Elon Musk’s vision for the internet is dangerous nonsense | Robert Reich
"The Russian people know little about Putin’s war on Ukraine because Putin has blocked their access to the truth, substituting propaganda and lies.
Years ago, pundits assumed the internet would open a new era of democracy, giving everyone access to the truth. But dictators like Putin and demagogues like Trump have demonstrated how naive that assumption was.
At least the US responded to Trump’s lies. Trump had 88 million Twitter followers before Twitter took him off its platform – just two days after the attack on the Capitol, which he provoked, in part, with his tweets. (Trump’s social media accounts were also suspended on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch and TikTok.)
These moves were necessary to protect American democracy. But Elon Musk – the richest man in the world, with 80 million Twitter followers – wasn’t pleased. Musk tweeted that US tech companies shouldn’t be acting “as the de facto arbiter of free speech”.
Musk continues to tell his 80 million followers all sorts of things. I disagree with many of his positions, but ever since I posted a tweet two years ago criticizing him for how he treated his Tesla workers he has blocked me – so I can’t view or post criticisms of his tweets to his followers.
Seems like an odd move for someone who describes himself as a “free speech absolutist”. Musk advocates free speech but in reality it’s just about power.
Power compelled Musk to buy $2.64bn of Twitter stock, making him the largest individual shareholder. Last week, Twitter announced that Musk would be joining Twitter’s board of directors, prompting Musk to promise “significant improvements” in the platform.
Sunday evening, though, it was announced that Musk would not be joining Twitter’s board. No reason was given but it’s probably part of a bargaining kabuki dance.
Musk wouldn’t have plopped down $2.64bn for nothing. If he is not on Twitter’s board, he’s not bound by a “standstill” agreement in which he pledged to buy no more than 14.9% of Twitter’s stock. Musk now faces no limit on how much of Twitter’s stock he can buy. He’ll buy as much as he needs to gain total control.
What “improvements” does Musk have in mind for Twitter? Will he use his clout over Twitter to prevent users with tens of millions of followers from blocking people who criticize them? I doubt it.
Will Musk use his clout to let Trump back on? I fear he will.
Musk has long advocated a libertarian vision of an “uncontrolled” internet. That vision is dangerous rubbish. There’s no such animal, and there never will be.
Someone has to decide on the algorithms in every platform – how they’re designed, how they evolve, what they reveal and what they hide. Musk has enough power and money to quietly give himself this sort of control over Twitter.
Musk talks about freedom of speech but his real power is freedom of reach – reaching 80 million Twitter followers without accountability to anyone (including critics like me) – and enough money to buy himself a seat on Twitter’s board.
Musk has never believed that power comes with responsibility. He’s been unperturbed when his tweets cause real suffering. During his long and storied history with Twitter he has threatened journalists and tweeted reckless things.
In March 2020 he tweeted that children were “essentially immune” to Covid. He has pushed cryptocurrencies that he’s invested in. When a college student started a Twitter account to track Musk’s private plane, Musk tried and failed to buy him off, before blocking him.
The Securities and Exchange Commission went after Musk after he tweeted that he had funding to take Tesla private, a clear violation of the law. Musk paid a fine and agreed to let lawyers vet future sensitive tweets, but he has tried to reverse this requirement.
He has also been openly contemptuous of the SEC, tweeting at one point that the “E” stands for “Elon’s”. (You can guess what the “S” and “C” stand for.) By the way, how does the SEC go after Musk’s ability to tweet now that he owns Twitter?
Billionaires like Musk have shown time and again they consider themselves above the law. And to a large extent, they are.
Musk has enough wealth that legal penalties are no more than slaps on his wrist, and enough power to control one of the most important ways the public now receives news. Think about it: after years of posting tweets that skirt the law, Musk was given a seat on Twitter’s board (and is probably now negotiating for even more clout).
Musk says he wants to “free” the internet. But what he really aims to do is make it even less accountable than it is now, when it’s often impossible to discover who is making the decisions about how algorithms are designed, who is filling social media with lies, who’s poisoning our minds with pseudo-science and propaganda, and who’s deciding which versions of events go viral and which stay under wraps.
Make no mistake: this is not about freedom. It’s about power.
In Musk’s vision of Twitter and the internet, he’d be the wizard behind the curtain – projecting on the world’s screen a fake image of a brave new world empowering everyone.
In reality, that world would be dominated by the richest and most powerful people in the world, who wouldn’t be accountable to anyone for facts, truth, science or the common good.
That’s Musk’s dream. And Trump’s. And Putin’s. And the dream of every dictator, strongman, demagogue and modern-day robber baron on Earth. For the rest of us, it would be a brave new nightmare.
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now. He is a Guardian US columnist. His newsletter is at robertreich.substack.com"