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BusinessDay - Twitter: the modern town square is in trouble

What Francis of Assisi might be able to tell Elon Musk about owning it.

By Johan Steyn, 19 April 2022

It was early May and the sweet fragrance of spring was in the air. I navigated the bewildering traffic in Rome to start a two-hour drive to the town of Assisi in Umbria. I received an unsolicited upgrade from the car rental company and with the top down my Fiat 500 was flying down the SS3 highway.

My heart was racing as I noticed Monte Subasio in the distance, on its slopes the medieval aim of my pilgrimage. Legend has it that in the 12th century the spoiled young man Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, after suffering jail and an astonishing life change, confronted his father and the bishop in the local town square.

Surrounded by the townspeople and his family, he turned his back on the life of comfort he knew to become a hermit and sojourner. We know the beloved saint as Francis of Assisi. His life and influence are the stories of folklore. I have often pictured in my imagination that renowned day in the town square.

For centuries, the town square was an essential part of every city in the world. People met to exchange knowledge, discuss politics, and do commerce. They have waned in importance in recent decades as public perceptions of society and human interaction have shifted, in large part due to technological innovation.

Some call social media the new town square, the place where we learn about the world and exchange ideas. In 2013, a former CEO of Twitter, Dick Costolo, spoke about his company’s vision — then just seven years old — to become the “global town square”.

When right-wing protesters stormed the US Capitol and invaded the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, on January 6 2021, social media was a key method for rallying the demonstrators. For years, fringe ideologues have used the internet to propagate their extreme beliefs and conspiracy theories and amass large followings.

Even a former US president launched his own social media podium. “I created Truth Social ... to stand up to the tyranny of big tech.” Donald Trump, his ghastly and noisy trumpet removed by Twitter, aimed at spreading his election lies in what many see as a failed attempt.

Recently the richest man on earth decided to take over the world’s “de facto town square”. Elon Musk made his first public appearance since floating a more than $40bn buyout offer for Twitter hours before at the TED 2022 conference in Vancouver, Canada.

“A decent indicator of whether there is free speech is this: is it permissible for someone you dislike to speak something you dislike? And if that is the case, then we have the right to free expression,” he said.

When social media first became popular, the goal was that it would enable people to express themselves freely. Under this system, everyone would be treated the same, regardless of where they lived, what they looked like, or their background or status in society.

Instead, they have given repressive governments the authority to use them to limit speech and monitor their own citizens. We have witnessed a collapse in democratic institutions and a flood of false information.

I am a great fan of Musk but I am greatly concerned that the wealthiest person alive could become the owner of a force that shapes world opinion. The modern town square is in trouble.

• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals SA.


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