Musk’s X affects public opinion, which, in turn, affects election results, which, in turn, can determine whether a country remains a democracy – which, in turn, affects you.
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This week marks the one-year anniversary of Elon Musk’s takeover of the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. And, in news-media retrospectives on his impact and legacy thus far, the focus has, rightly, been on the chaos he has introduced into the company — in contrast to the ways in which he promised to improve it, by giving it more transparency, fewer bots, allowing more free speech. In fact, he has done the opposite.
As noted in a previous column, he has allowed the spread of disinformation that, at least in the case of the conflict in the Middle East, may have cost lives, while feigning ignorance of having done anything wrong. And acting sometimes like an out-of-control child — as if it’s all a mischievous joke.
How does he get away with it?
One thing that stands in the way of people catching on to how Elon Musk uses X to disseminate disinformation is this bit of disinformation: the notion that Musk took over what was then called “Twitter” to oust nefarious government agents supposedly “controlling” it.
And it’s clear how the idea spread. Right-wing media have heavily and continuously promoted the line of Matt Taibbi, a major social media personality charged by Musk with “investigating” wrongdoing by his predecessors.
The basic thrust of Taibbi’s aggressively disseminated “revelations” was that retired former employees of government agencies like the CIA and FBI had been hired by pre-Musk Twitter and were essentially stifling free speech in some kind of government plot.
This line, based on a sinister interpretation of the so-called “Twitter Files,” has been carried forward by far-right platforms for more than a year.
In fact, when I published a column last week about Musk and disinformation, a reader posted comments repeating these GOP/MAGA talking points.
None of Musk’s actions — or the braying of a well-financed army of online partisans about protecting the public interest — is anything but another cynical move to advance their real agenda: taking power in America and rolling back the social and political advances of recent decades.
As someone who has often written critically about the historical role of the US intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies, both internationally and domestically, I take pride in my ability to distinguish nefarious from legitimate actions.
And it’s my conclusion that the deliberate spread of false information about important matters by anyone with a megabullhorn is a clear and present danger to our democracy. It’s that simple.
The concerted campaign to ruin many American reputations and institutions, and the enthusiastic role in this of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, China, and other anti-democratic adversaries, absolutely justifies — even compels — the introduction of entirely legal measures to counter it. (Those familiar measures have come to be known as “content moderation.”)
And when it comes to investigating and blocking propaganda harmful to our democracy, who would be better at it than those with law-enforcement or intelligence experience, under close supervision by the courts?
Since I don’t see, in principle, anything wrong with the US government insisting that powerful social media companies with unprecedentedly broad reach take action against false statements and other forms of disinformation, I don’t see what was wrong with Twitter, pre-Musk, taking vigorous steps, of its own accord, to keep its platform free of such counterfactual material.
Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Lie
The celebration of Musk as some kind of hero protecting the integrity of American institutions, free speech, and the like strikes me as, itself, disinformation of the most insidious kind.
The so-called Twitter Files have become a cause celebre for those who would like to elevate Musk to heroic status, and who see social media as one more arena for battling the machinations of a “Deep State” somehow allied with perceived criminals and degenerates on the left.
Yet Musk’s actions — together with the braying of a well-financed army of online partisans about protecting the public interest — are but another cynical move to advance their real agenda: taking power in America and rolling back the social and political advances of recent decades, going back as far as the New Deal.
The idea that the First Amendment’s protection of “free speech” is “absolute” appeals to minds that have trouble with nuanced thinking. If exercising a right poses an existential threat to other people’s exercise of their rights, some adjudication of such a conflict by an outside power — i.e., government suitably constrained by the law — is surely justified.
The new technology of social media, exponentially enhanced by profit-driven algorithms and more recently by AI, has the potential to overwhelm the free exchange of ideas necessary to a democratic society. How best to deal with this grave threat is a conundrum that can be debated by fair-minded adversaries — but not if the main channels for such debate have been mortally damaged by technological means undreamt of by the drafters of the Constitution.
Donald Trump’s own behavior and that of his fellow insurrectionists drunk on disinformation clearly do not upset Musk & Co. in the least.
But doing nothing when the CEO of today’s X actively transforms a major public marketplace of ideas into an instrument for spreading fake news, while suffocating genuine news of what’s really happening? Well, that could be fatal for the United States’ long-running experiment in democracy.