Shashi Warrier | The tweet is mightier than the sword

The Asian Age.  | Shashi Warrier

Opinion, Columnists

It’s not the servers and the software but what people do with them

Elon Musk. (AFP)

These days I feel stupid a lot of the time because there’s so much going on that I don’t understand but everyone else seems to. When I ask them about it, though, mostly they just say, “But it’s so obvious!” And then they go away leaving me in the dark.

For instance, when Elon Musk bought Twitter for $45bn or whatever, I just couldn’t understand why he did it. I actually have trouble understanding what that amount of money means. A few thousand dollars, yes, but $45bn? There’s no way my mind can wrap itself around that number.

So I was relieved when my professor friend Raghavan dropped in to drink my tea and sample a new batch of samosas. I thought he’d be able to explain, his job being explaining things to restless youngsters. So I sat him down and plied him with food and drink, and, when he had polished off the last crumb and emptied his last cup of tea, I put it to him. “What’s all this about Musk and Twitter and free speech?”

“Politics,” he replied, reaching for a toothpick.

“What!” I exclaimed, taken aback. “I thought it was business!”

He belched and put down the toothpick. “Musk said something about free speech,” he said. “If that’s not politics, I don’t know what is.”

“But what about that $45bn?” I asked. “That’s a gargantuan sum of money: it’s about half Sri Lanka’s GDP, or almost all its debt. That seems far too much to pay for a social media platform, which is just some servers and some software. I thought that was all business.”

He smiled a smile full of pity. “Your years are showing, old man,” he said. “In your day, wealth meant land or similar things. Physical assets. All that’s changed since the internet came along.  It’s not the servers and the software but what people do with them.”

“Yes,” I said sadly. “I know. There’s something called a demat account which holds all my shares, but it doesn’t feel real. In the old days they had share certificates with signatures and seals and stamps and copperplate… Very beautiful. My bank account, likewise. I can see my balance on my phone anytime, but that doesn’t feel real either. I was always happy when my wallet was fat, but now all my money is in my phone, and I’m just not comfortable with it.”

The smile widened. The pity deepened. “That’s not the half of it,” he said. “The term social media understates the value of the service. Look at this way: you can now talk to your brother in Australia whenever you like, and it costs you next to nothing.”

“Ah!” I said, needled by the pity. “I didn’t know that free speech includes speaking to people abroad for free!”

His smile fell off and he clenched his fists, but he recovered in a moment. “At the very least,” he said, “Twitter will have some advertisement value for Musk. He can use it to peddle Tesla cars along with his views.”

And then I asked him the one question that just wouldn’t go away from my mind. “Why would he spend $45bn on Twitter when he can plaster the world with Tesla promotions for one per cent of that?” I asked. “And create another social media platform as well for less than that?”

“Twitter’s profitable,” he said. “Musk thinks he’ll make a profit out of advertising revenue. Besides, creating a social media platform is a chancy business. Ask Google. They tried and failed. Finally, Musk has nearly 90 million followers on Twitter. He might lose many of them if he switches platforms.”

“Right,” I said, “he has lots of followers. But from what I read, there are plenty of people who don’t like Musk’s political views, mostly US Democrats. Won’t they be tempted to quit Twitter? If they do, Musk will lose half the herd.”

“I doubt it,” he replied. “People who were kicked out of Twitter before Musk took it over are returning. Besides, the controversy itself is drawing attention to the conflict between American businessmen and leftists. You pay more attention to your enemies than your friends, and it’s easy to be brave on Twitter. So Musk has turned Twitter into a battlefield! He hopes it’ll be a profitable battlefield. ”

“He might get wiped out,” I said.

“Oh no, he won’t,” replied Raghavan emphatically.

“How can you be so sure?” I asked.

“Because he’ll bring down too many people with him if he crashes,” he replied.

“Like the Lehmann Brothers crash of 2008. The US government ended up saving the people responsible, giving them fortunes. And it’s not only the American government. Just think a bit. Which is Tesla’s biggest market outside the US?

China. Where do Tesla batteries come from? China. There’s a Tesla factory in Shanghai, China… The Chinese banned Twitter some years ago, so now they can interfere in US politics through Musk with no risk to themselves. For all you know, they might just sustain Musk on Twitter with advertisements. They won’t have to fire a shot or shed a drop of blood. They’ll just sit at home and pull the strings.”

“How?” I asked.

“It’s easy for the Chinese,” he said. “They’ll get a few million people – real human beings, not bots – to join Twitter. All telling the world exactly what the Chinese government wants them to say.”

“What about free speech?” I asked. “Musk said he was for it, didn’t he?”
The smile returned, and the pity, wider and deeper than ever before. “He might have said so,” he replied. “But he doesn’t have to mean it, does he?”