Media gets it wrong on Elon Musk and Twitter: The issue is oligarchy, not “free speech”

Tesla billionaire Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter has rightly drawn concern from critics, but legacy media coverage has inaccurately framed his bid as a story about free speech. In actuality, it is the latest iteration of oligarchs’ quest to control the news 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 just the most recent billionaire to flex his economic muscle by taking over a major communication platform. 

Where a democracy sees the people utilize electoral politics — typically through their elected representatives – to exert control over the nation, an oligarchy relies on a small group of wealthy people who wield disproportionate power. Almost a decade ago, researchers from Princeton University noted that the U.S. was becoming more of an oligarchy and plutocracy and less a democratic republic. The framers of the Constitution ensconced freedom of the press in the First Amendment as a way to achieve, promote and protect a democratic process. By the 1980s, however, a handful of corporations owned the majority of U.S. news media. In their pursuit of maximizing profit, corporate news media abandoned its civic duty to inform and serve the electorate. Instead, it overwhelmingly produces content that normalizes corporatism, celebrates the wealthy, and distracts and divides audiences from engaging in meaningful, productive dialogue about their nation and global affairs. 

Musk purports that free speech absolutism, not profit or power, is driving his interest in purchasing 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 how big-tech and the government collude to skirt the constitutional protections of free speech and the free press. But that’s not the approach that the corporate news media has taken. It has largely avoided any investigation that interrogates Musk’s motives for seeking to buy Twitter, instead acting as stenographers for Musk’s claim that he is motivated by free speech absolutism. 

RELATED: Elon Musk’s threat to take over Twitter: Trolls, not “cancel culture,” are wrecking discourse

Musk is emblematic of the Big Tech industry, which tends to shroud destructive digital products in the veneer of progress. Take the costly lies that Elizabeth Holmes perpetuated as part Theranos’ purported effort to make blood work easier and more affordable. Even more to the point, Facebook (now Meta) and Twitter’s promises to build communities and strengthen democracies ring hollow when democracy is in peril and nations are so divided that some, including the U.S., fear a civil war may be on the horizon. For these reasons, the corporate news media should investigate rather than perpetuate Musk’s claim that free speech is his driving concern in his pursuit of purchasing Twitter. Even a cursory search of Musk’s recent past clearly shows his urges to censor and retaliate against those he believes have attacked him, and also to wield his wealth and power to control or curate narratives with which he disagrees. So Musk is clearly no free speech absolutist. He’s a billionaire who wants to buy a platform that’s become akin to the public square. 

That digital public square is already shaped by social media companies controlled by unaccountable billionaires who make determinations about the limits of free speech on their platforms. Such content moderation has typically favored elite discourse. Indeed, since 2018, social media feeds have privileged content from legacy media over alternative voices. This helps explain why so many in legacy media deride Musk’s attempt to control Twitter as bad for democracy or Twitter discourse: They want their billionaires to be the ones moderating content.  

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But rather than properly contextualizing Musk’s behavior in the history of Silicon Valley or oligarchy, the legacy news media rely on trivial reporting about the cult of personality surrounding Musk. They focus on his extravagant lifestyle, his ambitious inventions and his erratic online behavior. The media’s lack of substantive discourse regarding crucial issues was lampooned in the popular Netflix film “Don’t Look Up,” in which vacuous news reporting allows politicians to rely on vapid talking points regarding the threat posed by a meteor heading toward Earth. A video went viral in April 2022 that spliced clips of the film with actual news media clips from legacy media discourses about climate change: The two were virtually indistinguishable. As the viral video demonstrates, audiences, whether they start out well or poorly informed, can depend on legacy media to leave them worse off than they were before

Rather than contextualizing Musk and Twitter in the history of Silicon Valley capitalism, the media resorts to trivial reporting on his celebrity and cult of personality.

Critics argue that lame news media coverage results from a combination of ruthless profiteers and clueless journalists who are often ignorant about the topics they cover. Not all journalists are clueless ,to be clear, but many recognize that the legacy news outlets long ago figured out that cable news and online subscriber models necessitate coverage that complements audiences’ ideological biases while mocking their ideological opponents. As a result, CNN, MSNBC and the New York Times portray negative caricatures of Republicans and preach to the choice of Democrats, while the opposite is true at Fox News, OAN and Breitbart

Journalists, whether clueless or not, recognize that the corporations they work for prefer reporting through the lens of Democrats versus Republicans, blue versus red. Indeed, regardless of the issue — war, climate change, racism, Russia, vaccines or masks — the news media reports on division, not consensus. So when it comes to Musk’s attempted purchase of Twitter, journalists shy away from deep discussions about democracy and oligarchy (which are apparently antithetical when the discussion concerns Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia), and frame it as a story about how Democrats and Republicans are reacting to the potential purchase. For example, both Forbes and the Washington Post mused about whether Musk will upset Democrats by allowing Trump back on Twitter.

A responsible news media 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, has argued that for Musk to be sole owner of a platform such as Twitter would be “incompatible with democracy.” Indeed, Musk would be able to control the public discourse in a way that 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 actual input from the community, to surveil user communications and to decide who has access to platforms of communication and for what purpose. As long as the corporate news media controls the narrative, audiences are likely to conflate Musk’s purchase with free speech absolutism, thereby missing the significance of the greater threats to expression he now poses, and even the viability of the free press itself. 

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