This week I was reminded that the best way to sharpen an argument is to listen to people who strongly disagree with you. My piece calling Musk a new type of creator CEO, one poised to wrest power by owning a key communication channel, prompted a wave of response. Most if it boiled down to this: Haven’t powerful people long controlled the media, pushing it toward their own vested interests?
Oh, my, how I love this topic. Because the answer is obviously “Yes!” From the times of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer to the more recent era of Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, the biggest brands in media have long been owned by solo plutocrats.
Yet those who dismiss Musk’s takeover of Twitter as just a modern example of a rich mogul buying printing presses or television stations fall into a dangerous trap. They forget that the internet is unlike any communication technology that has come before it; they underestimate the power of the technology to scale and to control the public conversation.
First, let’s talk about size. Tech’s reach is far bigger than that of any traditional media outlet. Just to take one example, Twitter has some 229 million active users. The most popular cable news network in the U.S., Fox News, is in about 90 million homes—only a portion of which actually watch it.
And let’s not forget that tech platforms can scale exponentially through network effects while media companies can’t. The New York Times doesn’t get more valuable to its readers as more people read it. Twitter—along with Facebook, TikTok and others—do, because the additional users create more content. That’s the power of network effects. Twitter’s addressable market is far bigger than the audience of any one media company.
Plus, Twitter makes an impact in real time. Media companies certainly shape the course of history with their coverage and opinion—but not moment by moment. News networks have become reactive to the constant flood of ideas and pronouncements made on social media, not the other way around.
As Musk knows from running Tesla, stocks can rise and fall on the content of his tweets. Politicians can and do negotiate via social media. (Remember when we thought Trump was going to start a nuclear war with Iran over a tweet?) And thus the person setting the rules of engagement on social media can have near-instantaneous power over no shortage of things.
Why do you think there is so much debate about an edit button on Twitter? Because the stakes are so high. Can you imagine the same sort of drama over The New York Times’ copy editing desk making a subtle change to the paper’s correction policy? I cannot.
If a platform like Twitter wants to block an idea or opinion or author, it can do so almost completely, thanks to artificial intelligence and filtering technology. No, the moderation tools aren’t perfectly effective. But they can screen far more content than any human editor could ever review.
I am not arguing that traditional media isn’t powerful. But likening Musk’s control of Twitter to the impact of just another business tycoon trying to make their imprint on the world is naive. This is not the tech equivalent of Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post or Marc Benioff scooping up Time. And if we continue to see it that way, we’re going to be blinded by what comes next.
We have seen the power that individual decision-makers at social media companies can yield. We have seen how these companies have shaped elections, incited riots and genocides and enabled tyrants to spread misinformation. We have also seen these platforms used for good—for sharing important public health information, for giving marginalized people a voice.
And now, one man—with no shareholders and, I suspect, a very weak board of directors to rein him in—will have 100% control over a key outlet. That, to me, is unprecedented. So we must pay attention. And we should not rest easy simply because Musk has pledged his allegiance to “free speech.”
As Musk has made clear over the last few chaotic days, his purported lack of a partisan ideology is not so simple. I actually agree with him that Twitter has gone too far in moderating some speech. And I applaud him for tweeting that he hopes even his “worst critics” remain on Twitter because “that’s what free speech means.” (Phew, he’s not a dictator.)
But there is still an uncomfortable amount of gray area he’s going to have to contend with. Is bullying free speech? How about harassment? Or incitements to violence? Or revenge pornogrophy? And as he becomes Twitter’s soon-to-be sole owner with hardly any checks or balances on his power, I’m nervous that he alone gets to make the call on who speaks on the platform, what they get to say and who sees it. Already, he has shown no qualms about using the platform to push his own agenda, with little regard for employees at the company, whom he has criticized openly.
As randomly as the deal came together, we shouldn’t dismiss it as the shenanigans of yet another rich person. Those who do will yet again be missing the incredible power of technology and what it can do in the hands of the people who control it.