Economics/Class Relations

Why has Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter provoked such an intense reaction?

The Signal

Why has Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter provoked such an intense reaction? Gilad Edelman on free speech, content moderation, and the less obvious challenges of social media to public life.
Ashkar Dave
Ashkar Dave
The wealthiest man in the world has offered US$43 billion for Twitter, and it isn’t going over well. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has said that he wants to turn the social-media platform into a private company and an “inclusive arena for free speech.” At the TED conference in Vancouver last Thursday, Musk elaborated that “Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have … both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.” For all this, he’s incurred a massive backlash over the past week—not just from Twitter’s corporate board, which is working to prevent his takeover, but from many of America’s establishment journalists and progressive media voices. The Washington Post editorial board warned that Musk might backtrack on Twitter’s efforts to counter misinformation and harassment. Axios’ Felix Salmon claimed that Musk “used to be compared to Marvel’s Iron Man” and is now “increasingly behaving like a movie supervillain.” Jeff Jarvis, a prominent journalism professor at the City University of New York, even described the atmosphere on Twitter, on the day Musk spoke at TED, as being “like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany”—an analogy similar to one common on Twitter when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency in 2016. What’s at stake here?
Gilad Edelman is a senior writer for Wired, who covers technology, politics, and the law. Edelman sees Musk’s bid as drawing him further into an era-defining argument over how to balance free speech with responsible regulation of content online, now that social media has transformed political discourse in the U.S. and around the world. Conservatives who believe Twitter is censorious and biased against them will view Musk’s statements about free speech more favorably, while progressives who see content moderation as crucial to stopping the spread of harmful speech will be warier. Yet as Edelman sees it, the debate about Musk and his bid point to a more complicated reality: Twitter’s power to shape American democracy, which so many U.S. journalists and media figures worry about, comes largely from their own presence and influence on the site.
Graham Vyse: Musk is offering to buy Twitter for $43 billion—a lot of money, even for Elon Musk. How can we understand his motives?
Gilad Edelman: I want to be careful with that. When you look at his public behavior, it’s hard to distinguish between what’s serious and what’s trolling or otherwise seeking attention. He talks a lot about the importance of free speech on Twitter, and he’s suggested that the platform’s content-moderation policies are overly restrictive and unfairly applied. While he doesn’t talk about this in partisan terms, his complaints sound a lot like the complaints that conservatives make—about Twitter being biased against them in the application of its rules. We don’t have much specific information about how Musk thinks those rules and their application ought to change, but in an interview last week at the TED conference he said social-media platforms have to follow the law. He seemed to be saying that, if Twitter were under his control, the platform would allow everything that’s legal.
That’s not a serious position to take, because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows things like overtly racist speech, graphic pornography, and advocacy of violence—as long as it’s not an incitement to violence. These things are all perfectly legal, but the vast majority of people don’t want to see them on a social-media platform. Most people aren’t saying, “Why aren’t I allowed to call for genocide against the Jews on YouTube?” Simply allowing everything that’s legal to exist on Twitter isn’t just a silly perspective on free speech online; it would also be a terrible business strategy. If that’s what Musk is advocating, then, perhaps ironically, it could give Twitter some grounds for rejecting his bid, because it could make the company less valuable.
Vyse: What do Twitter’s current content-moderation policies look like, and how sustainable are they?
Edelman: Well, Twitter’s policies are far too broad and numerous for me to summarize. If you were to ask what people are angry about, we could identify a few things: Ahead of the 2020 election, both Twitter and Facebook took drastic action to prevent the spread of a New York Post story about the Hunter Biden’s laptop. Twitter locked the accounts of people who shared that story, including The New York Post’s account. The stated rationale for doing this didn’t hold up to scrutiny. To conservatives, this was proof that social-media platforms were biased against them and in the tank for Joe Biden, though the platforms quickly reversed course and said they’d made a mistake.
Then there’s what happened after the pandemic began, when social-media platforms suddenly became much more willing to do something they’d long resisted—ban certain kinds of material simply because it was false. They’d been very wary of intervening on questions of truth and falsity, but in the context of the pandemic—when truth and falsity seemed like matters of life and death—they started being open to that. They also implemented policies to address election misinformation, and the enforcement of those rules prompted more concern among conservatives about bias.
More from Gilad Edelman at The Signal:
A lot of progressives who are very plugged into the news and to Twitter have had overwrought reactions to almost anything Musk says. For progressive elites, at least, Musk seems to be coded as a right-wing figure—even as he runs an electric car company and builds solar panels. There’s a disjunction been most of what Musk does and how his statements rub progressives the wrong way, making them suspicious of him to a degree that can be over the top. Then there’s collective anxiety about right-wing misinformation. Posts online have somehow taken on the same risk profile as Covid-19 particles, and people can get a little hysterical about the prospect of less content moderation. These concerns aren’t trivial, but we need to keep risks in perspective.”
The reason Twitter looms so large in American politics is that journalists pay way too much attention to it and care way too much about what’s being said on the platform. Twitter is a relatively small company by the standards of “Big Tech,” and it’s not super profitable, yet journalists have bestowed on it this incredible agenda-setting power, to the extent that Elon Musk has a point when he describes it as the public square.”
If you want to be involved in political debates, it’s important to be on Twitter. It’s where people go to argue, to set the agenda, and even to establish the terms of the debates themselves. Imagine if a huge percentage of American journalists, politicians, and think-tank scholars all hung out at the same restaurant every day—the same Dave & Buster’s. If you were someone trying to affect public policy—an advocate or activist—you’d go to that Dave & Buster’s. Twitter is that Dave & Buster’s, online.”

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