By Matt Taibbi of the TK News Substack
Elon Musk has reportedly attempted to purchase Twitter, and I have no idea whether his influence on the company would be positive or not.
I do know, however, what other media figures think Musk’s influence on Twitter will be. They think it will be bad — very bad, bad! How none of them see what a self-own this is is beyond me. After spending the last six years practically turgid with joy as other unaccountable billionaires tweaked the speech landscape in their favor, they’re suddenly howling over the mere rumor that a less censorious fat cat might get to sit in one of the big chairs. O the inhumanity!
A few of the more prominent Musk critics are claiming merely to be upset at the prospect of wealthy individuals controlling speech. As more than one person has pointed out, this is a bizarre thing to be worrying about all of the sudden, since it’s been the absolute reality in America for a while.
as someone who isn't a fan of Elon Musk, I still find it darkly funny that billionaire-owned media is suddenly having a moral panic about a billionaire possibly buying Twitter— David Sirota (@davidsirota) April 14, 2022
Probably the funniest effort along those lines was this passage:
We need regulation… to prevent rich people from controlling our channels of communication.
That was Ellen Pao, former CEO of Reddit, railing against Musk in the pages of… the Washington Post! A newspaper owned by Jeff Bezos complaining about rich people controlling “channels of communication” just might be the never-released punchline of Monty Python’s classic “Funniest Joke in the World” skit.
Many detractors went the Pao route, suddenly getting religion about concentrated wealth having control over the public discourse. In a world that had not yet gone completely nuts, that is probably where the outrage campaign would have ended, since the oligarchical control issue could at least be a legitimate one, if printed in a newspaper not owned by Jeff Bezos.
However, they didn’t stop there. Media figures everywhere are openly complaining that they dislike the Musk move because they’re terrified he will censor people less. Bullet-headed neoconservative fussbudget Max Boot was among the most emphatic in expressing his fear of a less-censored world:
I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter. He seems to believe that on social media anything goes. For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.— Max Boot 🇺🇦 (@MaxBoot) April 14, 2022
In every newsroom I’ve ever been around, there’s always one sad hack who’s hated by other reporters but hangs on to a job because he whispers things to management and is good at writing pro-war editorials or fawning profiles of Ari Fleischer or Idi Amin or other such distasteful media tasks. Even that person would never have been willing to publicly say something as gross as, “For democracy to survive, it needs more censorship”! A professional journalist who opposed free speech was not long ago considered a logical impossibility, because the whole idea of a free press depended upon the absolute right to be an unpopular pain in the ass.
Things are different now, of course, because the bulk of journalists no longer see themselves as outsiders who challenge official pieties, but rather as people who live inside the rope-lines and defend those pieties. I’m guessing this latest news is arousing special horror because the current version of Twitter is the professional journalist’s idea of Utopia: a place where Donald Trump doesn’t exist, everyone with unorthodox thoughts is warning-labeled (“age-restricted” content seems to be a popular recent scam), and the Current Thing is constantly hyped to the moronic max. The site used to be fun, funny, and a great tool for exchanging information. Now it feels like what the world would be if the eight most vile people in Brooklyn were put in charge of all human life, a giant, hyper-pretentious Thought-Starbucks.
My blue-checked friends in media worked very hard to create this thriving intellectual paradise, so of course they’re devastated to imagine that a single rich person could even try to walk in and upend the project. Couldn’t Musk just leave Twitter in the hands of responsible, speech-protecting shareholders like Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal?
Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and his company Kingdom Holding, which have held big stakes in Twitter, dismissed Elon Musk’s offer to buy the social-media platform https://t.co/0snqiLPtlu— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) April 14, 2022
Interesting. Just two questions, if I may.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 14, 2022
How much of Twitter does the Kingdom own, directly & indirectly?
What are the Kingdom’s views on journalistic freedom of speech?
Even though it hasn’t happened yet, why wait to start comparing Musk’s Twitter takeover to the Fourth Reich? Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis of CUNY certainly thinks it isn’t too soon:
Today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany.— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) April 14, 2022
The most incredible reaction in my mind came not from a journalist per se, but former labor secretary Robert Reich. His Guardian piece, “Elon Musk’s vision for the internet is dangerous nonsense,” is a marvel of pretzel-logic, an example of what can happen to a smart person who thinks he’s in Plato’s cave when he’s actually up his own backside. The opening reads:
The Russian people know little about Putin’s war on Ukraine because Putin has blocked their access to the truth, substituting propaganda and lies.
