Elon Musk presents a unique threat to democracy — and neither the media nor federal regulators are prepared to deal with the challenges he poses.
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A year ago, The New York Times suggested that defining the politics of Elon Musk is “complicated.” At the time, that already seemed incredibly naive. In hindsight, it might have been willfully ignorant.
Musk is showing us every day what his politics are. They vacillate between hard right and libertarian, with the billionaire’s personal grievances sprinkled in for good measure. For an example, look no further than Musk’s decision to reinstate Alex Jones to Twitter.
What is complicated, however, is that heading into the 2024 election year, the system is ill-prepared to deal with somebody like Musk. And that is something far too few people realize at this point. His control of Twitter allows him to directly influence what kind of content people read.
Of course, Twitter is under no obligation to “be fair.” If Musk wants to highlight not only his own posts but also those of right-wing Twitter mainstays like Catturd or DC_Draino, he can — just as it’s his prerogative to change the platform’s name to something meaningless, i.e., “X.”
Now, you might say that’s bad for business, and technically, that is true… if you are in the business of making money. However, there’s no indication that Musk is trying to profit from his ownership of Twitter. He’s so rich that a few more billion dollars won’t make a difference in his life. But you can’t put a price tag on the unique position of being able to influence an election, and that is where things get really tricky.
What do you do with a businessman who is willing to lose billions of dollars if that is the cost of amplifying his own voice and that of like-minded people? Even though he laments the fact that advertisers are fleeing his platform, Musk has actually done very little to stop the bleeding. In fact, the opposite is true.
Take the reinstatement of Jones. You can hardly blame a diaper company for being reluctant to purchase Twitter ads if there is a chance that the advertisement will appear next to a tweet from a madman who pretends an elementary school shooting — that resulted in the deaths of 20 children between six and seven years old — was a hoax. It’s the perfect example of how, when his business and personal interests collide, Musk chooses his personal interests with little regard for the financial penalty. In addition, he clearly revels in the role of a right-wing hero and “free speech crusader.” For any narcissist, being the center of attention in this way is priceless.
Musk will almost certainly have a greater influence over the outcome of an election than any other individual in history.
Now, one might say that everything that applies to Twitter would also apply to Truth Social, but there are some key differences. Trump’s social media platform is a fringe site that was built specifically to make a narcissist happy. Twitter, on the other hand, was a hugely popular platform before another billionaire subverted it for his own purposes.
And as a federal regulator tasked with ensuring that elections are fair or with keeping unregulated money out of politics, what do you do with someone who is apparently willing to lose billions of dollars to satisfy an ego trip or to amplify certain political messages? This is clearly not a “contribution” in the traditional sense, so even a functional Federal Election Commission would be hard pressed to come up with an answer to that question.
The same is true on the technical side of things. What, for example, would be the value of an algorithm that is tweaked specifically with the goal of highlighting the message of one party while suppressing that of another?
Musk himself is up in arms over the perceived “censorship” of misinformation during the pandemic and leading up to the 2020 election. And these are questions worth exploring. Did the government go too far in silencing critics of certain policies adopted in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak?
What Musk fails to mention when he expresses outrage over this is that he has now put himself in a position that allows him personally, without any government interference or democratic oversight, to be the arbiter of what people can read on what is still one of the most popular social media platforms in the world. And as a regulator, how do you measure this kind of influence?
Musk is clearly not doing anything illegal. If he wants to light a few billion dollars on fire to become a kingmaker in 2024, there are no laws prohibiting him from doing so.
There certainly ought to be.
However, technology is moving so quickly, and regulators so sluggishly, that it will take years for anybody to come up with sensible rules that prevent the Musks of our time from circumventing the spirit of the law to legally meddle in elections. And while regulators are caught flat-footed, Musk will almost certainly have a greater influence over the outcome of an election than any other individual in history.
The crazy thing is that this has been unfolding so clearly under everyone’s noses without anybody raising an alarm. Many commentators are focusing on entirely the wrong thing. They are belittling Musk for losing heaps of money on Twitter. What none of them seems to be considering is that this is not about making money; it’s about subverting US democracy in plain sight.
The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Elon Musk caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY 2.0 DEED), costume (Dudley Council / Flickr – CC BY 2.0 DEED), present (Taryn Elliott / Pexels), present (Monstera Production / Pexels), present (Karolina Grabowska / Pexels), present (Laura James / Pexels), present (Monstera Production / Pexels), present (Lucie Liz / Pexels), present (Pixabay / Pexels), present (Boris Hamer / Pexels), and mountain (Juliette Kober / Pixabay).