The media is wrong about Elon Musk and Twitter: the problem is the oligarchy, not ‘free speech’
Tesla billionaire Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter rightly raised concern from critics, but legacy media coverage incorrectly framed his bid as a story about free speech. In reality, this is the latest iteration of the oligarchs’ quest to control the media: Jeff Bezos owns the washington post; Rupert Murdoch owns the Fox networks and several newspapers, and former President Donald Trump has also tried to get in the game (with less notable success) with Truth Social. In this context, Musk is unremarkable. He is only the most recent billionaire to wield his economic power by taking over a major communications platform.
Where a democracy sees the people using electoral politics – usually through their elected representatives – to exercise control over the nation, an oligarchy relies on a small group of wealthy people who wield disproportionate power. Nearly a decade ago, researchers at Princeton University noted that the United States was becoming more of an oligarchy and plutocracy and less of a democratic republic. The framers of the Constitution enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment as a means to achieve, promote, and protect a democratic process. By the 1980s, however, a handful of companies owned the majority of American news media. In their pursuit of profit maximization, corporate news media have abandoned their civic duty to inform and serve the electorate. Instead, it massively produces content that normalizes corporatism, celebrates the wealthy, and distracts and divides audiences from engaging in meaningful and productive dialogue about their nation and world affairs.
Musk claims free speech absolutism, not profit or power, drives his interest in buying Twitter. To be clear, freedom of speech is critically important, and the public would be well served if the news media investigated the complexities of big tech colluding with government to circumvent constitutional protections of freedom. of expression and the free press. But that’s not the approach taken by the corporate media. He has largely avoided any inquiry questioning Musk’s motives for seeking to buy Twitter, instead acting as stenographers for Musk’s claim that he is driven by free speech absolutism.
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Musk is emblematic of the Big Tech industry, which tends to coat destructive digital products with the veneer of progress. Take the costly lies that Elizabeth Holmes perpetuated as part of Theranos’ alleged efforts to make blood testing easier and more affordable. Specifically, the promises of Facebook (now Meta) and Twitter to build communities and strengthen democracies ring hollow when democracy is in jeopardy and nations are so divided that some, including the United States, fear a civil war looms on the horizon. For these reasons, corporate media should investigate rather than perpetuate Musk’s claim that free speech is his primary concern in his pursuit of the Twitter buyout. Even a cursory search of Musk’s recent past clearly shows his urge to censor and retaliate against those he believes have attacked him, and also to use his wealth and power to control or organize narratives with which he does not. don’t agree. So Musk is clearly not a free speech absolutist. He is a billionaire who wants to buy a platform that has become a public square.
This digital public square is already shaped by social media companies controlled by irresponsible billionaires who determine the limits of free speech on their platforms. Such content moderation has generally favored elite discourse. Indeed, since 2018, social media feeds have prioritized traditional media content over alternative voices. It helps explain why so many mainstream media scoff at Musk’s attempt to control Twitter as bad for him. democracy or Twitter speech: They want their billionaires to be the ones moderating the content.
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But rather than properly contextualizing Musk’s behavior in the history of Silicon Valley or the oligarchy, the mainstream media relies on trivial reporting on the cult of personality surrounding Musk. They focus on his extravagant lifestyle, ambitious inventions, and erratic behavior online. The media’s lack of substantive discourse on critical issues was ridiculed in the popular Netflix movie “Don’t Look Up,” in which meaningless reporting allows politicians to build on vapid talking points about the threat posed by a meteor heading towards Earth. A the video went viral in April 2022, which stitched together clips from the film with real news media clips from mainstream media discourses on climate change: the two were virtually indistinguishable. As the viral video shows, the public, whether well-informed or ill-informed to begin with, can depend on legacy media to leave them worse off than before.
Rather than contextualizing Musk and Twitter in the history of Silicon Valley capitalism, the media resorts to trivial reporting on his fame and cult of personality.
Critics say the news media’s lame coverage results from a combination of ruthless profiteering and ignorant journalists who often ignore the topics they cover. Not all journalists are ignorant, to be clear, but many recognize that legacy news outlets have long understood that cable news and online subscriber models require coverage that complements the public’s ideological biases while mocking their ideological opponents. Accordingly, CNN, MSNBC and The New York Times portray negative caricatures of Republicans and preach the choice of Democrats, while the opposite is true at Fox News, OAN and Breitbart.
Journalists, ignorant or not, recognize that the companies they work for prefer to report through the lens of Democrats over Republicans, blue to red. Indeed, whatever the issue – war, climate change, racism, Russia, vaccines or masks – the media reports on division, not consensus. So when it comes to Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter, reporters eschew in-depth discussions of democracy and oligarchy (which are seemingly antithetical when the discussion concerns Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia), and present it as a story about the reaction of Democrats and Republicans. to potential purchase. For example, Forbes and the Washington Post wondered if Musk would upset Democrats by allowing Trump to return to Twitter.
A responsible news outlet would investigate how Musk’s wealth threatens the viability of democracy by controlling a major private platform that is allegedly for public expression. Experts agree. The author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, Shoshanna Zuboff, argued that having Musk as the sole owner of a platform such as Twitter would be “inconsistent with democracy”. Indeed, Musk would be able to control public discourse in ways only George Orwell could have imagined: he would have the power to censor or remove any content that threatened his interests or brands, to determine community standards without input community reality. , to monitor user communications and to decide who has access to communication platforms and for what purpose. As long as the corporate news media controls the narrative, the public is likely to confuse Musk’s buyout with free speech absolutism, thereby missing the significance of the biggest threats to free speech that ‘it represents now, and even the viability of the free press itself.
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