Elon Musk finally completed his clumsy off-again on-again purchase of Twitter, amidst screaming headlines that have thrown the media world into a tizzy. He paid a whopping $44 billion for it, making it worth more than the New York Times, Fox News, CBS, NBC and CNN. The overextended owner of four other companies, Musk wasted no time in generating buzz and even scandal. He turned Twitter back into a private company, fired all of the executive team and board members, leaving himself as the sole existing board member. That included axing Twitter’s Head of Trust and Safety, the person responsible for dealing with rampant misinformation on the platform.
Then, just to make sure that everyone is super-duper clear that there is a new sheriff in town playing by “Elon’s rules,” he used his new personal media company to spread to his 100 million followers a bizarre, anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory about the attack on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s elderly husband Paul Pelosi, that had been published by a fringe website that is well known for trafficking in sensationalized hysteria.
No worries, now Musk knows with 100% certainty that he cannot be banned from Twitter, no matter how inane or reckless his tweets.
Reactions about his ownership of Twitter have ranged from people condemning Musk as a juvenile enfant terrible who is unfit to manage this influential platform, to others such as one New York Times columnist looking forward to how Musk might ‘improve’ the free speech snakepit of Twitter.
In my estimation, this does not end well either for Twitter – which has already lost a third of its stock value since Musk made his bid to buy the company – or for our already badly-damaged democratic discourse. Indeed, I’m going to make the case that Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter constitutes a danger to democracy around the world.
The danger of digital media platforms
To fully grasp this danger, it’s necessary first to understand the precarious cliff onto which the Internet has backed us, while our Nero leaders fiddle away. In its early aboriginal years, the Internet was hailed as a liberating force capable of uniting people of goodwill all over the world to solve humanity’s common problems, and facilitating the freest flow of information that the world has ever known. This component initially fit nicely into our understanding of the requirements of a liberal democracy: liberal democracies require a number of well-functioning institutions, including free and fair elections, the rule of law, citizen participation and also a media ecosystem that allows participants to have access to the news, information and knowledge needed to make sense of their political world (the latter being what political scientist Henry Milner has called “civic literacy”).
But then the digital platforms developed their toxic business model – what has become known as “surveillance capitalism” – in which they grab all of our personal “engagement” data, and use that to broadcast, target and amplify whatever sensationalized content grabs our eyeballs, sells ads and inflates their revenue. Liberation, Silicon Valley-style, was co-opted by the relentless pursuits of billions in profits.
At this point, the digital media platforms have become dangerous disinformation cannons that allow bad actors to spew fake news, deep fake videos and manipulated information to global audiences with frightening speed and cost-efficiency. They have become the largest publishers of information in the history of the world, with Facebook/Meta (3 billion users), YouTube (2.5 billion users) and Twitter (400 million users) leading this digital revolution in communications and information-sharing, and newcomers like TikTok (1 billion users) and Instagram (1.5 billion) nipping at their heels.
For example, as we try to form a global consensus over climate change, it is alarming that a vast number of YouTube videos denies climate science. One study found that a mere 100 pieces of COVID pandemic misinformation on Facebook were shared 1.7 million times and had 117 million views—far more daily viewers than the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Fox News, ABC and CNN combined. The Global Disinformation Index found that Google provided advertising services to 86% of the sites carrying coronavirus conspiracies.
Twitter and the other digital media empires have been used for disinformation campaigns in over 70 countries to undermine elections, even helping elect a quasi-dictator in the Philippines. Science magazine reports that on Twitter fake news spreads six times faster than true news, and that tweets containing falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than truthful tweets.
The fact is, a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth gets out of bed. A small number of bad actors can spread a heckuva lot of dangerous disinformation.
But it gets worse.
Crazies of the world unite – using the Internet
Twitter and Facebook have turned out to be extremely effective tools for helping right-wing militias like the Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois to find each other, organize and strategize to commit terrible acts, including murder of police. New York University professor Joshua Tucker says that before the rise of social media, if you were the only person in your area who had extremist views about the overthrow of the U.S. government, organizing with like-minded but geographically dispersed compatriots would be costly and logistically difficult. Now, the use of digital media “drastically reduces these costs and allows such individuals to find each other more easily to organize and collaborate,” unconstrained by real-world geography. The violent anti-government movement has used hundreds of private Facebook Groups where followers have circulated links to manuals on bomb construction, kidnapping, making flash stun grenades, snipers, and murder. Some of these groups have had thousands of members.
At one point Twitter suspended more than 1.2 million accounts for sharing, or seeking to share, terrorism-related content. Other secret meet-ups on the internet can be found on platforms like, Parler, Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp, and chat rooms on 4chan and 8kun. Some of these are encrypted against unauthorized entry into private groups by either the government or the platforms themselves.
The 2013 case of the Boston Marathon bombers marked a frightening new reality: On digital platforms including Twitter, two Muslim brothers easily found sources of radicalization and an article by al-Qaeda titled, “How to Build a Bomb in Your Mom’s Kitchen,” which taught them to devise their bombs from pressure cookers filled with explosives. In the five years after the Boston bombing, the number of social media platforms disseminating terrorist propaganda increased tenfold. The mass murderer of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand livestreamed his carnage over Facebook, which then was seen on YouTube by millions; digital platforms were used to spread hate propaganda in Buddhist-dominant Myanmar that incited genocidal violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority.
