Elon Musk Is a Digital Citizen Kane

From a New York Times story by Shira Ovide headlined “Elon Musk Is a Digital Citizen Kane”:

What if one of the world’s important tools for information was owned by a mercurial billionaire who could do whatever he wanted with it?

I am talking about Elon Musk’s proposal to purchase Twitter for himself, which he disclosed on Thursday. His offer works out to more than $43 billion, which is a lot of money, even for Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and the owner of SpaceX. (Musk’s letter offering to buy Twitter said that his purchase would be conditioned on finding help in paying for the acquisition. It didn’t say where the money might come from.)

Will Musk actually have the cash and attention span to follow through on his proposed acquisition, and will Twitter say yes? Who knows? The word “unpredictable” doesn’t do justice to this moment. We’re already in Week 2 of Musk and Twitter’s very public and rocky romance, and there may be more weirdness to come.

But imagine that Musk eventually buys Twitter from the stockholders who own it today. The closest comparison to this might be the 19th-century newspaper barons like William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and the fictional Charles Foster Kane, who used their papers to pursue their personal agendas, sensationalize world events and harass their enemies.

We have not really had a Citizen Kane of the digital age, but Musk might be it. And Twitter’s global influence is arguably larger and more powerful than that of any Hearst newspaper of its day.

Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post and Rupert Murdoch’s news media empire are close, perhaps, but this would be a milestone: A 21st-century tech baron’s purchase of a digital platform of global importance, with the purpose of recasting it in his image.

“He would be a throwback to the ‘Citizen Kane’ days of press barons using their newspapers to advance their favorite causes,” Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s business school, said.

Musk’s favorite idea is a Twitter that operates the way he uses Twitter: no holds barred. He imagines a social network transformed, by him, into a paragon of expression without theoretical limits.

It’s basically the same pitch that former President Donald J. Trump has for his app, Truth Social. Several other social media sites also promised to build internet gatherings without the arbitrary rules imposed by companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook. But those sites remain relatively small and unimportant compared with Twitter.

Musk’s proposed purchase of Twitter, then, would amount to a real-world experiment in a parallel social media app without restrictions on what people can do or say. I don’t know what this would look like when applied.

Truth Social does not permit absolute free expression. Few people want to have their social media feeds clogged by spammy advertisements for cryptocurrency, terrorist recruitment pitches or harassment of children. No one is sure what a Twitter that is accountable to no one but Musk would be like. (Would Musk restore Trump’s Twitter account?)

I also wonder if Musk actually wants to own Twitter. It’s fun to imagine what you’d do if you were the boss of Twitter, but it’s not so fun actually being the boss of Twitter. Look at Mark Zuckerberg running Facebook. That guy does not seem like he’s having fun.

“My guess is that Musk enjoys being able to tell Twitter what to do and does not care very much about it actually getting done,” the Bloomberg Opinion writer Matt Levine said in an eerily prescient column.

If Twitter were solely owned by Musk, he wouldn’t have to worry about the vagaries of a stock price or shareholders’ demands, as Zuckerberg does. But that doesn’t mean Musk would be free from irritations.

When you own a powerful internet site, you might be on the receiving end of threats from the Russian government to imprison your employees over posts they don’t like or a family member asking why a stalker is allowed to harass them in their private messages. Musk might not want to deal with the ugly details of owning a tool of global influence, but he wouldn’t have a choice if he were Twitter’s sole proprietor.

I want us to save a small measure of pity for the executives and directors of Twitter. They are in an impossible situation. (The company said that its board would “carefully review” Musk’s proposal and decide what it believes is in the best interests of Twitter and its stockholders.)

Twitter’s board of directors could agree to Musk’s offer, and he could decide that finding the cash to buy Twitter and turn it into an imagined free-speech haven is not a great use of his money, time and energy. Then, Twitter would have a worthless acquisition offer, the company’s share price would most likely tank, and angry stockholders would probably sue the board.

Twitter’s board could say no to Musk on the theory that the company has a long-term plan that would make it far more valuable than what Musk is offering. In that case, Musk has said, he might sell the billions of dollars in Twitter shares that he recently bought. Twitter’s stock price would most likely tank, and angry stockholders would probably sue the board.

Twitter’s relatively new chief executive, Parag Agrawal, might prefer to yank out his toenails than to deal with weeks of messy drama over Musk. Maybe it’s not great for Musk, either, to continue engaging in messy drama over Twitter — although … OK, that is what he does in his leisure time.

What if Musk achieves what he thinks he wants? I won’t spoil the movie “Citizen Kane” if you haven’t seen it, but here is the short version: Kane achieved his wildest dreams, and he was miserable.

Shira Ovide writes the On Tech newsletter, a guide to how technology is reshaping our lives and world.
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Also see a Washington Post column by Max Boot headlined “Elon Musk is the last person who should take over Twitter.” The opening grafs:

I woke up Thursday morning to the news that Elon Musk, the world’s richest troll, wants to buy Twitter, one of the world’s most influential social media platforms. So I went on Twitter and wrote: “I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter. He seems to believe that on social media anything goes. For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.”

The hyperbolic reaction was a sight to behold. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who had one of her Twitter accounts permanently suspended for spreading covid-19 misinformation, tweeted: “Kill freedom of speech to save democracy? Say you’re a communist.” Should I be worried that she might send the gazpacho police after me?

The only disagreement among the trolls seemed to be whether I’m promoting communism or “FASCISM.” “Democracy requires attacks on the culture of free speech, more authoritarianism, says WP guy,” sneered Federalist editor Mollie Hemingway, who had recently insinuated that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) was pro-pedophile for voting to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. “More censorship for US geopolitical interest?” tweeted a columnist for China Daily, the propaganda organ of a state that has some of the most extensive censorship in the world.

Thank you for making my point, trolls. There is way too much nonsense online — too much name-calling, too much dishonesty, too many conspiracy theories. And there is a disturbing tendency for online flash mobs to create an echo chamber of crackpot opinions.

The notion that content moderation is communism or fascism is typical of the inanities that pervade social media. If this were true, it would mean that the United States was under fascist rule when I was growing up in the 1980s. Back then, most people got their news from a daily newspaper or one of three major TV networks. All of them employed editors (a.k.a. content moderators) who would have never run the kind of wild-eyed claims that have become a mainstay on social media (e.g., the allegation that the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol was a “false flag” operation by the FBI or that the Democratic Party has been taken over by Satan-worshipping pedophiles). It’s no coincidence that politics was saner and less polarized in those days.

As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt of New York University writes in the Atlantic this week, Facebook’s “like” button and Twitter’s retweet function have helped to make some Americans “stupider.” Before those features existed, people saw comments in the order they were posted. Now, social media companies use algorithms to promote the most popular posts. “Later research showed,” Haidt notes, “that posts that trigger emotions — especially anger at out-groups — are the most likely to be shared.”…

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