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

In the US, daily reports of Twitter’s decline and possible demise can give the impression that Elon Musk’s disastrous early days as owner of the social media company are largely an American story.

One day, the headlines are dominated by Musk polling his Twitter followers to determine whether former US President Donald Trump should be allowed to return to the platform. It’s not surprising to him that, given Musk’s politics, he was. Another day, the public learns that Marjorie Taylor Green, one of the most radical exponents of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement in Congress, has been granted new access to Twitter. And at pretty much the same time, Canadian psychologist and media personality Jordan Peterson, a longtime provocateur in the US culture wars and known opponent of protecting the rights of transgender and non-binary people, was welcomed back to Twitter.

Anticipating widespread criticism, Musk, who often comes across as a gleeful teenager and exhibitionist, tweeted“I hope all the judging room monitors stay on other platforms – please, I’m begging you.”

In the US, daily reports of Twitter’s decline and possible demise can give the impression that Elon Musk’s disastrous early days as owner of the social media company are largely an American story.

One day, the headlines are dominated by Musk polling his Twitter followers to determine whether former US President Donald Trump should be allowed to return to the platform. It’s not surprising to him that, given Musk’s politics, he was. Another day, the public learns that Marjorie Taylor Green, one of the most radical exponents of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement in Congress, has been granted new access to Twitter. And at pretty much the same time, Canadian psychologist and media personality Jordan Peterson, a longtime provocateur in the US culture wars and known opponent of protecting the rights of transgender and non-binary people, was welcomed back to Twitter.

Anticipating widespread criticism, Musk, who often comes across as a gleeful teenager and exhibitionist, tweeted“I hope all the judging room monitors stay on other platforms – please, I’m begging you.”

Some prominent US commentators have dismissed what is happening on Twitter. Marketing professor and podcast host Scott Gallowayspeaking on CBS News Take on the nation on Sunday, he said the platform is “not a national treasure.” But there are plenty of reasons to mourn the ongoing show. For all its flaws, Twitter has been a powerful agent 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 was like just a generation ago. When I started as a journalist in the early 1980s, information in my country, the United States, was totally dominated by a small number of companies, starting with the so-called national newspapers such as 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 got their feed directly from the big newspapers, allowing their coverage decisions to be guided in particular by the Timeson the first page.

At that time, the United States had a much more vibrant local news scene, with stiff competition from newspapers even in medium-sized cities. Most of these have either disappeared or been gutted by the internet. But for world news, even financially strong local papers often relied heavily on the syndicated offerings of the big three national papers.

I have worked at one time or another in my career on every continent. And while it’s hard to make a blanket statement that covers the news industry globally, for people in many — and perhaps most — countries, the news diet at the time was much slimmer than in the U.S. and often dominated by official government publications and broadcasters.

Social media in general, and perhaps Twitter in particular, have helped destroy the old information system. Acting as what economists would call a “multiplier,” they have greatly expanded the range of offerings to which we are all exposed, as well as the reach of both small players in the information economy and individuals. Like nearly everything so consequential, this one didn’t come without its problems and inconveniences, which I’ll get to in a moment. First, though, more needs to be said about what Musk destroyed.

Others have commented on the destruction of all kinds of human networks and communities as Twitter takes a major blow from within. If predictions of Twitter’s ultimate demise aren’t entirely premature, I, for one, will find it immeasurably more difficult to do what I do. As a journalist with broad interests, this means staying abreast of information in every corner of Africa, Northeast Asia, academic history circles in the United States, the publishing industry, and many other industries. Beyond 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.

These days I’ve been experimenting with some of the new alternatives to Twitter, such as Post.News. But as promising as some of them seem, it will be difficult — or, more likely, impossible — to piece together some of what years of careful Twitter use has built for me and millions of others.

While these strike readers as relatively trivial considerations, there’s another way to think about the harm done to Twitter that’s the opposite of small-town, American, or whatever. Despite Galloway, the destruction of Twitter would be a geopolitical catastrophe not only for the United States but also for the democratic world at large. With his superficial understanding of free speech, this stake seems to escape Musk.

As the world’s leading authoritarian corporation, China’s response to Twitter and other Western social media has been to allow only strictly controlled conversations on permitted (or at least not prohibited) topics on platforms such as Weibo. Musk’s absolutism of free speech might appear to be the opposite, but, in reality, it represents an abdication of responsibility and common sense in the name of his personal ideology.

It’s true that Twitter has long allowed a certain level of disinformation and fake news on its platform, and that in some circles, there was always a lot of hollering, falsehood, and ugliness. But the company has spent considerable energy keeping things within bounds and enforcing standards. By allowing virtually anything to appear on Twitter, no matter how offensive, false, irresponsible, or even hateful, through the evisceration of the platform’s Trust and Safety unit, Musk is destroying free speech in the name of saving.

If things continue on this path, we will end up in a situation where democratic countries will have proven as incapable as authoritarian ones in providing unhindered communication and information sharing globally.

This, and not Musk’s superficial and sterile vision, would be the true defeat of free speech. And there is no one who would be happier than his most powerful sworn enemies, the authoritarians. He listens carefully and you could already hear them cackling.

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