So, it looks as though Elon Musk will take over Twitter after all. The news has been welcomed by conservatives who think Musk will end Twitter’s perceived liberal bias, by trolls who intend to hold Musk to his proclamations about not restricting any speech on the platform, and by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey who will make close to a billion dollars from the sale of Twitter to Musk.
But there are lots of critics too. Some of the criticism is reasoned: Will Musk do enough to keep hate and prejudice off Twitter? Some of it is issue-focused: Will Musk allow Donald Trump to come back to Twitter? (He may or may not, but a newly re-energised, conservative-friendly Twitter will spell doom for Trump’s own platform, the flailing Truth Social.)
And much of the criticism focuses on Musk himself. His critics see him as an inconsistent and unstable guy who cannot be trusted to run a global media platform like Twitter responsibly.
I have no strong views about the Musk takeover. No matter what its fans say, Twitter is hardly a fair and well-run operation that an irresponsible Musk will destroy. Its content moderation policies are unpredictable, inconsistent, illogical and often downright stupid.
Nor does the existing Twitter management effectively block hate speech. Hatred and prejudice rage, largely unchecked, on Indian Twitter. And worst of all, Twitter has ceased to be a platform for individuals to exchange views. It has been colonised by agencies, troll farms and IT cells. Nearly every Twitter trend is bought and paid for. Most trends are manufactured by marketing agencies to promote movies and TV shows. And the rest are created by the IT cells of various political parties to push their agendas.
So, it is hard to see how much of a worse job Musk can do with Twitter. But, to be fair to Musk’s critics, it is by no means clear that Musk even intends to make Twitter what it once was: An innovative platform for individuals to exchange views and ideas with each other.
Also read: Musk is the only solution I trust, says Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey after takeover
A billionaires’ playground
Musk has said he will ban bots. But the old Twitter management made the same promise without doing very much to make it a cleaner platform. And besides, how can anyone get around the phenomenon of the ‘two–rupeewallas’: Worthless layabouts who will tweet anything (abuse, in particular) on behalf of anyone in return for a tiny fee? These are genuine accounts set up by real people so they can escape the injunctions against bots.
Even so, it is worrying to see Twitter as the latest plaything for feuding tech billionaires who have got bored of making rocket ships. Musk has already been attacked by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos who suggested that the Musk takeover may benefit China (where Twitter is currently unavailable). Musk himself has attacked Microsoft’s Bill Gates for shorting Tesla stock. And perhaps some sort of new face-off with Mark Zuckerberg is inevitable.
In some ways, it is like the age of the great press barons when very rich owners treated their newspapers like ego-massaging fast cars or toys. The world may have been better off when the tech billionaires were distracted by their rockets.
And yet, I am not as worried about the Musk takeover of Twitter as Musk’s American critics seem to be. Partly, it is the “how much worse can it get argument?” But mostly it is that, outside of the media bubble, Twitter is not very consequential in India.
Also read: From ‘I had idli’ to political megaphone, how tiny Twitter punches above its weight in India
The real game is not on Twitter
Consider some figures. Twitter has an audience of about 80 million users in the US. In India, it has only around 24 million users. And India’s population is a lot bigger than the US’s. Even relatively tiny Japan has around 59 million Twitter users.
Lest you think this is because most Indians don’t have smartphones, here are some comparative figures. As against Twitter’s 24 million or so users, Instagram has 230 million users in India, making the country one of the world’s largest Instagram markets.
Or take Facebook. India has around 340 million Facebook users. And YouTube is much bigger. At least 467 million Indians access YouTube. And WhatsApp is the largest app in India with about 490 million users.
Given these figures, should we really worry too much about the 25 million people who use Twitter in India? The answer is obvious. Twitter matters to journalists and trolls. Everyone else prefers other forms of social media.
Political parties have always known this. As far back as 2007, when the BJP set up the formidable social media operation that helped power the Modi wave in 2009 (and has kept it going ever since), it focused on Facebook, not Twitter. It set up Facebook groups all over India in regional languages to spread its message.
Later, it came to dominate the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which it still uses to transmit a series of alternative facts each day. When Facebook was attacked for its perceived pro-BJP bias a few years ago, it was the BJP’s IT cell that rushed to its rescue, for obvious reasons.
Journalists often make the mistake of believing that voters are so stupid that trolls can change their minds. The BJP knows that trolls are just bullies and online thugs who make no difference to how people think. It recognises that most people like to examine facts and make up their own minds. It is far more effective, therefore, to provide made-up ‘facts’ for people to base their opinions on.
That is why Facebook and WhatsApp are so important. ‘News’ that shows the Congress and the BJP’s other opponents in a bad light is disseminated with such regularity that eventually these alternative facts become the ruling narrative.
Also read: Would Nehru have more Twitter followers than Modi? Decoding personality traits of Indian PMs
Twitter is a noisy distraction
You can’t fight this mountain of misinformation that has been painstakingly built up over years simply by getting trolls to abuse Narendra Modi and all of Rahul Gandhi’s critics on Twitter. And yet, this is the essence of the Congress’s social media strategy. That’s one reason why it loses every election.
Parties like AAP understand the social media game much better, which may help explain why the BJP has not been able to demolish Arvind Kejriwal’s party despite its best efforts.
Journalists are a little bit like the Congress when it comes to Twitter. We mistake the fights and the trolling for real politics. We pay too much attention to armies of motivated sock puppets and legions of two-rupeewallas, without recognising that the real social media action is elsewhere.
That’s why the Elon Musk takeover of Twitter intrigues us in the media so much. But the reality is that, forget Elon Musk, even if Donald Trump took over Twitter, it would make very little difference to us in India.
Twitter is a lively, noisy place. But it has very little influence. Mostly, it is no more than a distraction. And Elon Musk now owns that distraction.
No big deal.
Vir Sanghvi is an Indian print and television journalist, author, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.