Saga of Elon Musk’s attempt to take over Twitter began, accordingly, on Twitter. At the end of March, Musk tweeted: “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public square, failure to uphold the principles of free speech fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?”
Now we know Musk’s answer. Shortly after his tweet, SEC filings revealed that he had quietly become Twitter’s largest shareholder. And on Wednesday, he sent a letter to the chairman of the board of directors of Twitter, in which he said: his intention to buy the company for about $43 billion and make it private. He wrote that his goal is to help Twitter realize its “potential to become a platform for free speech around the world.”
Musk has been vague about what free speech means to him, but his actions appear to have been linked to loosening Twitter’s content moderation policy. In a live interview at this year’s TED conference on Thursday, he basically confirmed those suspicions. When asked if Musk’s Twitter would ban any content, he replied: “I think it’s obvious that Twitter or any other forum is bound by the laws of the country in which they operate. Of course, Twitter will have to comply with them.”
If this is indeed Musk’s plan, then this is terrible news. The First Amendment allows all kinds of terrible speech that most people don’t want to see on their social feeds. Allowing any legal speech would mean opening Twitter to overt racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, advocacy of violence and worse. If this not in fact his intentions, his comments are still terrible news: meaning he spent almost zero time thinking seriously about free speech before trying to buy Twitter in the name of free speech.
However, Musk is on firmer ground when he calls Twitter a de facto public space. Not everyone thinks so. At least in my feed, this statement caused a lot of ridicule. Some people point out that Twitter is a private company, not a government, and therefore can do whatever it wants. Others have argued that Twitter can’t be a public platform because most of the public doesn’t even use it. Twitter is much smaller than other social platforms. It only has about 200 million daily active users worldwide and about 37 million in the USA. Compare that to the roughly 2 billion active Facebook and YouTube users and more than a billion TikTok users. Twitter doesn’t have the kind of quasi-state market power that the biggest tech giants have. Meta’s current market capitalization is around $575 billion, a sharp drop from last year when it made $1 trillion, but still out of reach for even the richest person in the world. TikTok’s parent company was valued at $250 billion. Next to these numbers, Twitter looks like a small potato.
And yet Musk stumbled upon something. The importance of a platform for democracy does not depend solely on its size or even popularity. Twitter may not be the biggest social network, but at least in the US, it is the most politically significant. (Internationally, this is probably less true. The US remains Twitter’s largest market.) Its relatively small user base is disproportionately made up of people who influence politics and culture. This is the place where journalists, politicians, scientists and other “elites” spend a lot of time. Here they learn the news and work out their doubles. After all, this is where Musk — the richest man in the world — chooses to express himself. If you want to influence public opinion, you don’t post on Facebook. You tweet.
Consider the case of Jennifer Sey, former chief executive of Levi’s who lost her job and her chance to become CEO because she refused to stop her outspoken advocacy for reopening public schools during the pandemic. I recently asked Sei why she didn’t just refrain from tweeting. She told me that, first of all, she didn’t just tweet. She organized rallies and wrote articles. She appeared on The Laura Ingram Show on Fox News to discuss her decision to move to Denver so her youngest child could enroll in a full-time school. But Twitter was a killer app.
“This is what allowed me to get an invitation to the mayor’s office,” she said of her tweets on the subject. “Twitter may not be the biggest social media platform, but that’s where journalists are, that’s where influencers connect with each other. So I was invited to talks that I thought could make a difference. And all because of Twitter. This doesn’t happen on Facebook. All this with Fox happened because of Twitter. I tweeted that we’re moving to Denver, I think Jake Tupper tweeted that and got picked up. This is not the case on other platforms.”
“Public Square” may not be exactly the right term for this, as legal scholar Mary Ann Franks puts it. written. But whatever you call it, it’s hard to deny that Twitter is the place to be if you want to be heard by the people in power. This means that access to Twitter has become an essential tool if you want to fully participate in democratic life – according to most, the reason the right to free speech is enshrined in the First Amendment.
This is extremely unhealthy. Treating Twitter as an indicator of public opinion leads politicians to unpopular positions popular with high-profile online activists, accelerating political polarization. And it distorts media organizations’ basic understanding of what people believe and care about. A comment that goes viral on Twitter can have tens of thousands of retweets. It looks like a lot, but it’s actually a tiny, unrepresentative sample of the population. (Also, some unknown proportion of these retweets likely came from bot accounts.) Even if the user base is more like society at large, Twitter is driven by an engagement-based algorithmic feed that rewards outrage, sensationalism, and virality, all of which. in the service. advertisements – this means that what you see there is not the product of some organic deliberative process. The same design features hack the brains of media and political elites, too often causing them to act like assholes in public in pursuit of attention and engagement.
Will any of this change if Musk’s hostile takeover succeeds? Probably no. During the TED interview, along with his proposal to allow any legal speech, Musk made the more reasonable argument that Twitter’s ranking algorithms and enforcement decisions should be public and transparent. His stated view is that, given the importance of Twitter, “Having a public platform that is as trusted as possible and widely inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.”
But perhaps the real problem is that Twitter is so powerful. Neither Twitter nor Musk is to blame here. We are journalists. The media obsession with Twitter gives it political prominence, because getting attention on Twitter is the shortcut to getting the attention of the press, which is what all politicians — and some eccentric billionaires — crave.
How did we get here? Over the past decade, virtually everyone in the media has felt like they should be on Twitter. It seemed important to promote the stories and reach the audience. Over the years, this has become an unhealthy addiction for some individual journalists (the culprits!) and the field as a whole. Reporters and editors often have the green light to spend time scrolling through social media during work hours, as you never know when something important will appear in the feed. Entire stories are based on trends seen on Twitter. A viral tweet is used as evidence of public opinion. Some newsrooms with limited resources rely on Twitter feeds as a cheaper and faster substitute for more in-depth reporting. And some of us mistake Twitter for journalistic influence, even though Twitter attracts far fewer readers to stories than Facebook or Google searches.
The good news is that there are some signs that the profession is approaching a moment of clarity. Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle argued that the way to fix what Twitter has done to public discourse is for “the big institutions in the world of media and think tanks to tell their employees to get the hell out of Twitter.” Recently, The newspaper “New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet issued a memorandum staff, telling them they don’t need to be on Twitter and encouraging them to spend less time on the platform. This is an important signal because unilaterally quitting social media is not an option for journalists below the totem pole.
The Twitter board may not accept Musk’s proposal. However, the fact that this is even possible is deeply disturbing. One person should not have so much power over the area. Fortunately, there is nothing inevitable about Twitter playing this role. Perhaps Musk’s takeover bid will prompt the media to rethink their reliance on a commercial social platform that doesn’t necessarily serve the public interest. If that happens, Musk will actually deliver on his promise to strengthen democracy — just not in the way he imagined.
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