The most dangerous thing about Elon Musk buying Twitter outright for $44 billion is the rapidly spreading notion that his controlling an influential social media platform is dangerous. It is, but not for any of the reasons his critics assert.
The current furor is dangerously misguided for two reasons. First, it assumes that one billionaire owning Twitter is significantly more harmful than a bunch of them owning it. And second, it worries that Musk is committed to an anarchic version of free speech that will undermine the health of our societies.
This is the equivalent of staring resolutely at a single tree to avoid noticing the forest all around it. The fact that so many of us now do this routinely suggests how far we already are from a healthy society.
Money is power. The fact that our societies have allowed a small number of individuals to accumulate untold riches means we have also allowed them to gain untold power over us. Debates, like the current one about the future of Twitter, are now rarely about what is in the interests of wider society. Instead, they are about what is in the interests of billionaires, as well as the corporations and institutions that enrich and protect this tiny, pampered elite.
Musk, as the richest person alive, may have a marginally stronger hand than other billionaires to push things in his direction. But more significantly, all billionaires ultimately subscribe to the same ideological assumption that society benefits from having a class of the super-rich. They are all on Team Billionaire.
Some are more “philanthropic” than others, using the wealth they have plundered from the common good to buy themselves today’s equivalent of an indulgence – a ticket to heaven once sold by the Catholic Church for a princely sum. These “philanthropists” very publicly recycle their riches, while quietly claiming tax exemptions, to make it look as if they deserve their fortunes or as if the planet would be worse off without them.
And some billionaires are more committed to free speech than others, if only – as with the rest of us – by temperament. Certainly, it would be beneficial to have Twitter run using a transparent, open-source algorithm, as Musk says he wants, rather than the secretive algorithms increasingly preferred by the billionaires behind Google, Youtube, and Facebook.
But one thing the super-rich are not open to is the idea that billionaires should be a thing of the past, like slavery or the divine right of kings. Instead, they are all equally committed to their own ongoing power – and whatever planet-destroying economic model is required to sustain it.
And they are committed, too, to the idea that they should have much more power than the general population because they are supposedly the winners in a global meritocracy race. They believe they are better than the rest of us – that natural selection has selected them.
Musk appears more open than some billionaires to allowing the expression of a wide range of views on social media. After all, someone who believes he should face no consequences for vilifying a rescue worker as a “pedo guy” for having a better idea than himself about how to save children trapped in a cave probably prefers to see free speech defined as broadly as possible.
“Controversy” is Musk’s shtick, and being a “free speech absolutist” serves his aim of winning popular consent for his billionairedom in exactly the same way profiteering from vaccines does for Bill Gates. While they are busy raking in billions more at our expense, we are busy dividing into Team Musk or Team Gates. We cheer from the sidelines at our own irrelevance.
But one thing that Musk and Gates most assuredly agree on is that they and their ilk must never be swept into the dustbin of history. If we could ever harness Twitter to that end, we would quickly find out just how much of a “free speech absolutist” Musk really is.
‘King of trolls’
This brings us to the second misguided “row” about Musk buying Twitter and its 217 million users: that his supposed commitment to free speech will further tear apart the health of our democracies. Put bluntly; the fear is that allowing Donald Trump and his followers back into the Twitterverse will unleash the forces of darkness we have been struggling to keep at bay.
Environmentalist George Monbiot, a columnist at the liberal establishment newspaper The Guardian, calls Musk’s influence “lethal.”
His colleague Aditya Chakrabortty visibly quivers with anxiety at the prospect of a Twitter molded in Musk’s image, calling him the “king of trolls.” Democracy, Chakrabortty avers, must defend itself not only from the Trumps but from those who enable them through their “free speech absolutism.”
As is expected in such articles, Chakrabortty bolsters his argument with a statistic or two. For example, a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) finds that false stories on Twitter are 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth. Putting Musk in charge of this lie factory will bring civilization crashing down, we are warned.
Let us set aside for a moment how MIT defines truth and falsehood, and assume it is capable of divining such things correctly. Again the study’s logic is compelling only so long as we stare at a single tree and ignore the forest all around.
The reason billionaires and corporations – as well as states – want to control the media is precisely that a lie is more likely to fly than the truth. Our societies have been engineered on this principle since we divided into leaders and followers.
If truth reigned supreme, and media platforms could do little to sway us from seeing reality clearly, the richest people on the planet would not be investing their money in buying their own bit of real estate in the media landscape.
But then again, if we could all see reality clearly – unclouded by corporate media interference – there wouldn’t be any billionaires. We would have understood that their extreme wealth was too much of a threat to be allowed, that their fortunes could too easily be turned against us, buying our politicians and turning our democracies into increasingly hollow shells, stripped of the good things we intended.
