One of my earliest blog posts in Frankly Fukuyama was on Silvio Berlusconi and the Decline of Western Civilization, in which I suggested that Berlusconi had invented a form of politics that has been corrupting countries around the world ever since he entered politics in the 1990s. Berlusconi used his media ownership and surrounding celebrity to promote his political career, and used his political post as prime minister of Italy to protect his business interests.
The political value of media ownership was recognized by any number of oligarchs in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, who began purchasing these properties from foreign owners like Axel Springer. In the early 2000s the latter were trying to exit from the sector as legacy media began its long-term decline due to the rise of the internet. It didn’t matter to these oligarchs that newspapers and TV stations weren’t making money; they had a non-monetary value in helping their friends get elected and keeping politicians in their orbit. One of Ukraine’s chief problems before the Russian invasion was the fact that each of its main TV channels was owned by a different oligarch, who could protect their enterprises in that manner.
We now have our own oligarch, Elon Musk, who is moving into a similar role. His takeover of Twitter will (in theory, at least) allow him to use the platform to protect his business interests at Tesla and SpaceX, and also to promote whatever constitutes his political preferences. Recent months have revealed that he leans Republican and conservative, and has said he would allow Donald Trump back on Twitter in the interests of free speech. Recently, he has very unhelpfully waded into geopolitical issues like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s relationship with Taiwan.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
The kind of political influence that a large social media platform offers is different and more subtle than legacy media. Content moderation is largely invisible; Twitter would likely be used not to post glowing editorials praising Musk’s businesses, so much as steering conversations towards desired outcomes or suppressing negative views. Social media takedowns are very difficult to track. As many people have noted, Musk has huge economic interests in China and in other authoritarian countries, and could be subject to considerable pressure from them to go lightly on critical posts and comments.
Back in 2020 I led a Stanford Working Group on Platform Scale. In the white paper we produced, we argued that the real problem with the large social media platforms was not that they carried fake news or conspiracy theories per se: our First Amendment protects the right to free speech, even if that speech is false or toxic. The problem is their scale: the ability of Twitter, Facebook, Google, and now TikTok to vastly amplify certain voices and to silence others. In our report, we likened the large platforms to a loaded gun left on the table in front of us. We hoped that the person sitting opposite us would not pick up the gun and use it to shoot us, and up to now the people running the big platforms were at least trying to be responsible. But any rich individual could come along and pick up the gun.
That rich individual has now appeared, and is cradling the gun in his hands.
The existence of the loaded gun—that is, a large-scale social media platform—is why Twitter users moving to an alternative site like Mastodon in response to Musk’s takeover won’t work. No competitor reaches audiences remotely as large as Twitter’s, and none is likely to get to that scale anytime in the future. Back in October, the New York Times published a piece decrying “How Disinformation Splintered and Became More Intractable.” Apart from the fact that there was little empirical evidence adduced about how disinformation was actually more intractable, the article missed the point that Gab, Parler, Truth Social, and Telegram collectively don’t reach anywhere near the audiences that Twitter does. Donald Trump had 85 million followers on Twitter; today he has less than 5 million on Truth Social. What we should want is for the online information space to become more fragmented and competitive, in ways that accord with the fragmentation of views in the population as a whole. This takes power away from the large platforms and distributes it more democratically.
All of our current worry about the political impact of Musk’s takeover of Twitter may be completely academic, however. The challenges he faces in making his over-valued acquisition work are formidable, and even a great business genius may not be able to make the numbers add up. Advertisers and users have been fleeing the platform since Musk became CEO because of worries about the impact of his preferences on content moderation. My colleague at Stanford’s Internet Observatory, Alex Stamos, published a long Twitter thread on the challenges that Musk faces in trying to revise any of Twitter's content moderation rules.
Musk seems completely out of his depth in his understanding of the difficulties of what he claims he wants to do. He claims that he wants to promote free speech on the platform. But what happens when Egypt or India demands the takedown of certain content critical of their government? Will he defend free speech if it means getting kicked out of these countries? Any choices that he makes will potentially affect not just the profitability of Twitter but his other myriad business interests. Twitter has lost money each year for most of the past decade, and now is saddled with a billion dollars in annual debt payments as a result of the change in ownership. Will Musk be willing to subsidize Twitter from his other businesses, as the Eastern European oligarchs do? Or will he use it to support a more overtly political role for himself? That will end up being a pretty expensive hobby.
Ukraine is in the process of fixing its oligarch problem, by creating a legal category of oligarchs who receive special scrutiny of their business affairs. This has caused a number of them to seek to divest their media holdings. It would seem to me a reasonable rule for a democracy to use anti-trust laws to prohibit industrial corporations from owning large media properties and cross-subsidizing them, or to force large internet platforms to stay in their lane and not branch out into other sectors. Oligarchs have shown themselves toxic to democratic politics since the earliest days of Silvio Berlusconi.
So welcome to the global oligarch club, Elon!
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