How a Billionaire Boys’ Club Came to Dominate the Public Square

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The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, last month attacked a publication owned by the world’s third-richest man, Jeff Bezos, for reprinting a column published by the world’s 13th-richest man, Mike Bloomberg. .

Bloomberg’s opinion piece, published by the Washington Post, questioned whether Musk’s recent investment in Twitter would endanger free speech. “Wapo always good for laughs”, Musk wrote in a tweet, with smiling and crying emoji.

The jab pointed to an unusual and consequential feature of the country’s new digital public square: technological change and the fortunes it has created have given a dying club of massively wealthy individuals the ability to play the role of arbiter, moderator and funder not only of the information that fuels the discourse of the nation but also the architecture that underpins it.

Musk’s Monday to buy twitter for $44 billion – a number slightly larger than the gross domestic product of Jordan – will enable him to follow through on his stated desire to ease restrictions on content that crosses the fourth-largest social media network in the United States. He joins Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg, #15 on the Forbes list of the richest in the worldwhich has autonomy over the algorithms and moderation policies of the three main social media platforms in the country: Facebook, Instagram and Facebook Messenger.

The news that circulates on these networks is increasingly produced by publications controlled by other billionaires and other wealthy dynasties, which have filled the void of the collapse of the for-profit journalism market with various combinations of self-interest and altruism. It’s a situation that has alarmed political pundits on both ends of the increasingly vicious ideological and partisan divides.

Twitter employees face a reality they’ve long feared: Elon Musk as owner

“It almost feels like a high school for billionaires,” Brookings researcher Darrell M. West said of the new information moguls. “The problem is that we are now very dependent on the personal whims of the wealthy, and there are very few checks and balances on them. They could lead us in a liberal, conservative, or libertarian direction, and there’s not much we can do about it.

Almost all of these leaders, including Musk, claim benevolent motives, and many, like Bezos who owns The Post, have established editorial independence firewalls that protect against their direct influence on stories like this. But the power to fund, train and hire leaders who decide what gets shared and what gets covered has nonetheless become the subject of its own political dispute. Proponents find themselves celebrating the autonomy of wealthy men whom they see as serving their interests, while simultaneously opposing the unchecked power of those who do not.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — who for months railed against the dangers of what he called “Silicon Valley overlords” censoring conservative news and opinion — called the purchase by Musk on Twitter this week “without exaggeration the most significant development for free speech in decades. Liberal activists and even some Twitter employeesmeanwhile, have responded with fears that more misinformation and hate speech, which are largely protected by federal law, will soon spread to greater volume in the nation’s intellectual blood.

“I don’t think that’s a great commentary on the state of affairs that we’re counting on a billionaire oligarch to save free speech online,” said Jon Schweppe, political director of the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank pushing for less. moderation of conservative views on social media. “It’s a shame we need a hero. But we do.

Musk hasn’t been specific about what he plans to do with Twitter, though he’s dropped a steady stream of clues, including his objection to “private censorship that goes far beyond the law. “. He suggested new monetization strategies and less reliance on advertising, while sharing memes that irreverently depict Twitter’s “leftist bias” and dismiss the views of “woke” progressives as extreme.

“The far left hates everyone, including itself!” he tweeted friday. “But I’m not a fan of the far right either. Let’s have less hate and more love.

Ironically, his decisions were endorsed by former Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey (#396 in the Forbes list) – one of the “lords” that Cruz attacked – who argued that freeing the company from expenses of a public company would allow it. to better serve the public good.

“Taking it back to Wall Street is the right first step,” he tweeted on Monday. “I trust [Musk’s] mission to expand the light of consciousness.

Why Elon Musk is so polarizing

Left-wing activists, who take a different view of moderating the public square, have scoffed at the idea that everyone – white men who dwell in limitless luxury bubbles, no less – should be able to filter out information for voters nationwide.

“Even if Elon Musk was the smartest person on earth, had the best heart, had been touched by God, I wouldn’t want him to have that much power,” said Robert McChesney, a professor at the University of ‘Illinois Urbana-Champaign. , which spoke out against the concentration of media ownership. “It’s contrary to democratic political theory.”

