Elon Musk Versus the Regime
Musk effectively declared war on the established political order when he suggested wresting control of one of its main tools for maintaining and manufacturing consensus.
Had Elon Musk known that his bid to buy Twitter would go over as smoothly as trying to exorcise a demon, the billionaire might have brought a Bible and a crucifix. The saga began in early April when Musk emerged as one of the company’s largest shareholders.
After scrapping his initial plan to join the board, Musk made a $43 billion offer for company. In a recent TED Talk, he said that “Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square,” and his “strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization. I don’t care about the economics at all.” Musk added that he is “obsessed with truth.” Twitter, in his view, has failed at this by overly censoring content.
The overwhelmingly hostile reaction to Musk’s plans from the bowls of mainstream media to Twitter’s top executive Parag Agrawal has been revealing. Truth, unsurprisingly, is not the company’s main concern, and the purpose of censorship is not mitigating “harm,” as Agrawal has claimed, but control.
At an all-hands on deck meeting to discuss Musk’s offer, Agrawal said Twitter had a culture of protecting users from harm and “no one man can change that,” two people who heard the remarks told the Wall Street Journal. Rich Greenfield, an analyst at the technology and communications research firm LightShed Partners, also told the Journal that Musk’s desire to reduce censorship would pose “a big problem.” Musk’s plan of loosening moderation would be “going in the wrong direction,” Greenfield said.
More control, then, over what people say and think and see is the “right direction.” As Agrawal’s comments and concerns also suggest, the trend has been to increase control over information under the banner of harm reduction. This drama has thus revealed what seems to be a paradox concerning private companies.
When Twitter kicked then-President Donald Trump off the platform, Washington Post columnist Max Boot gleefully defended the virtues of the “free market” from critics who thought the company went too far. That’s just how things work in the land of the free. “Indeed, the fact that Twitter banned the president of the United States shows that freedom of speech is very much alive in America,” he wrote.
However, when Musk made his move as a shareholder, Boot prophesied doom for democracy. “I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter,” Boot tweeted. “He seems to believe that on social media anything goes. For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less,” he added.
Whether something is simply a “private company” and subject to the whims of the market ultimately depends on who wants to open the box and what its contents signify to the regime. Another shareholder, Saudi Arabian investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, admitted as much when he rejected Musk’s offer as too low, supposedly “given [Twitter’s] growth prospects.” But what the prince really meant is that the platform is much more than a mere company—it is an instrument of power and control for a transnational elite. Indeed, Boot’s view, which aligns with the prince’s and is widespread among the chattering class, essentially describes and defends an oligarchy.
Looking at who already has control over the means of communication and thus control over the information that informs public debate, that wouldn’t be the most inaccurate term to use.
Mark Zuckerberg controls 12.8 percent of Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, which have a combined 3.6 billion monthly active users. Zuckerberg also spent $419 million ahead of the 2020 election to turn out likely Democratic voters, helping Joe Biden in key swing states, according to the New York Post.
In terms of newspapers, news networks, and movie studios, just six conglomerates own about 90 percent of U.S. media, most of which leans left politically. That becomes even clearer when looking at individual billionaire owners of major outlets.