As you undoubtedly have heard, Elon Musk – ever the rebel – has offered to buy the whole of Twitter for more than $43 billion. He says that the offer is final. No negotiation. If it is rejected, he will likely sell his 10% stake.
I’m personally excited about the prospect because so many of my friends have been canceled by the platform. I’ve seen the way this has affected their lives. Yes, they move on eventually but the platform has become poorer in their absence. The range of opinion is more narrow and the links to vital research materials more and more thin. Plus, many of us who remain are more careful than we should be: self-censoring.
Elon’s bid threatens this entire model, which is why right now shockwaves are shooting through the many powerful quarters. Twitter is already packed with legacy users clutching pearls and confessing how “frightened” they are.
Twitter is probably the most powerful communication tool on the planet Earth today, as instrumental in the election of Donald Trump as it was in driving the Covid narrative toward lockdowns and mandates. Its influence far outstrips its market capitalization.
As Revolver News puts it:
Twitter remains, by Elon’s own admission, the de facto public town square. Despite its severe censorship, it is still the only major digital public space where anonymous accounts can interact with celebrities, journalists and business titans (including Elon), where world leaders engage in spirited public diplomacy, and where dominant cultural and political narratives incubate and spread.
Therefore this is not just about one company or one buyout. It is about the future of information control in the US and the whole world. It is about whether the controls, takedowns, and censorships imposed over two years are going to be sustained or if we are going to trust the theory embedded in the First Amendment: truth stands the best hope of emerging when the right to speak is presumed to be an extension of human rights.
But It’s Private!
The practices we’ve seen emerged over several years at Twitter – and by extension also at Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, and many other companies owned and controlled by the top tech companies in the US – have gone far beyond these basics.
2) These platforms have coordinated with each other, not perfectly but in a way that is clearly discernible. If you get slammed by one venue, the risk of getting hit by others rises. Get your YouTube channel deleted and you start to feel the heat from Twitter and LinkedIn too. Same goes for Facebook. They are very clearly coordinating with each other. As great and wonderful as the alternatives are, the network is not nearly as large or influential.
3) Government officials have been public about demanding these controls from these private companies. Biden denounced Facebook for permitting some Covid dissent, and his spokesperson has done the same. The Surgeon General’s office in July 2021 put out a highly officious advisory that demands all sort of practices from the major platforms. This is so clearly a violation of the First Amendment that it seems crazy that the office is allowed to get away with it.
Hear Ye, Big Tech!
What did this Surgeon General advisory say? It demanded that all platforms:
“Make meaningful long-term investments to address misinformation, including product changes. Redesign recommendation algorithms to avoid amplifying misinformation, build in “frictions”— such as suggestions and warnings—to reduce the sharing of misinformation, and make it easier for users to report misinformation.”
“Give researchers access to useful data to properly analyze the spread and impact of misinformation. Researchers need data on what people see and hear, not just what they engage with, and what content is moderated (e.g., labeled, removed, downranked), including data on automated accounts that spread misinformation.”
“Prioritize early detection of misinformation “super-spreaders” and repeat offenders. Impose clear consequences for accounts that repeatedly violate platform policies.”
“Amplify communications from trusted messengers and subject matter experts. For example, work with health and medical professionals to reach target audiences. Direct users to a broader range of credible sources, including community organizations.”
With the advisory came a note from the Surgeon General:
“Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”
A “whole-of-society” effort! This is exactly the same language deployed by the World Health Organization when in February of 2020 it issued a document celebrating the way the Chinese Communist Party handled the coronavirus. The virus in this case is simply information which government has not approved.
In the United States, there are clear legal limits on the ability of governments to restrict free speech. How best for government officials to get around these limits and avoid court challenges? The answer seems rather clear: nudge private companies to do it for you. It’s a way of getting around the Bill of Rights, and it’s very clever. The framers of the US Constitution believed that the strictures written in parchment would protect freedom but after all these years, the administrative state has gradually come to discover this workaround.
Now, let’s say you own one of the platforms out there that is distributing information to the public by virtue of soliciting content from users. You read this advisory from the Surgeon General. What force of law does it have? It’s unclear. Who voted on this? No one. Who is going to enforce it and how? We really don’t know.
All we know is that the most powerful institution in society has demanded that you run your business precisely as it says. Are you free to ignore these exhortations and what happens to you if you do? Well, we don’t know this either.
Look what happened to Parler. It was adding millions of users in late 2020 as Twitter censorship intensified. It was becoming a viable competitor. Then the attacks started, including detailed articles in major media. Apple removed the app from its store. Then the web host company Amazon responded and simply blasted the company into the ether, just like that. Eventually, Parler regrouped but never recovered its previous momentum.
There are hundreds or thousands of such cases but one stands out to me: the cancellation of Russia Today, both the American version and the international one. There was so much programming on the American version, in particular, that was valuable, many thousands of shows over many years, not Kremlin propaganda but shows on philosophy, business, culture, and so much more. It was hugely valuable. Then one day, it was all blasted away, clearly as a reflection of US foreign policy priorities.
The Ministry of Truth
Just yesterday, I received an email from Google Ads that they would no longer accept any ads that seem not to take a pure US line on the Russia/Ukraine war. Is this a private company parading for truth and against misinformation? Or is this a private company that has given over the management of its information architecture to match government priorities? Wars are complicated with many layers of facts and arguments. Pushing only one settled view of good guys and bad guys is perhaps the way governments like it but it is inconsistent with everything we know about the history of nation-state relationships.
The Ministry of Truth effortlessly pivoted from one opinion on Covid to one opinion on Russia/Ukraine. It will continue this toward whatever the next thing is: perhaps what to do about inflation.
Here is the grave problem with the myriad people who are demanding a breakup of Big Tech. Who or what is going to break it up? Why should anyone assume that government, the very institution that has been the major source of the problem, is the right tool? Any effort by government to break up Big Tech is certainly going to be captured by the very companies that government seeks to control. Musk’s capitalistic means here are not only more consistent with the American way but also more workable in the end.
Last week, Peter Thiel denounced the “financial gerontocracy” that is rallying behind fiat currency and putting down cryptocurrency. He predicts that the young will overthrow the old in time. We could make the same observation about corporate rulers today. Too many among them have signed up to become sock puppets for the state and a “woke” cultural/social agenda. That has had a profound effect on American life and life all over the world.
Elon Musk’s exciting and dramatic move represents a bold attempt to overthrow the regime of control, propaganda, and enforced opinion as manufactured by the administrative state. It could be a sign of things to come. The upheaval of our times will eventually touch every institution based on the widespread perception that something has gone very wrong and cries out for a fix.