The dream of free-flowing information and liberation from the Internet has turned into a nightmare. It has allowed a motley assortment of bad actors to find each other, organize and strategize to commit the most heinous acts. This is liberation?
Enter Elon Musk
When I want to chuckle rather than cry about this degrading state of affairs, and the kinds of cretins it has brought out of the woodwork, I say things like, “Yeah, it’s like stepping into the bar scene in Star Wars.” Now here comes another strange species of troll walking into the bar: Mr. Musk.
Certainly Musk’s past behaviors and brand of ‘cowboy capitalism’ give one pause over the thought of him controlling this gigantic global publisher of the digital age. Let us briefly recount just a few of Musk’s past bonehead moves.
Throughout the pandemic, Musk was a gushing firehose of Covid-19 disinformation, tweeting to his legion of followers dangerously erroneous health advice. Musk also ignored the Covid-19 concerns of workers in his Tesla factory in California, and defied state authorities by refusing to shut down his auto plant, calling state and local safety requirements ‘fascist.’ In late March 2020 he tweeted that there would probably be ‘close to zero new cases in US’ by the end of April; in actual fact, there were over a million cases and 50,000 deaths. Two months later, he reopened his Tesla factory in violation of the state’s lockdown order, and ordered his 10,000 employees back to work.
Last February, California officials filed a lawsuit against Tesla over alleged racial discrimination at its factory, following hundreds of complaints about vile treatment of black workers. The complaint alleges that Tesla segregated black workers into areas referred to as ‘the plantation’ and ‘the slave ship,’ and that they were given the most difficult jobs and denied equal promotion and pay opportunities.
Then Musk was charged with securities fraud by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for tweeting misleading info to manipulate Tesla’s stock price, which resulted in him stepping down temporarily as Tesla’s chairman, a $20 million fine, and oversight from an in-house lawyer over future public communications. Pre-Covid, factory workers accused his company of overwork, injuries caused by speed-up, sub-standard industry pay, and anti-union harassment. That resulted in the National Labor Relations Board ruling that Telsa had engaged in ‘unfair labor practices.’
This list of badboy tech-bro behaviors could go on and on. Throughout it all, probably no other figure except Trump has abused Twitter’s free-for-all platform more than Elon Musk. Musk and Trump seem to fancy themselves as ‘tweetstorm populists,’ each of them an anarchist Joker (Heath Ledger version) who delights in sowing chaos to capture the limelight.
Is this really the type of personality that the world needs taking over one of the most important platforms for political discourse?
A weak defense of Musk’s takeover
Some experts and pundits excuse Musk’s indiscretions and inanities because they allege that he is brilliant – the Thomas Edison of our age, albeit crosswired with a bit of PT Barnum and South African Boer. Yes, Musk is a puerile Joker, goes this logic, but his technological ingenuity might figure out something useful to do with Twitter. “He makes innovative products that work well, that delight customers and that are on balance probably good for the world,” said one columnist. “Isn’t that the best one can hope for from capitalism?”
Such apologists reveal their own cynicism and lack of vision over a positive role for digital media publishers. Both the US and EU are struggling to figure out the correct guardrails for this new digital communications infrastructure, which many people have ridiculously idealized as some kind of global free speech Agora. Indeed, Musk called Twitter a ‘digital town square’ in his statement announcing the acquisition.
But Twitter and its counterparts Facebook and YouTube are much more than that – they also are media publishers, the largest publishers and broadcasters in the history of the world. They have a lot more in common with the New York Times, Fox News and Rupert Murdoch than with an online wikiboard or free speech corner in London’s Hyde Park.
These digital publishing machines regularly engage in the types of speech constraints that only giant monopoly publishers can get away with. Following the Capitol ransacking, Twitter decided to discontinue ‘publishing’ the President of the United States. In response to Australia’s media advertising law, which required digital platforms to share the huge ad revenues earned by brazenly swiping traditional media outlets’ proprietary news content, Facebook pulled the plug on the entire country. In 2014, when Spain enacted legislation requiring Google to pay Spanish news outlets for the article snippets in its search results, Google bullied the government and closed its new service there.
Twitter and its fellow digital publishing machines have turned over crucial decisions to their ‘engagement’ algorithms about which content is featured at the top of users’ news feeds, and what is promoted and amplified. This is publishing by auto-pilot, in which algorithms perform the essential duties of an editor. Yet existing law doesn’t treat these companies like a publisher or broadcaster when it comes to liability or accountability over the constant onslaught of Crazytown disinformation gushing from their platforms. It should matter little that there is a supercomputer behind the curtain instead of a human.
Despite Musk’s entrepreneurial inventiveness, the Joker cannot be trusted with such a delicate balancing act presented by these publishing machines, with their unlimited ‘reach’ to billions of users and frictionless disinformation amplification. It turns out that human editors and curators, despite their obvious flaws, have some real advantages over algorithmic curation.
Yet Musk has indicated that he would prefer even fewer guardrails and controls over Twitter. Fasten your seat belt, the roller coaster is about to launch. I have a sinking feeling that this latest adventure in cowboy capitalism is not going to end well.