How democracy could flourish if Elon Musk gets Twitter takeover right | Miraldi
When I exit my kitchen door every day to enter the garage, I can’t help but see the word Tesla, which is emblazoned on a white storage tank for the 20 solar panels I have on the roof of my Hudson Valley home. But it doesn’t make me think solar — these days I think Elon Musk, the Tesla founder and billionaire. Who doesn’t? It’s impossible to get away from the magnate entrepreneur.
He is the new John D. Rockefeller or Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos or Rupert Murdoch. Or maybe he is in a class of his own, (he is worth $270 billion — yes, billion) but I think a fairer comparison is to William Randolph Hearst, a legendary media mogul of an earlier era.
Hearst took his father’s money, earned in copper mining, and parlayed it into a string of newspapers, stretching from San Francisco to New York. He built the first media empire in America. And he earned tremendous political power.
Some of it he used for good, crusading for causes in cities where poverty and foul conditions ruled. But he had a larger aim — to be President of the United States. He came a whisper away from the Democratic Presidential nomination. When it became clear he wouldn’t be president, he became a kingpin maker, living out his days in the Hearst Castle overlooking the Pacific Ocean but imprinting his politics all over the nation.
He was the first media mogul to want an empire to gain political power. And now, multiple questions arise.
One: Is there any way to stop someone from using the power of their media — Hearst had newspapers, magazines, a movie studio — for partisan political purposes?
Second: Is that the goal of 50-year-old South African-born Elon Reeve Musk, world’s richest man?
If you read the First Amendment to the Constitution, “no law” is pretty clear — people can speak as loudly as they want in an as many areas as they want and we cannot block their messages. Monopoly is an exception, but that would only stop Musk from buying up all the media in New York City, for example.
Musk has just spent $44 billion to purchase Twitter, declaring: "Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
The digital town square. A good phrase. Twitter has certainly taken on that role — more than Facebook, for example, which is much less directed to public policy. On Facebook, you’ll see my dinner photos and grandkids. On Twitter you’ll find me and 217 million others sniping over political choices, from masking for COVID to stopping Putin.
Inane conspiracy theories — and some sane ones — are tweeted. Musk himself, in fact, has told his 80 million Twitter followers things that were false. Celebs have huge followings (why 117 million people follow Katy Perry I will never understand) and this “town square” is beyond anything the Framers ever envisioned. Donald Trump had 88.7 million followers before Twitter banned him for life in 2021 — mostly for his exhortation of violence.
Of course, Trump was not the only one booted by Twitter. Roger Stone, Alex Jones, Rihanna, Courtney Love, 70,000 Q-Anon followers — the list is very long. Some are obscure physicians who disagreed with government policy on vaccinations or medical treatment. The Great Gods of Twitterdom decided the truth. Booted!
And the next question is obvious: Whatever happened to free speech?
How can a constitution that does not permit the gagging of speakers — except for rare circumstances — allow such blatant censorship? Simple answer, which many do not like, and begs the issue of power and ownership: Twitter, like the New York Times or Fox News, is privately owned.
Government has no control over private media. Just as Gannett Newspapers can decide which letters it will print, so can social media. The government cannot control or regulate Twitter. There are ways perhaps to change that, but right now, Elon Musk has an incredibly powerful vehicle, especially if he wants, like Hearst, to become President — or a dictator, like Putin.
Musk has intimated he will take a fresh look at who has been banned and why. He will find it’s often arbitrary and offensive, albeit legal. The idea of free speech is to create a wide-open marketplace where ideas do battle. Truth will survive; false ideas or theories will fall apart under scrutiny.
I have asserted that many times… and friends who I respect tell me it’s pure poppycock! But the alternative is the government decides who speaks and what ideas are correct, like Putin in Russia. That’s more dangerous.
As for Musk, he should make his team develop reasonable rules for debate. A starting point is what the Supreme Court has said repeatedly: Speech that threatens the national security or incites violence won’t be tolerated. (That might settle the Trump matter.) The infamous Russian bots should be aggressively gone after; fake accounts should be rooted out. Twitter has the resources.
But the big question is still how to decide what is truth. Algorithmic moderation of content scares me. Real people need to make choices. But being transparent about how choices are made — as Musk has said he wants — is a starting point.
The press has faced this dilemma forever. When it became clear that cigarette smoking was bad for our health, journalism stopped repeating industry’s contention that it was safe and banned advertisements. Indisputable evidence now shows climate change is a threat to the planet and my grandchildren. We do not have to allow the deniers a platform. They are modern-day holocaust deniers.
Do the myths about a stolen Trump election belong on this banned list? Is it worth making a list of the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and blocking them? What if they talk about something besides the election?
The slope to fascism is very slippery. Filters also get rid of good stuff. Musk will discover that flying into space might have been easier — and safer — because in his earth journey democracy is at stake.
Twitter is a significant part of the digital town square — its 217 million followers dwarf the NY Times’ 5.5 million subscribers. It’s where democracy can flourish — or wither. And what Musk could do most of all is make his platform a reliable, predictable information gatekeeper. Maybe, Mr. Musk, you can take that profit you earned from my Tesla powerwall and turn Twitter into a serious newsgathering vehicle. Do some original reporting. Why just moderate the debate?
And make sure, when it gets personal, you steer clear. I am gonna whack you for not paying taxes and for flying into space while Rome burns. Take the higher ground: Respond and go away. And don’t let your murky political views determine who gets to speak.
Follow Hearst’s cue. In 1906, Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine was a fluffy publication with little political value and a big following. Hearst made it a first-class political voice, letting loose investigative reporters who prodded government into passing a constitutional amendment that allowed citizens to directly vote for U.S. Senators.
Mr. Hearst, a millionaire mogul, made a difference. Maybe we need to give Mr. Musk a chance. Make the tweet sing for democracy, Elon.
Rob Miraldi’s First Amendment writing has won numerous l awards. He taught journalism at the State University of New York for many years. Twitter @miral98 and email [email protected]