The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The hidden danger lurking behind Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover

Elon Musk. (Reuters/Beck Diefenbach)

As Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter edged toward reality this week, he suffered an uncharacteristic onset of humility. His version of social media will be a global force for good, he insisted, vowing that it will “help humanity, whom I love.” Unironically, Musk managed to declare that his magnanimity will help secure the “future of civilization.”

Musk’s takeover will certainly have international ramifications, if not yet interplanetary ones. But they may not be that sunny. The world’s richest man buying perhaps the world’s most influential political echo chamber is the latest sign of a development that international relations experts have long feared: With tech giants amassing stratospheric levels of influence over global affairs, they are morphing into a species of geopolitical actor, with uncertain long-term consequences.

Those experts have a term for this development: “Technopolarity.” The idea is that big tech companies have become their own sovereigns, on a par with nation-states. The result: an increasingly unchecked level of influence over international affairs that will demand a new kind of political response.

“It’s one of the most important issues playing out on the geopolitical stage,” Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, told me.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Beyond Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, troubling new details have emerged about his efforts to influence the Russia-Ukraine conflict through his proposal of a pro-Russia “peace plan” and his zig-zagging on internet access for Ukraine via his Starlink satellite network. All this illustrates the potential dark side of this brave new “technopolarity.”

Musk’s funding for Starlink access to Ukraine has been a boon to the Ukrainian resistance. But this week the New York Times reported that during Ukraine’s mid-September offensive recapturing territories invaded by Russia, Musk may have “geofenced” internet service, rendering it temporarily unavailable in certain areas.

That came after Musk confusingly threatened that Starlink might cease funding Ukraine’s internet access. Musk reversed course after an international outcry and after he entered into talks with the Pentagon.

Amid all this, Musk privately pushed his “peace plan” with political and business elites more urgently than previously known, the Times reports. The plan would cede seized Ukrainian lands to Russia, and was widely panned as an effort to weaken international support for the Ukrainian cause.

The point is not that Musk shouldn’t play any role in funding internet access for Ukraine. Rather, it’s that the situation illustrates how much influence Musk and figures like him wield over global events.

And that influence presents a new kind of challenge. The sovereignty that tech giants are carving out in international digital space is getting increasingly entangled in conflicts among sovereign nations.

Musk’s funding for Ukrainian internet access became problematic for him when it became clear Ukraine and Russia were in a protracted conflict. That’s partly because it concerned China, where Musk’s Tesla has major investments, Bremmer says, illustrating how Musk’s “geopolitical business models are in conflict with each other.”

This time Musk stuck with Ukraine. But problems like these aren’t going away.

The technopolar moment also creates problems for governments, which is illustrated by the U.S. need to negotiate with Musk to resolve the Starlink dust-up. Bremmer suggests this kind of public-private diplomacy will become the norm, as sovereign states negotiate with tech companies almost as if their CEOs are leaders of states themselves.

These diplomatic tools and pressures could include pressure to cut off funding (Musk’s companies enjoy a good deal of business with the U.S. government) and other carrots. “There is going to be a full range of diplomacy with technology companies that act as sovereigns in the security space,” Bremmer says.

Musk’s acquisition of Twitter underscores the situation. Musk has already fired the company’s top executives, showing he intends to transform it. He’s widely expected to relax content moderation. That, too, could have uncertain geopolitical consequences.

One possibility is that Twitter becomes more hospitable to disinformation and online influence operations. If so, Russian propaganda designed to distort perceptions of the war and weaken support for Ukraine — in the United States and abroad — could become more widely seen, says Mia Bloom, a professor of communication at Georgia State University.

“A Twitter that decreases content moderation and does not clamp down on disinformation and propaganda could advance Russian aims in Ukraine,” Bloom told me, noting that it could also aid other rising authoritarian movements.

If Twitter permits more violent content, Bloom says, it could whip up violence against ethnic and religious minorities around the world and facilitate other persecution, such as the campaign China is carrying out against the Uyghur Muslims.

There’s a genuine dilemma here: How do you curb deliberate propaganda and the direct incitement of mass political violence and human rights abuses without engaging in genuine censorship and the suppression of legitimate political speech?

Perhaps there’s a better way to get this balance right than the status quo, and perhaps Musk will prove it to us. But as Bloom notes, Musk’s firing of Twitter’s head of content moderation “doesn’t bode well.”

Musk’s track record in taking on humanity’s problems is mixed. But there’s no denying his contribution to mainstreaming electric vehicles as a core solution to the existential problem of climate change.

So perhaps Musk will force us all to eat our words once again by functioning mainly as a positive force in the Ukraine-Russia war and by demonstrating that a new Twitter really can help secure the future of civilization.

But it sure looks like we’ll face seriously messy complications along the way. How those get resolved may ultimately be left to politics — that is, to the rest of us.