We Are All to Blame for Elon Musk’s Acquisition of Twitter
The debate over Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is fierce because journalists and politicians depend on the platform to share their ideas and build their brands. Twitter is less than one-tenth the size of Facebook, and has been only intermittently profitable, which is a terrible result for one of Silicon Valley’s most brilliant product ideas.
Those who have framed Musk’s acquisition of Twitter as a disaster for democracy are not wrong, but they are eliding three important facts. The first is that internet platforms are undermining democracy in the United States since 2016, at most. Second, the politicians failed to fulfill their responsibility and demand reform of these platforms. Finally, journalism years ago embraced the “engagement” model of internet platforms, making the industry partially complicit in the harms.
If the deal goes through—and that still seems likely—Musk has promised to restore “free speech” to Twitter, which is code for reversing bans on users and reducing content moderation. Musk’s framing is ridiculous. Only the First Amendment applies to speech restrictions by the government. Companies have had the freedom to decide what rules they want on their websites. An even more serious complaint regarding internet platforms is that they have unclear rules and enforce them inconsistently.
The real issue with Twitter—and with Musk’s acquisition—relates to the business model. Twitter, like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, uses algorithms to increase user engagement. Content that provokes fear and outrage is the best content to maximize engagement. This content stimulates our fight and flight instincts.
Profiteering from the propagation of harmful content can have serious consequences. This gives the most extreme voices a disproportionate amount of political power. Bad actors can use it to silence other voices or harass others, even marginalized communities who rely on Twitter for their voice. Twitter is a powerful tool for journalism and politics that has enabled it to be a subversion of democracy, without ever being a commercial success. No wonder many of its biggest users refer to Twitter as a “hell site.”
Over the last five years, I’ve been trying to educate journalists, policy makers and the general public on the threats internet platforms present to public health and democracy. In my time as an activist we’ve witnessed greater harms such as ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, terrorism both in New Zealand and America, radicalization of millions to QAnon, insurrection and the weakening of U.S. responses to a pandemic. This was all possible because of internet platforms. There are many felonies that have attracted the attention of state attorneys general. Suicides and bullying among teens have increased. It is common for criminal and scam activities to be carried out.
In 2016, and 2017, very few understood the potential for widespread harm from Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. With the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018, journalists and policy makers began investigating the culture, business models and algorithms behind internet platforms. The results were not good, and the U.S. government didn’t take any steps to reform. It was impossible to bring about meaningful reform despite the Trump rebellion and COVID-19 misinformation. These were two of our greatest national security threats in over a century.
The Jan. 6 rebellion and the misinformation surrounding COVID-19 have caused enormous harm. One would expect a functioning democracy’s government to act to safeguard its citizens and to reform an industry that is clearly out of control. The internet platform’s harmful and often criminal behaviour has been shared by whistleblowers, which is why there are no excuses. But, the federal government is still incompetent in its efforts to protect others. It is not the president. Congress. It’s not Congress, the Federal Trade Commission or the Department of Justice. Voters haven’t argued that they don’t. Wall Street doesn’t care about the damage as long as stocks continue to rise.
Although journalists have been doing a lot to highlight the dangers that internet platforms pose, the journalist industry has overstepped its boundaries by embracing an internet culture of engagement and forgoing its role as a counterweight. Attention is sought in headlines, stories and other media. It is a pervasive trait to defer to power and wealth.
Democracies have been damaged by years of political failures, widespread disregard for catastrophic outcomes and a lack of awareness. The billionaire may be able to buy an ineffective company. The people should be held responsible for all of this. It has not been our desire that journalism and government work for us. Instead, we let the powerful coopt them.
This brings us to Twitter. Blame for Twitter’s failure to achieve greatness should be shared by the company’s executives and the board of directors. Twitter could have served as a stronghold for democracy. While the founding team was able to create a stunning product design and subsequently, their successors failed to develop a business model that could allow Twitter’s potential. Every one of these CEOs was selected by the board. Jack Dorsey was appointed to the position. The board didn’t require him to serve as a CEO full time. It is important to note that Twitter is being sold to Elon Musk who, in addition to his role as CEO at Tesla and Space-X and founder of two companies, is also the CEO.
Each Twitter CEO did the exact same thing expecting different results. The board watched and hoped that nobody would point them out. Now they are selling the company to Musk, who has given no indication that he recognizes Twitter’s role in democracy, much less has a plan to repair it.
Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is not a sure thing. Musk has violated one term in the agreement. disparaging a Twitter executive. Musk may make Twitter more dangerous if this deal is done. That could lead to the death of democracy. This will occur because of all the damage that has been done to Twitter, Facebook Instagram, Google YouTube and TikTok in the past six- or seven years. All of us share responsibility.
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