is a financial investor and diversifies its investments across a large number of markets and securities,” its website states.
Last month, I took part in a seminar organized by the fund in London, in which a number of us klepto-enthusiasts discussed our work and the role of corruption in destroying the world, and I was very heartened by the response from the attendees. Since then, I’ve been thinking about how a fund with democratic influence over its investment decisions could change the whole debate around corruption. At the moment, the primary motivation for fund managers is to get the biggest possible return on their investment and therefore, absent prosecution by the Department of Justice, there really isn’t a downside for them in enabling kleptocracy. I think the fund could help change that.
So, while in Norway, I took every opportunity I could to push for a vision of the fund as a new kind of investor: one motivated not by short-term profits, but by the long-term value creation to be found in ending corruption and spreading democracy everywhere. At the very least, accountants and lawyers who work for kleptocrats should be barred from working for companies in which the fund invests.
I am as good at spending other people’s money as anyone and there are lots of technicalities that could make such a vision hard to implement, but wouldn’t it be great? In 1940, before Washington joined World War Two, the United States declared itself to be “the arsenal of democracy”; I’d love to see Norway declare itself to be the fund manager of democracy. And, if it did, I could even forgive it for the brown cheese.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
Sanctioned Russian tycoon Petr Aven has been engaged in a bewilderingly complex legal dispute with British law enforcement agencies over whether his assets should be frozen or not. The short version is that, while they think the assets should be frozen, he strongly and expensively disagrees.
This is one of many legal disputes arising from the fact that, while some businessmen are prepared to call other businessmen oligarchs, they are none of them prepared to accept that they are personally. As such, they all think the sanctions against themselves are outrageous, disproportionate, and unfair.
- “Will l be allowed to have a cleaner, or a driver? I don’t drive a car… maybe my stepdaughter will drive. We don’t understand how to survive,” Aven, who met Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on the day Russia’s assault on Ukraine began in February, told the FT, in a heart-rending appeal that will surely touch good people everywhere.
That interview was given in March and those good people will be heartened to hear that, in July, Aven’s lawyers challenged an account freezing order brought by the National Crime Agency and won a court ruling that he could use frozen funds to meet living expenses of 600,000 pounds a year.
- “Allowing a Russian oligarch to spend £600,000 per year from frozen funds on what most would consider luxury expenses suggests a soft touch during a cost-of-living crisis,” said Dr Helen Taylor, a legal researcher at Spotlight on Corruption.
Personally, had I been Aven, I’d have taken the win, but he was — according to the court judgment — accustomed to spending 140,000 pounds a month so it may well be that having a mere 50,000 to dip into seemed intolerable. Anyway, his lawyers challenged the ruling and, last week, a Judicial Review sent the matter back to magistrate’s court for a fresh hearing, which essentially reset the clock on this case and started it again from the beginning. That was good news for the lawyers, who’ll be arguing this one out for months to come.
There is a lot at stake here though, since this case will determine what takes precedence: a designation from the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (Britain’s post-Brexit sanctions office, which is loosely equivalent to OFAC), which does not require a court judgment to freeze assets; or an Account Freezing Order, which does. This technicality will have a big impact on the many other sanctions-related cases pending in British courts, and thus on whether the oligarchs lose or retain the wealth they have stashed in the U.K. over the last 30 years.
Isn’t it good news about Bolsonaro losing the election, said my wife this morning. Yes, it is, I thought. But also, if recent years have taught us anything, it’s that somehow the news keeps getting worse no matter what occurs. It seems unlikely that there could be a downside to the Brazilian election result but, if any year can find one, it’ll be 2022. That seemed too grim a thought for 7am though, so I just made some coffee and got on with emptying the dishwasher.
WHAT I’VE BEEN READING
I spent a lot of time traveling last weekend, and I read a lot of books, of which my highlight was probably the new Ian Rankin novel in which his detective hero John Rebus gets into a very tight spot. I also enjoyed Marc Morris’ history of The Norman Conquest, which had this amusing paragraph about the cultural difference between the English and the folks who crossed the sea from France to seize their kingdom in 1066. It suggests to me that — in the intervening millennium — in some ways not all that much has changed.
“The English, he says, were abandoned to gluttony and lechery, lax in their Christianity and addicted to wassail. They lived out their lives in small, mean houses, preferring to load their tattooed skin with gold bracelets, eating till they were sick and drinking until they spewed. The Normans, on the other hand, were well dressed to a fault, particular about their food and more obviously religious. A crafty, warlike people, they built great proud buildings in which they lived a life of moderate expense.”