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Governing Twitter via polls: Musk’s latest tech innovation

Elon Musk has played many roles in the 21st-century drama, but who would have expected that he would also try the role of a populist monarch?  

However, the billionaire entrepreneur’s attempts to innovate in the tech governance space will only succeed if he gives the past the due that it deserves.

Musk recently introduced a policymaking process at Twitter that is at odds with the bureaucratic and byzantine procedures of most tech corporations. He has made several decisions — including restoring accounts shut down both by the previous Twitter administration — through polls inserted in his tweets.  

He even played Caesar, the first de facto Roman emperor. When Caesar facetiously tried to resist the honor of becoming king, the crowds offered him the crown over and over again at one of the games in his honor. Similarly, Musk asked if he should step down as Twitter head, too. The digital crowds obliged him: 57.5 percent of 17 million voters said “yes.”  

He later tweeted, “Be careful what you wish, as you might get it,” while staying in power anyway. 

The atmosphere on Musk’s Twitter is more than metaphorically similar to an ancient Roman game. The site combines verbal gladiatorial fights, along with crude slapstick comedic interludes played at the Colosseum between matches.  

More importantly, Musk is seemingly trying to refresh the policymaking process at Twitter and by this, the tech world, in his unique way. For far too long, the tech corporate universe has been dominated by two basic governance models: the benevolent dictator, run by recognizable figureheads, and the black-box corporate-bureaucratic machine, operated by a select few in a way opaque to the public. 

In all honesty, as Aristotle said a long time ago, any government can only be one of these three kinds: of one, of a selected few — and of the many. What our digital leaders may not know, is that each type of Aristotelian governance can be good or bad:

  •  The rule of one can be tyrannical (think Mao, Stalin or Hitler) or legitimate (think the French and U.S. presidents or the King of England) 
  • The rule of the few could be abhorrent (consider classical Latin American oligarchic regimes) or meritorious (think the Republican Roman senate selected from those who performed commendable public service) 
  • Even the rule of the many can be a great (the Swiss or Athenian Democracy) or terrible (The French Republic of the Great Terror) idea 

Aristotle, however, taught us that an ideal political regime should combine the three types of governance in a way that maximizes the good aspects of each and minimizes the destructive facets of all. The United States government, with its imperial presidency, meritocratic judiciary and popular Congress, combines the three suitable forms of governance — and intentionally so.  

If Musk wants to invent a new type of technological governance, he should take heed from those who thought deeply and practiced the art of government long before him. His attempt to combine populist with voluntarist (monarchical) governance styles will only work if two conditions are met.  

First, he should understand that for Twitter to thrive and survive his eventual retirement or lack of interest, his role should be that of a constitutional monarch — bound by rules that he should be the first to obey.  

Second, the popular element of governance at Twitter should be representative. His current polls are large but hardly representative. At the latest count, Twitter has 250 million users, many living in nations other than the United States. The poll he ran regarding his role as head of Twitter garnered 17 million votes. Although some might say that if a typical national poll can predict public opinion with 1,000 respondents, Musk’s 17 million votes were more than representative. However, given the Twitter algorithm, one should wonder if these are not mostly Musk’s followers. It’s as if the president of the United States would ask the members of his or her party only if he or she is doing a good job.  

Finally, a future, balanced tech governance model should consider the advice of the “informed few,” individuals with practical and theoretical experience in policymaking, technology and business. They, however, should not be staff members, who may be influenced by the nature of their job, fear losing their employment or even be tempted to take liberties with their roles because believing the bureaucratic machine would vouch for their deeds. Twitter needs a Senate of wise experts that should advise and argue with the leader for a course of action or not. 

Of course, this balance-of-power model might be too much, too soon (or too late) for the tech world to adopt. However, no one, not even Musk, should dare think that they are innovators if they cannot at least consider the wisdom of the past. 

Sorin Matei, Ph.D., is the College of Liberal Arts associate dean of research and graduate education and a professor of communication at Purdue University, where he studies the relationship between information technology, group behavior and social structures in a variety of contexts. He is a senior research fellow at the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue.   

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