Looking back on 2022, I expect Twitter’s acquisition will be seen as a turning point in political history. Until this, digital platforms were treated primarily as “tech” companies. Elon Musk recognized that Twitter is effectively a layer of government.
While Musk’s experience is not in this sort of governance, he is probably a far more capable statesman than most in Silicon Valley. And unlike many there, he recognizes digital governance is more than an engineering problem, or even one of competent bureaucratic administration.
The recognition of digital as a domain of politics is not new: many heralded digital platforms as powerful tools to spread “democracy” and “openness” (eg around the Arab Spring). Yet this was a naive and techno-utopian view that barely deserves the title “statesmanship.”
Bitcoin is a stronger example: its purpose and appeal has been expressly political from the start—directly targeting a central source of concentrated power, and reflecting a rich tradition of political economy and critiques of the dominant regime. Yet Bitcoin remains early—promising, but still a marginal force in politics.
Musk’s acquisition of Twitter brings this to the fore: it is more akin to the conquest of a territory that already has great political importance. And for the first time, this territory is digital.
That a digital territory on which so much political activity occurs can be conquered like this, and policy expressly changed, in ways independent of policies set by other layers of government, highlights the importance of the digital as a distinct layer of government. Most important is Musk’s recognition that this policy is not the domain of bureaucrats—either government bureaucrats invited via regulation, or internal bureaucrats who share the same values—but of conscious political decisions. This is the essence of statesmanship.
Battles over the platforms that control this digital layer will be a significant component of statesmanship going forward. Twitter itself will remain an important one. Bitcoin will be another. Across the board, the political stakes of this domain are becoming clear.