Like millions of people around the world, I’ve been following the debacle on Twitter closely since Elon Musk took over the company. Not only do I fear the loss of a space for free debate and access to information – especially valuable to those of us from not-so-free places. But as a political cartoonist, I’m also afraid of losing the platform on which I and many of my colleagues started our activism during the Arab Spring, which made Twitter what it is today.
Perhaps this turn of events was inevitable. For some time now, the tech industry has been cultivating cults of personality. It started with Steve Jobs and his carefully crafted image of an open, curious innovator who actually ran “one of the most tightly controlled businessesin the world. While Jobs stayed away from politics, the tech brethren who have come after him, pursuing iconic status, have not.
Their ardent quests to grow their fortunes and their egos have pushed them onto the political scene and exposed their selfish agendas. Musk made his political intentions for the takeover of Twitter pretty clear by tweeting a painting of Louis XIV, the “Sun King” in May, while the deal was still pending. A self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” crowned himself the new “enlightened” king of social media and declared that he will make Twitter “free.”
But as I watch him act and react over the past two months, I see him much less as a “Sun King ruling over a thriving kingdom, and much more as a petty modern dictator leading a crumbling regime.”
Like an ambitious usurper of power, he began his takeover of Twitter by talking about “democracy” and the “will of the people,” but made a mockery of it. He quickly transformed what he called “the digital town square” into his own backyard, where he rules.
Like a classic dictator, Musk has also shown no tolerance for dissent and criticism. He reportedly fired employees for daring to speak out against his decisions within the company or on social media.
Like a standard authoritarian, he detests the press and does not hesitate to censor it (although he presents himself as an advocate of free speech). He has mid-December accounts suspended from several journalists who had criticized him.
Like an aspiring autocrat, Musk tries to accumulate as much wealth as possible through ruthless exploitation. He has withdrawn benefits, forced employees to work endless hours, and even installed beds in Twitter’s headquarters to squeeze all living energy out of them for the benefit of his company.
And like a good tyrant, he has overseen an exodus of people from his domain, some left voluntarily, others forced into “exile”.
I do feel sorry for the former Twitter employees. I know all too well what it feels like to have to leave the place you love by the whim of a dictator. The man responsible for my and my family’s exile is Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in Sudan in 1989. massive brain drain out of the country.
In the three decades he ruled, he oversaw a bloody civil war, multiple ethnic strife, a genocide, a deadly famine, and an economic collapse. He brought the country to its knees and rightly won the hatred of the majority of the Sudanese population.
He pushed the people to their limits and was finally overthrown by a peaceful popular revolution in 2019.
Musk reminds me of al-Bashir. What the tech tycoon seems to have in common with the Sudanese dictator is that he remains in power just like him, despite growing anger and protest among the population.
Musk’s decisions since taking power have been extremely unpopular. Not only did he receive criticism from users, IT experts and business commentators, but he also received warnings from government officials, including Thierry Breton, the EU’s digital chief.
He also seems to dislike Twitter in a big way. In December, he performed at Dave Chappelle’s stand-up comedy show in San Francisco, where he was booed into silence. As videos of his unfortunate encounter with reality came online, Musk still claimed “it was 90% cheering and 10% angry” in a tweet he later deleted.
Musk seems so in denial about his unpopularity that he vowed to step down as CEO of Twitter if people voted for it in a Twitter poll. And they did. Some 57.5 percent said “yes” that he resign. But he didn’t.
It took him over 40 hours to acknowledge the result and when he did he said he would only resign if he found someone else to take the job. This is such an old dictator’s trick – pretending there is no one better for the job to stay in power indefinitely.
But what Musk doesn’t have in common with al-Bashir are regime loyalists — people who want to support him even as the ship sinks.
Musk derives his power from his wealth, but it depends on market forces that he cannot fully control. Major investors who have enabled his various tech ventures are far more fickle than regime loyalists. They would jump ship at the slightest sign of distress, which could cause them monetary losses.
This already happened with Twitter: many major brands stopped advertising on the platform, causing a sharp drop in advertising revenue. It could also happen to electric car company Tesla, Musk’s other big business venture, whose shares have fallen nearly 40 percent since late October, prompting major investors to openly criticize the CEO.
Musk seems to be making the same mistake as al-Bashir and other fallen dictators. He seems to underestimate the power of people.
Twitter, like other social media networks, is nothing without us, its users. In fact, it was the Arab Spring’s man-led uprisings that turned the then mundane microblogging site into the global platform it is today.
And just like during the Arab Spring – when people revolted against incompetent autocracy – popular resistance to Musk’s dictatorial whims is emerging. Former employees have filed multiple lawsuits against the company and have already won an early victory. Users have also revolted. Some argue that the best way to resist Musk’s policies is from within the platform; others leave and encourage others to move to competitor apps.
Musk tried to thwart the latter by imposing strict new rules for promoting or referencing other social media platforms. This quickly caused a backlash and the policy change had to be scrapped.
The end of Musk’s digital autocracy will come sooner or later. But his troubled reign should serve as a warning to other tech brethren aspiring to become tech dictators. The internet – and by extension social media – is a space built on people’s natural affinity for freedom. Any attempt to appropriate and control it is doomed to failure.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.