By Robert Reich
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.
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 suspendedon 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”.
Elon now owns Twitter. Presumably, he’ll let Trump back on.
Musk is now accountable to no one — not even Twitter shareholders, because he’s taken the company private.
Elon 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 now given himself this sort of control over Twitter.
Elon 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 Elon’s private plane, Musk tried and failed to buy him off, before blocking him.
The Securities and Exchange Commission went after Elon after he tweeted that he had funding to take Tesla private, a clear violation of the law. Elon 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 Elon’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.
Elon 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, Elon now owns the platform.
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’s 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 is coming to be dominated by the richest and most powerful people on the globe, who aren’t accountable to anyone for anything — for facts, truth, science or the common good.
That’s Elon’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’s a brave new nightmare.