Elon Musk’s purchase of social media platform Twitter was big news, especially on Twitter.
Everywhere else, history is strongly challenged by the war in Ukraine, the turmoil on Wall Street, the last French presidential elections or the solid performance of the Celtics during the NBA playoffs.
Musk, the founder of Tesla and reportedly the richest person in the world, made a bid to take over Twitter earlier this month. after business temporarily blocked his offer, he was able to close the deal on Monday.
This has led some to wonder if this will be the end of Twitter as we know it. Others are curious about the possible political impact, saying Musk’s statements on an open and “free-speech” Twitter are a signal that he would allow former President Trump back on the platform. Trump had his Twitter and Facebook accounts suspended shortly after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
But all the hype about what Musk’s property could be and how it could radically change the nature of American politics is overblown. Here are three reasons.
1. Few Americans are even on Twitter
Twitter, as a platform, plays an outsized role in setting the agenda for news and stories about developments from Capitol Hill to Hollywood to Wall Street and Main Street. This is because journalists and news personalities talk to each other on the platform, both directly and indirectly.
But the truth is, there just aren’t many average Americans who are on Twitter. This year’s research found that only 23% of Americans use Twitter and less than half say they use it every day. The users are 70% male and generally wealthy. Many of those on Twitter never participate. Another study found that only 25% of Twitter accounts were responsible for 97% of the content on the site.
2. Twitter’s political impact is already unclear
While Twitter is a place where news influencers congregate around the clock, it’s unclear what impact it has on voters.
President Biden’s aides were so disappointed by the former vice president’s constant Twitter criticism during the 2020 race, especially in the primary season, that they constantly reminded people that “Twitter is not the real life”.
Given that Biden is now in the White House, they are correct.
As for Trump, the loss of Twitter privileges did not turn out to be his downfall. Trump is no longer in everyone’s Twitter feed, but he’s found other ways to make his voice heard. Republicans are now afraid he will attack them in a lengthy statement, instead of 240 characters on Twitter. Either way, these statements often end up being repeated on Twitter.
3. Twitter, structurally, is a bunch of echo chambers
Although there are more important voices than others on the platform, the very nature of Twitter means that users choose who to follow and their basic experience.
So consider the worst-case scenario envisaged by critics: Musk removes content moderation and doesn’t cast bad actors, and the general discourse on Twitter escalates. Even the most objectionable groups’ posts would tend to be siloed, aimed at the audience that has already signed up to them.
That said, if there are fewer content moderators, bullying and harassment could be an even bigger problem than it is on the platform right now. Musk’s decision on this may ultimately be a business decision, not a political one. If people think the platform is just awful, users might just stop showing up, just like Facebook’s growth has slowed.
American politics was broken before the arrival of Twitter. Twitter did not fix the problem. And Musk, owner of Twitter, can’t break it much further.