Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter means our health and sanity are coming down to one person, says digital surveillance expert Shoshana Zuboff

Elon Musk has been in the news for years, but nothing compares to the sensation he made in 2022 when he bought Twitter. A self-proclaimed free-speech absolutist, Musk took over the platform, promptly fired more than half the staff, introduced a paid verification feature that was quickly abused by fake accounts, and saw revenue from its top 30 advertisers plummet by roughly 42 % in the fourth quarter.

One digital surveillance expert thinks tech billionaires like Musk are out of control. And she points to him as an example of “information oligarchs”, along with others like Mark Zuckerberg, as a terrible symptom of the consolidation of corporate control, anathema to democracy and “fundamentally intolerable”.

“We have politicians, legislators, elected officials, and the entire citizenry focused on one person and asking the question, ‘What is he going to do?'” said Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, in an interview with Financial Times.

“Our political stability, our ability to know what is true and what is false, our health and to some extent our sanity are being tested daily depending on the decisions Mr. Musk decides to make,” she added.

Zuboff pointed to Musk’s decision to let Donald Trump back on the platform after he was barred following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Meta also recently allowed Trump to return to its platform. Zuboff also likened some of the major technology platforms to China’s surveillance system, claiming that “privacy has been destroyed.”

Meta created an independent supervisory board separate from CEO Zuckerberg to make decisions on complex issues. But Zuboff’s broader argument is that if policies for social media platforms are set by only the top few, that could be a real threat to democracy, and such platforms should fall under public law.

“With luck and determination, we will look back on the days of information oligarchs like Musk and Zuckerberg as the first primitive missteps of a new civilization,” Zuboff said.

Zuboff has written extensively about the role that big tech companies play in the US 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, explored how several tech companies made money by engaging with personal data. She also authored an article last November on how “capitalist surveillance giants,” or big tech companies, shape institutional order and discourse.

Tech companies that benefited from decades of cheap money have recently fallen on hard times as the Federal Reserve raised interest rates and as consumer patterns that defined the height of the COVID pandemic shifted. 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. Since then, Twitter has cut additional staff in recent months, bringing the number to nearly 5,500 employees.

Twitter and Zuboff did not immediately return calls Of fate request for comment.

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