European press publishers are braced for new changes in their Twitter usage and I don’t think it’s going to be positive for them. I have been in the publishing industry for most of my life. I’ve seen how US big tech has decimated European press and book publishers’ profit margins both due to monopolistic activity with the backing of the US government and simultaneously by the gross incompetence of European publishers and media moghuls themselves. At the lower end of those who suffered the most as a consequence of this development were content creators and journalists who experienced stagnant incomes. Having said that, even though I don’t have many sympathies with big European publishers, I would of course be on their side in a struggle against Elon Musk for many pragmatic reasons.
The EU provided some respite to the publishing industry with various legislative measures and curbed excesses of big tech in Europe with regard to tax evasion and breaches of data privacy. Lately, we have had the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market which provides many rights and guarantees for content creators, journalists, and even publishers. The current directive is a very watered-down version of what the EU initially proposed as its legislative process was marred by the influence of the lobby of big tech which had literally bought the support of several countries like Poland apart from convincing many politicians like the Greens and the Pirate Party to take their side. Google was one of the largest lobbies and donors in the campaign against the directive. At the same time that diplomats and technocrats like myself were drawing positions for EU Council meetings, Google representatives toured Europe in meetings with heads of states offering large-scale investments while also lobbying openly against the implementation of the directive.
Elon Musk doesn’t have the firepower of Google and in addition, he isn’t even liked in Europe, especially in the corridors of Brussels. Even the lifeless-looking Mark Zuckerberg could pull off a charm offensive in Brussels, although highly unlikely Musk could do something similar. Musk’s best bet to get strong allies in Europe by opening up factories in small Eastern European states although that may not necessarily buy him allies in larger countries like Germany and Poland where he has local European competitors there.
Having set the background, let me get to the point. Musk’s intentions for owning Twitter are ambiguous, yet openly political in nature in the sense that he wants to modify the rules of the political debate on Twitter. So far, we know that Musk will allow more racism, homophobia, and transphobia on Twitter by relaxing regulations on hate speech. This is not the subject I will make here which is being debated at length elsewhere, though I am very much in favor of current EU regulations which outlaw the use of speech to incite racial violence or violence on minorities – Twitter has no choice but to comply with them if it is to operate in Europe.
The issue that Musk may have with the EU concerns the EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market but this will be insofar as European publishers get their act together and put clear demands which are enforceable with the directive.
Musk has made it clear and repeatedly that he hates the traditional press, and prefers instead what he calls “citizen journalism”. I too have a dislike for traditional and big press publishers but not for the same reasons as Musk. Musk hates the press and trade unions because he has very little regard for civil and workers’ rights in general and lives with a worldview based on libertarian principles where lesser regulation is better. In principle, regulation should control excess and these excesses and limits are debatable within the political camp. Musk is obviously self-serving in his political views on regulation (such as when he told the SEC to “suck his dick”), and his hate for the press is also fueled by his irritation at being scuritnised over his financials, the lack of workers’ rights and unions in his companies and other issues such as outright racism and discrimination in the workplace f his companies. Musk is also being accused of sexual misconduct and harassment. Musk clearly doesn’t like the press speaking about his abuse and misconduct, so it is expected of him that he will prefer the version of “citizen journalism” which can naturally imply a plethora of propagandistic and religiously-devoted personalities on Twitter such as Russian paid-trolls and his fans, not to mention conspiracy theorists such as Tulsi Gabbard and Tucker Carlson.
Let’s make something clear. The press is not meant to be democratic in the sense that is meant to voice the opinion of the majority. The press is there to inform and provide knowledge and data, objectively at best and at worse, transparently biased. “Citizen journalism” as Musk knows it, has got nothing to do with the actual role of the press in society. So Musk’s interest to introduce a payment service for the blue checkmark should be considered in this context. Musk’s interests are not aligned with the press and the values of a democratic society which include a free press that serves as a check and balance against powerful governments and people like Musk himself. Stripping the press of its power would give Musk more room for his abuses and excesses. You can still like Musk and agree with me. This is a question of how far can a powerful man go to influence the structure and rules of society. We don’t have this discussion exclusively with Musk: the EU has constantly been pushing against the excesses of big tech in Europe.
So, the first thing that Musk is doing to turn over Twitter’s battered finances is by targeting content creators and asking them to pay for verification. He says, however, that in exchange for payment, content creators will be given additional features and privileges. Musk’s model is distinct from what we have today and is by its logic capitalising directly from the content creator. What we have now is social media companies capitalising on content creators indirectly. The economic relationship we have now is that the content creator uploads content on the social media service and the social media service capitalises on traffic through adverts. Musk will be setting a precedent whereas profit margins can be further pushed in favor of big tech against publishers and content creators by beginning to directly capitalise from them. By doing so Musk is also threatening an unwritten arrangement between the content creators and social media platforms on which EU legislation is based.
The EU Directive on the Digital Single Market goes even a step further. It regulates social media platforms which can be defined as information society services by EU legislation, by obliging them to pay royalties to press publishers when they use their content. This has prevented social media companies from aggregating information from press publishers and producing robot-generated news items for their users and hence keeping the status quo where copyright is respected under the aforementioned and fundamental economic relationship between creator and social media platform.
Now, it must be said that Twitter is a social media service that partly runs on the sharing of content produced by press publishers. If content creators will be paying Twitter to use its service and by using its service would be sharing content with press publishers, Musk is maximising Twitter’s profits from the use of content by press publishers. Musk will basically be extracting more value from press publishers. But what if he pushes them out? Doesn’t he hate them in the first place?
The idea that Twitter would be able to run without press publishers is absurd, to say the least. I am not denying the fact that independent journalists can be empowered by social media, as I am one of them. And it is also true that in many cases ordinary citizens can serve as a primary source by providing information on Twitter, but the importance and contribution of press publishers are undeniably huge and they can never be replaced by individuals like me who lack the resources to carry out in-depth investigations and research.
Here, I think there is a bargaining opportunity for European press publishers as they can invoke the DSM directive to bargain collectively with Twitter. But as it will probably happen once again, press publishers in Europe will not be able to form a coherent and strong position on an important economic arrangement that affects them. Adding insult to injury, for Musk, news services from China and Russia may very well be treated equally to independent media houses in Europe and the US, something which Twitter, under a different leadership had prevented doing. Big tech may very well and once again have its way and set the rules of the game.