If billionaires weren’t making fortunes from weapons sales, we surely wouldn’t be endlessly cheering on wars.
If billionaires didn’t demand the right to buy politicians, we might be more ready to address our dysfunctional political and media systems.
If billionaires weren’t profiting from the destruction of the natural world, we might be having a more realistic conversation about the impending extinction of our species.
Censorship as panacea
But, unable to maintain their attention on the structural deformations caused by the rule of the billionaires, left-liberals like Monbiot and Chakrabortty keep deflecting to the cause of censorship. They speak of unspecified “curbs” and approve of blocking “Russian news sources” as though this is the panacea for society’s ills.
The point they have obscured is that misinformation spread by Twitter users pales in comparison to the disinformation that constantly batters us from corporate news outlets, like The Guardian newspaper they work for. (Disinformation is misinformation with deception or manipulation as its intent.)
Disinformation such as making us believe that the West’s many illegal wars of aggression, like the one against Iraq, were defensive, or mistakes, or to promote democracy. Or that such illegal wars cannot be compared to the wars of aggression committed by “enemy” states.
Disinformation such as persuading us that we have Trump voting “deplorables” because of social media “fake news” rather than growing disenchantment with liberal political systems in thrall to billionaires – systems that serve the super-rich while imposing austerity on the rest of us.
Disinformation that for decades has allowed climate denial lobbies – secretly but handsomely funded by billionaires – to conceal from us the findings of the billionaires’ own scientists, which show we are hurtling towards a climate breakdown tipping point.
And the continuing disinformation that makes us believe the Green New Deals we have been offered are designed to save us, rather than the billionaires’ profits, from extinction.
Latest Darth Vader
But significantly, the reason Twitter users spread more trivial forms of misinformation is that, after a lifetime spent in the billionaires’ bubbles of disinformation, we struggle to anchor ourselves to reality.
Awash in corporate disinformation, we are credulous in the face of simple, easily digestible stories: ones that require us to cheer either for Team Musk or for Team Gates, Donald Trump or Joe Biden, the Rebel Alliance, or the latest Darth Vader. We cannot make sense of a world so corrupt, so divided, so harsh. Instead, we are drawn to simplistic narratives of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong.
And the most simplistic of all these narratives are the ones that undergird the sense of collective virtue of our society and our tribe.
If our wars are different from their wars, then the difference must be that Putin is a madman or a megalomaniac. And before we know it, we are starting to imagine that there is something inherently backward or bloodthirsty about the Russian psyche. The arms dealers – and behind them the billionaires – can once again lick their lips in delight.
Or if people are too stupid to see through a Trump, it must mean we need more censorship, more of those undefined “curbs.”
The unstated logic is that, if we can blank out some types of information, the “deplorables” who are susceptible to the wrong kind will gradually be won back to the status quo. Like victims of a cult, they can be deprogrammed through an absence of exposure. Deprived of a Trump, they will become standard-bearers for a Biden.
And if that fails … well, these same liberals will be cheering on whatever other forms of authoritarianism are needed to “curb” the threat.
But Monbiot and Chakrabortty’s veiled advocacy for censorship will not save our thread-bare democracies. It is exactly where the most powerful forces in our society want things heading: not towards a more pluralistic, open, and transparent media, but towards a more tightly controlled and policed one.
We know where this leads because we are already firmly on this path. Anyone not backing the flow of arms to Ukraine must have been influenced by Russian disinformation. Anyone critical of Big Pharma’s profiteering is colluding in vaccine hesitancy. Anyone supporting socialism and criticizing the wealthy elite must harbor antisemitic tendencies.
Footsoldiers for the rich
The debate has been polarized yet again into one in which we must pick one of two unappealing sides. Either a Twitter ruled by a shadowy cabal of billionaires limiting our exposure to information by manipulating the algorithms in secret, or one ruled by a single, outsize, fickle ego who promises a bigger information marketplace and a little more transparency – until he doesn’t.
Liberals, because they distrust the deplorables, want to stamp out the chaos of populism and ensure that nice, philanthropic billionaires like Gates decide what is best for us.
And conservatives, because they distrust liberals, want to let a maverick, more brashly self-aggrandizing billionaire like Musk decide what should be allowed.
Team Musk vs. Team Gates.
We are now deep in the trenches of an information war. Who should be allowed to speak? Whatever we might imagine, the victors will once again be the billionaires – until we stop recruiting ourselves to be their footsoldiers.
Feature photo | MintPress News