Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter could be a disaster for the democratic world

In the United States, daily news reports of Twitter’s demise and potential demise can leave the impression that Elon Musk’s disastrous early days as the social media company’s owner are largely American tales.

One day, the headlines will be dominated by Musk asking his Twitter followers whether former US President Donald Trump can return to the platform. Given Musk’s politics, it’s not surprising that he was. Another day, the public learns that Marjorie Taylor Green, one of the most radical representatives of Trump’s Make America Great Again movement in Congress, has been re-authorized access to Twitter. And at almost the same moment, Canadian psychologist and media personality Jordan Peterson, a longtime provocateur in the United States’ culture wars and notable opponent of protecting the rights of transgender and non-binary people, was welcomed back to Twitter.

Awaiting widespread criticism, Musk, who often appears as a cheerful youth and exhibitionist, tweeted“Hopefully all courtroom monitors remain on other platforms – please, I beg of you.”

In the United States, daily news reports of Twitter’s demise and potential demise can leave the impression that Elon Musk’s disastrous early days as the social media company’s owner are largely American tales.

One day, the headlines will be dominated by Musk asking his Twitter followers whether former US President Donald Trump can return to the platform. Given Musk’s politics, it’s not surprising that he was. Another day, the public learns that Marjorie Taylor Green, one of the most radical representatives of Trump’s Make America Great Again movement in Congress, has been re-authorized access to Twitter. And at almost the same moment, Canadian psychologist and media personality Jordan Peterson, a longtime provocateur in the United States’ culture wars and notable opponent of protecting the rights of transgender and non-binary people, was welcomed back to Twitter.

Awaiting widespread criticism, Musk, who often appears as a cheerful youth and exhibitionist, tweeted“Hopefully all courtroom monitors remain on other platforms – please, I beg of you.”

Some prominent US commentators have dismissed the events on Twitter. Marketing Professor and Podcast Host Scott Gallowayspeak on CBS News Face the nation on Sunday said the platform was “not a national treasure”. But there are many reasons to mourn the ongoing spectacle. For all its shortcomings, Twitter has been a powerful player in the democratization of information over the past generation.

Depending on your age, it can be all too easy to ignore or forget what the human information ecosystem looked like just a generation ago. When I started as a journalist in the early 1980s, the news in my country, the United States, was totally dominated by a small number of companies, starting with the so-called national newspapers like the New York Timesthe Wall Street Journaland the Washington Post. Most Americans got their news from the three national television networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC—which mostly took direct guidance from the major newspapers, so their reporting decisions could be guided by the Timesfront page.

During this period, the United States had a much more vibrant local information scene, with fierce competition among dailies even in medium-sized cities. Most of these have disappeared or been gutted from the internet. But for news from around the world, even financially strong local newspapers often relied heavily on the syndicated offerings of the big three national newspapers.

I have worked on all continents at one point or another in my career. And while it’s difficult to make a blanket statement about the news industry worldwide, the news diet for people in many – and perhaps most – countries at the time was much thinner than in the United States and often dominated by official government publications and broadcasters.

Social media in general, and perhaps Twitter in particular, helped destroy the old information system. Acting as what economists would call “multipliers,” they have greatly expanded the range of propositions we are all exposed to, as well as the reach of both smaller players in the information economy and individuals. Like almost everything that is so consistent, this was not without problems and disadvantages, which I will come to in a moment. First, however, more needs to be said about what destroyed Musk.

Others have commented on the destruction of all types of human networks and communities as Twitter is attacked from within. If any predictions about Twitter’s eventual demise aren’t entirely premature, it’s going to be immeasurably harder for me to do what I do. As a journalist with wide-ranging interests, that means staying up to date in all corners of Africa, in Northeast Asia, in academic history circles in the United States, in the publishing industry, and in many other fields. In addition to its reach, Twitter has allowed people like me to curate their sources by following people who are reliably interesting — and relatively reliable in the quality of the information they share.

In the past few days I’ve been experimenting with some of the new alternatives to Twitter, such as Post.News. But as promising as some of them may look, it will be difficult — if not impossible — to reconstruct some of what years of careful Twitter use have built for me and millions of others.

If these readers strike as relatively mundane considerations, there’s another way to think about the harm being done to Twitter that’s the opposite of narrow-minded, American, or otherwise. Galloway notwithstanding, the destruction of Twitter would be a geopolitical catastrophe not only for the United States but for the democratic world in general. With his superficial understanding of free speech, Musk seems to evade these missions.

As the world’s leading authoritarian society, China’s response on Twitter and other Western social media outlets is to only allow heavily monitored conversations on authorized (or at least not prohibited) topics on platforms like Weibo. Musk’s absolutism of free speech may seem like the opposite, but in fact it represents a relinquishment of responsibility and common sense in the name of his personal ideology.

It is true that Twitter has long allowed a certain amount of disinformation and fake news on its platform, and there has always been much clamor, falsehood and ugliness in some quarters. But the company has put a lot of energy into keeping things contained and enforcing standards. By allowing virtually anything to appear on Twitter — no matter how hurtful, untrue, irresponsible, or even hateful — by eviscerating the platform’s trust and security department, Musk is destroying free speech in the name of its salvation.

If things continue like this, we will find ourselves in a situation in which democratic countries have proved just as incapable as authoritarian countries of ensuring free communication and the exchange of information around the world.

That, rather than Musk’s superficial and sterile vision, would be the true defeat of free speech. And there is no one happier than his most powerful nemesis, the authoritarians. Listen carefully, you might hear them chuckle already.



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