Elon Musk, the failed emperor of Twitter, may be stepping down from his lofty perch after issuing a user poll in December, asking whether he should remain head of the company. The poll came after yet another series of deranged abuses on the site – from the random suspension of the accounts of Musk-critical journalists on fabricated charge of doxxing Musk’s real-time whereabouts to an abrupt ban on promotional links to other social media platforms – which alienated even his previous supporters. It was scarcely surprising the vote landed firmly on “Leave.”
Much of the concern over Musk’s stewardship of Twitter had hinged on a fallacy: the starry-eyed belief that Twitter and allied social-media platforms are an inherently leveling force in public discourse. In lamentations for the old Twitter order, users were heard praising its ability to put ordinary people into contact with the powerful, rich and influential on a more-or-less level playing field of debate. Some roused the memory of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings – a foundation myth of sorts for the social-media-as-democracy gospel, even though old-fashioned union organizing played a much more prominent role in the protests, and the post – Arab Spring global order has not ripened into a summer of democratic self-rule.
“He fully wants to limit who has access to ideas.”
While the online exercise of democracy may come to unseat Musk himself, it’s decidedly not the case that the apps that monitor our identities as we trade jokes and pet videos have produced a surge in social democracy. The acute limits of a notionally democratic internet are already marked by Musk and the leadership caste he occupies in Silicon Valley.
Musk’s purchase of Twitter might find its closest analogue in Charles Foster Kane’s decision to build a Chicago opera house to showcase the decidedly equivocal vocal talents of his mistress, Susan Alexander – a vanity bid to launch himself into the role of culture arbiter based solely on an obscene accumulation of wealth. The difference, though, is that while Kane scandalized opera lovers, he also bestowed them with a civic monument. Musk has only further defiled public discourse – thanks to his stunt management and the truth-averse corps of right-wing agitprop users he’s gleefully ushered back onto the site – to show for his heroic labors.
Musk’s civic legacy, such as it is, will be a social media sphere even more prone than before to empower the grievance-driven right he has courted since coming into the ownership of Twitter. “He fully wants to limit who has access to the marketplace of ideas,” says Christoph Mergerson, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
“We’re talking about someone who has control over the world’s most influential, real-time global platform of communication. So when you close off access to speech, and when you disproportionately punish speech for arbitrary reasons, that’s a serious abuse. It’s a company whose operations have real-time consequences for democracy.”