Elon Musk has been in the news for years, but nothing compares to the splash he made in 2022 when he bought Twitter. A self-proclaimed free-speech absolutist, Musk took over the platform, promptly fired more than half of its workers, introduced a paid verification feature which was quickly abused by fake accounts, and saw the revenue from its top 30 advertisers plunge an estimated 42% in the fourth quarter.
One digital surveillance expert thinks that tech billionaires like Musk have gotten out of hand. And she points to him as an example of “information oligarchs,” along with others like Mark Zuckerberg, as a terrible symptom of consolidation of corporate control, anathema to democracy, and “fundamentally intolerable.”
“We’ve got politicians, lawmakers, elected officials, as well as the entire citizenry, focused on one man and asking the question, ‘What will he do?’” said Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and professor emerita at Harvard Business School, in an interview with the Financial Times.
“Our political stability, our ability to know what’s true and what’s false, our health, and to some degree our sanity, is challenged on a daily basis depending on which decisions Mr. Musk decides to take,” she added.
Zuboff pointed to Musk’s decision to let Donald Trump back onto the platform after he was banned following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Meta also recently allowed Trump back onto its platform. And Zuboff also likened some of the Big Tech platforms to China’s surveillance system, arguing that “privacy has been extinguished.”
Meta has created an independent Oversight Board separate from CEO Zuckerberg to make decisions about complicated issues. But Zuboff’s broader argument is that if policies on social media platforms are determined only by the top few, it can be a real threat to democracy, and such platforms must fall under the remit of public law.
“With luck and determination we will look back on the days of the information oligarchs like Musk and Zuckerberg as the first primitive missteps of a new civilization,” Zuboff said.
Zuboff has written extensively about the part that Big Tech companies play in the U.S. and internationally when it comes to data security, surveillance, and the right to privacy in a democracy. Her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, published in 2019, explores how several tech companies minted money by engaging with private data. She also authored a paper last November about how “surveillance capitalist giants,” or Big Tech companies, are shaping institutional order and discourse.
Tech companies, which have benefited from decades of cheap money, have hit hard times recently as the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates, and as the consumer patterns that defined the height of the COVID pandemic change. Several companies have recently announced major layoffs, including Google and Microsoft. Twitter and Meta laid off 3,700 and 11,000 employees, respectively, last November. Twitter has since laid off additional staffers in recent months, and the tally comes to nearly 5,500 employees.
Twitter did not immediately return Fortune’s request for comment. Zuboff was not immediately available for additional comment.
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