Meanwhile, other billionaires have branched out to fund broader swaths of the country’s democratic process, even moving beyond their outsized role as donors to political campaigns and organizations. Zuckerberg spent $419.5 million to fund election administrators in the 2020 election, sparking outrage from Republicans and cheers from Democrats. “I agree with those who say the government should have provided these funds, not private citizens,” Zuckerberg said in a statement at the time.

Many of his billionaire peers have increased their investments in journalism and pundits, in many cases aimed at shaping voters’ understanding of their place in the world. Laurene Powell Jobs (#111) bought a majority stake in Atlantic in 2017. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff (#309) bought Time magazine in 2018.

Others, like Microsoft founder Bill Gates (#4), have spent tens of millions of dollars through his foundation to directly fund journalism in outlets such as NPR that cover issues that matter to him. close to heart, such as health and the environment. Others have funded smaller publishing efforts, including wealthy Chinese exile Guo Wengui, who worked on media companies with Stephen K. Bannon, who was an adviser to President Donald Trump.

But these are just the most recent forays of the wealthy into mainstream media ownership. Rupert Murdoch (#85) made his first US purchase in 1976 when he bought the New York Post before launching Fox News and expanding into the Wall Street Journal, while Bloomberg established Bloomberg LP in 1981 .

Murdoch and Bloomberg have invested heavily in opinion journalism, through Fox News and Bloomberg Opinion, respectively. They are part of the tradition that emerged in the last century when wealthy families and descendants, such as William Randolph Hearst and the Sulzberger family, owners of the New York Times, came to dominate the largest fundraising organizations. information.

The role of social networks, which have largely replaced printed newspapers like how most Americans get their news, has complicated the issue, in part because so few networks are so dominant. A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 62% of Americans believe that social media companies have “too much control over the information people see.”

Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist who has studied misinformation and its effects on democracy, said social media allows Zuckerberg and Musk to have “greater influence on the flow of information than it has been. possible in human history.

The lack of transparency about how these platforms control information about them is of particular concern to Nyhan. Democrats and Republicans have recently expressed interest in increased antitrust enforcement, as well as new legal restrictions that condition social media immunity from civil lawsuits on their agreement to properly moderate the debate. There are, of course, deep divisions about what this moderation should look like.

In the European Union, lawmakers have pushed forward laws that force social media to suppress speech illegal in Europe which is generally protected by the US Constitution. The proposed laws also require algorithmic transparency and give consumers more control over how their own information is used.

“The best way to articulate this is this: A recalibration between these big tech companies and the oligarchs and the American people is warranted,” said Kara Frederick, director of technology policy at the Heritage Foundation, which criticized the European approach but supports more regulation in the United States. “We can take away immunity from technology companies if they censor political or other views protected by the constitution.”

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said the main challenge presented by individual control of social media and journalism is, at its core, a matter of scale.

“We’re talking about a small handful of people who now have extraordinary control over the boundaries of our speech,” Wizner said. “The importance for media and journalism is that there is a diverse ecosystem that represents the interests of many, not just a few.”

Of course, billionaires with an ax to grind don’t need media ownership to change the news landscape. PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel (#552), who has given millions to GOP candidates this cycle, bankrupted gossip site Gawker by secretly funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the site after posting a recording of Hogan having sex with a friend’s ex-wife.

For his part, Musk seems to be enjoying the public attention to his massive newfound power. He recently tweeted a slur directed at fellow billionaire Gates, in apparent retaliation for Gates selling Tesla shares short. Musk posted a photo of Gates wearing a blue polo shirt stretched across his stomach next to an emoji of a pregnant man, and captioned the images with a crude observation about Gates’ girth.

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) posted a tweet on Friday criticizing the moment “a billionaire with an ego problem unilaterally controls a massive communication platform and fakes it,” Musk responded by suggesting that the member had a romantic interest in him.

“Stop flirting with me, I’m really shy,” he tweeted.

Ocasio-Cortez replied, “I was talking about Zuckerberg but okay.”

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