Years ago, pundits assumed the internet would open a new era of democracy, giving everyone access to the truth. But dictators like Putin and demagogues like Trump have demonstrated how naive that assumption was.
Reich goes on to argue… well, he doesn’t actually argue, he just makes a series of statements that don’t logically follow one another, before dismounting into a remarkable conclusion:
Musk says he wants to “free” the internet. But what he really aims to do is make it even less accountable than it is now… dominated by the richest and most powerful people in the world, who wouldn’t be accountable to anyone for facts, truth, science or the common good.
That’s Musk’s dream. And Trump’s. And Putin’s. And the dream of every dictator, strongman, demagogue and modern-day robber baron on Earth. For the rest of us, it would be a brave new nightmare.
Reich starts by talking about how Vladimir Putin is cracking down using overt censorship, progresses to talking about how making the Internet less “accountable” is bad, then ends by saying Musk is like Putin, and Trump, and every evildoer on earth, again before Musk has even done anything at all. He may be trying to say that Musk could use algorithms to silently push reality in the direction he favors, but this is the exact opposite of Vladimir Putin passing laws outlawing certain kinds of speech. Any attempt to argue that dictators are also speech libertarians is automatically ridiculous.
More to the point, where has all this outrage about private control over speech been previously? I don’t remember people like Reich and Jarvis, or Parker Molloy, or Scott Dworkin, or Timothy O’Brien at Bloomberg (“Elon Musk’s Twitter Investment Could Be Bad News for Free Speech”), bemoaning the vast power over speech held by people like Sergei Brin, Larry Page, or even Jack Dorsey once upon a time. That’s because the Bluenoses in media and a handful of hand-wringers on the Hill successfully paper-trained all those other Silicon Valley heavyweights, convincing them to join on with their great speech-squelching project.
It’s become increasingly clear over the last six years that these people want it both ways. They don’t want to break up the surveillance capitalism model, or come up with a transparent, consistent, legalistic, fair framework for dealing with troublesome online speech. No, they actually want tech companies to remain giant black-box monopolies with opaque moderation systems, so they can direct the speech-policing power of those companies to desired political ends.
When someone like Reich says, “Billionaires like Musk have shown time and again they consider themselves above the law. And to a large extent, they are,” he’s talking about an authoritarian framework that already exists in the speech world, just with different billionaires at the helm. What’s got him cheesed off isn’t the concept of privatized civil liberties — we’re already there — but the idea that one particular billionaire might not be on board with the kinds of arbitrary corporate decisions Reich likes, like removing Trump (“necessary to protect American democracy,” he says).
When I first started to cover the content-moderation phenomenon back in 2018, I was repeatedly told by colleagues that I was worrying over trivialities, that there couldn’t possibly be any negative fallout to coordinated backroom deals to de-platform the likes of Alex Jones, or to the Senate demanding Facebook, Twitter, and Google start zapping more “Russian disinformation” accounts. Even when I pointed out that it wasn’t just right-wingers and Russians vanishing, but also Palestinian activists and police brutality sites and a growing number of small independent news outlets, most of my colleagues didn’t care. Because they were so sure they’d never be targeted, the credentialed media were mostly all for the most aggressive possible conception of “content moderation.”
It was beyond obvious that self-described progressives would eventually regret hounding people like Mark Zuckerberg to start getting into the editorial business, and that pushing Silicon Valley to take a bigger interest in controlling speech was flirting with disaster. Of course they would someday wake up to find these companies owned by people less sympathetic to their niche political snobbery, and be horrified, and wish they’d never urged virtually unregulated tech oligopolies to start meddling in the speech soup.
Now, here we are. To all those people who are flipping out and shuddering over the possibilities (CNBC: “If he owns the whole place…? The Orange man is probably going to be back!”), remember that you didn’t mind when other unaccountable tycoons started down this road. You cheered it on, in fact, and backlash from someone with different political opinions and real money was 100% predictable. This is the system you asked for. Buy the ticket, take the ride, you goofs!