Like millions of people around the world, I’ve been watching the Twitter debacle closely since Elon Musk took over the company. It is of particular value to those of us who live in less free places than just fear the loss of space for free discussion and access to information. But as a political cartoonist, I also fear losing the platform on which I and many of my peers started during the Arab Spring.
This development may have been inevitable. For some time, the tech industry has fostered a cult of personality. It started with a carefully constructed image of Steve Jobs and the open, curious innovator who actually runs “he’s one of the most tightly controlled companies” in the world. Jobs stayed out of politics, but his tech peers who followed him in pursuit of iconic status did not.
Their impassioned quest to grow their wealth and egos pushed them onto the political stage, exposing a selfish agenda. In May – although the deal had not yet been signed – Louis XIV tweeted a painting of the “Sun King”. A self-proclaimed ‘free speech absolutist’, he has crowned himself the new ‘wise’ king of social media and has declared that he will make Twitter ‘free’.
But his actions and reactions over the past two months have made me think of him more as a small modern dictator presiding over a crumbling regime than as a “Sun King ruling over a prosperous kingdom.” I’m watching it.
Like an ambitious power usurper, he began his Twitter takeover by talking about “democracy” and “the will of the people,” but ridiculed them. He quickly transformed what he called a “digital town square” into a private backyard that he dominated.
Like any typical dictator, Musk is intolerant of dissent and criticism. He reportedly fired any employee who had the courage to speak out within the company or on social media against his decision.
Like any standard authoritarian, he loathes the press and doesn’t hesitate to censor it (although he presents himself as a free speech advocate). Suspended the accounts of several journalists who were critical.
Like an aspiring dictator, Musk seeks to extract as much wealth as possible through ruthless exploitation. , squeezed out the life energy of employees for the benefit of the company.
And like a good tyrant, he has overseen the escape of people from his realm. Some left voluntarily, others were forced to “exile”.
Admittedly, I feel sorry for former Twitter employees. I know how it feels to leave a place you love on the whim of a dictator. The person responsible for my and my family’s asylum is Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in Sudan in 1989. Massive brain drain abroad.
In the 30 years he ruled, he oversaw a bloody civil war, multiple ethnic conflicts, genocide, deadly famine, and economic collapse. He brought the country to its knees and deservedly won the hatred of the majority of the Sudanese population.
He pushed people to their limits and was eventually overthrown by the peaceful mass revolution of 2019.
Musk reminds me of Al Bashir. What the tech mogul seems to have in common with Sudan’s dictator is that, like him, he remains in power even in the face of mounting public outrage and outcry.
Musk’s decisions since coming to power have been wildly unpopular. Not only has he faced criticism from users, IT professionals and business pundits, but the EU’s digital chief has also been cautioned by government officials, including Thierry Breton.
He seems to be widely hated even outside of Twitter. In December, he appeared on Dave Chappelle’s stand-up comedy show in San Francisco, but was booed and silenced. When the video of his unfortunate encounter with reality went online, Musk still claimed in a tweet that it was “90% cheers and 10% boos.” deleted.
Musk has seemingly denied his unpopularity, and has promised to step down as Twitter’s CEO if people vote in a Twitter poll. And they did. About 57.5% said yes to his resignation. But he didn’t.
It took him over 40 hours to acknowledge the results, but upon acknowledging the results, he said he would only resign if he found someone else to take the job. This is a very old dictator’s trick. Pretend there is no perfect person to stay in power indefinitely.
But what Mr. Musk and Mr. Bashir have in common are regime supporters, people willing to support him even if their ship sinks.
Musk derives power from his wealth, which relies on market forces over which he has no complete control. Much more capricious than They jump ships at the slightest sign of distress that can cause financial loss.
This is already happening on Twitter. Advertising revenue has plummeted as many big brands put their ads on hold on their platforms. The same could happen with Musk’s other big business venture, electric car company Tesla. Tesla’s stock has fallen about 40% since the end of October, prompting big investors to openly criticize his CEO.
Musk seems to be making the same mistake as al-Bashir and other dictators: he seems to underestimate the power of the people.
Twitter, like any other social media network, would be nothing without us, its users. In fact, it was the popular-led uprising of the Arab Spring that turned the then mediocre microblogging site into the global platform it is today.
And like the Arab Spring, when people rise up against incompetent tyranny, there is a popular resistance to Musk’s authoritarian whims. Former employees have filed multiple lawsuits against the company and have already won early. The user has also stood up. Some argue that the best way to resist Musk’s policies is from within the platform. Others have left, encouraging others to move to competing apps.
Musk tried to thwart the latter by imposing strict new rules on promoting and referencing other social media platforms. It immediately sparked a backlash and the policy change had to be scrapped.
Sooner or later, Musk’s digital tyranny will come to an end. But his troubled rules should stand as a warning to other techies aspiring to be tech dictators. The internet, and by extension social media, is a space built on people’s natural affinity for freedom. Attempts to seize and control it are doomed to failure.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial attitude of Al Jazeera.