Will Elon Musk follow the old adage that media freedom belongs only to those who own the media?


There is a famous saying among those who discuss freedom of the press that is so familiar that it was quoted to me by several people I interviewed about Elon Musk’s decision to take control of Twitter.

The maxim, now entrenched in media lore, is sometimes attributed to a quip by American journalist and humorist HL Mencken whose writings from the first half of the 20th century referenced the media moguls of his day.

“Freedom of the press is limited to those who have one,” says one version of the quote, which in another variant is attributed to journalist AJ Liebling.

Influence of the richest man in the world

Regardless of who invented it, the point of this quote is that far from the model in which democracy is championed by widely circulated local newspapers – once owned by opponents of the ruling elite, such as Canadian Radicals Guillaume Lyon Mackenzie — the free press and its later incarnations, radio and television, have mostly fallen into the hands of the rich and powerful.

Musk’s decision to take control of Twitter, which remains to be finalizedreignited controversy over the power of the wealthy to influence the democratic process by appropriating these global platforms.

The Tesla and SpaceX mogul is already the richest person in the world – and he’s helping to redefine the famous maxim about ownership and freedom of the press, but this time in the age of globalized social media.

Even among those pushing for greater democratic control of the media, the effect of Musk’s grip on a platform as influential as Twitter is widely disputed.

Elon Musk in 2019 after an altercation with the Securities and Exchange Commission over his own tweets about Tesla. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Some, like the American Civil Liberties Union, let’s say that the tycoon’s influence can be benign or even positive. But other interviewees suggested that the combination of Musk’s libertarian “frat boy” ethos and his money-making Midas Touch could make social media’s divisive business model even more toxic.

“The idea that extraordinarily wealthy people, usually men, own key media has a very long history in Canada and abroad,” said James Turk, director of Canada’s Center for Free Expression at Metropolitan University of Toronto.

In the early 1900s, Lord Beaverbrook, aka Max Aitken, turned a career from a Canadian businessman to the owner of the world’s most widely circulated newspaper, the Daily Express, and used his paper to spread his conservative views to the working class.

Affect public discourse

Turk brings up the Thomson family, which still controls the Globe and Mail, as well as the Siftons, and many others, including Conrad Black, who founded the National Post. Internationally, there’s Rupert Murdoch who bought the Wall Street Journal and created Fox News, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos who owns the Washington Post to name a few.

“They do it for various reasons,” Turk said. “They want to influence public discourse, they have their own view of the world.”

The influence of those who own social media giants is different from those who own print newspapers, at least in part because of algorithms, the built-in software that decides what you see – a form of control not always obvious to people using Twitter, Facebook and their many competitors. , said Turk.

WATCH | Elon Musk agrees to acquire Twitter:

Tesla billionaire Elon Musk buys Twitter for $44 billion

Elon Musk has reached an agreement to acquire Twitter for US$44 billion. Musk said it was his desire to ensure free speech on the social media platform that compelled him to take over the company. 3:33

Unlike the printed pages of a newspaper where someone can choose which articles to read, the algorithm places different stories or tweets in front of different people. Although the algorithm is largely driven by the user’s viewing history, it is also informed by decisions made by the social media company itself. The specific ingredients that go into these formulas are a secret to users, something Musk says he will change.

For human rights lawyer Faisal Bhabha, who teaches at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, there is evidence that such social media algorithms can mean certain prospects simply don’t get as much attention. He refers to a much-cited case of Palestinian supermodel Bella Hadid who found that comments about Palestine were not reaching all of her many social media followers.

Musk said he would increase freedom of speech on Twitter, but Bhabha said the term freedom is complex and can mean different things to different people, with the recent freedom convoy a perfect example of these varied definitions.

The meaning of freedom

“I don’t know what Elon Musk means by freedom, but if he means no control over content, I think most experts think that’s unrealistic,” Bhabha said.

Just this week suggested anti-hate groups that social media platforms, including Twitter, need more, not less, oversight and control.

Musk said he wanted to manage Twitter effectively, not manipulate it.

That may be the case, but one has to wonder why so many of the rich and powerful are buying into control of the media, said Dwayne Winseck, a professor at Carleton University who conducts research on Canadian media concentration.

Are they there for the money – or the influence? He asked.

“When you have owner-controlled businesses, you don’t know,” Winseck said. “And so it’s a very real prospect that it’s about political influence and not commercial activity.”

Lord Beaverbrook, Canadian businessman Max Aitken, extended his influence through the Daily Express, making it the most widely read newspaper in the world. (The Beaverbrook Foundation)

Winseck said he worries about the growing power of what he calls “billionaire frat boys” spreading the kind of libertarian message that makes them richer and more powerful.

“When you meet people like Musk or [Facebook investor] Peter Thiel, those wealthy billionaires who are all supporters of freedom but very critical of the extent to which democracy can restrict their own freedoms, I think we have a problem.”

While it’s hard to pinpoint such subtle influences, one complaint about Musk’s purchase of Twitter is that he will turn the platform into a forum for even stronger opinions.

Carmen Celestini, who spends a lot of time reading outrageous tweets as part of a Simon Fraser University research project on the rise of Canadian conspiracy theories on social media — including QAnon — said he there were already a lot of strong opinions there.

Do not leave Twitter

“If we put this into context, disinformation, extremism, exists on Twitter as it is right now,” said Celestini, who monitors many different viewpoints using his various Twitter accounts. (She said she has no plans to give up on Twitter.)

Celestini said that by celebrating her own version of freedom, she believes Musk will appeal to a growing international wave of nationalism and populism in what Twitter’s online critics have described as a hotbed of leftist perspectives.

Of course, because of the algorithm, people often see what they want to see. Celestini said that since Musk encourages “left-right divides,” there’s no reason to think the billionaire will lose money.

“The focus on Musk owning Twitter misses the key point,” said Turk, who noted that the business model behind social media is to collect information from users so paying advertisers know exactly. who they are talking to.

“They are able to extract this information from the rest of us by keeping our eyes on their site,” Turk said. “They know what grabs the public’s attention is controversy, hyperbole, outrage – not complexity, contemplation or nuance.”

Even as governments attempt to tame social media’s worst excesses with rules and regulations, Tuk said the strategy of audience attraction dates back to the days of HL Mencken.

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