Though he has just offered to buy Twitter for around $40 billion, it’s far from clear that Elon Musk knows how to run a social media platform. Speaking about his bid at an event last week, Musk mused that people should be “able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.” But a social media product that came to be dominated by anti-Semitism, porn, coordinated abuse, virulent racial animus, and bot-generated foreign propaganda—all forms of speech “within the bounds of the law”—would soon have little value. During the same interview, Musk announced that his “top priority” is to eliminate spam—perfectly lawful communication. Musk does not seem to have thought this through yet.
Twitter is not necessarily a well-run business. Mark Zuckerberg once described it as a clown car driven into a goldmine. It has drawn scrutiny from activist investors before—a fact that likely played a role in Jack Dorsey’s recent departure—and is thus in a poor position to reject Musk’s offer on grounds that the company’s stock is undervalued. Still, from a business perspective, Musk has not explained how he would finance his purchase (he’s incredibly rich but not liquid), and he has yanked investors’ chains before (a few years back, he was about to take Tesla private, until he wasn’t).
If Musk is trolling the humorless progressives who dominate our institutional and cultural heights, though, he has already achieved a coup. That Musk might buy Twitter has caused a meltdown among Twitter elites. “Today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany,” wrote one blue check. “[This] could result in World War 3 and the destruction of our planet,” exclaimed another. Robert Reich has equated Musk to Vladimir Putin.
Musk has done more than simply induce liberal tears. He has caused a mask to slip. He has prompted many prominent figures to admit bluntly that they oppose free speech.
These not-so-crypto authoritarians fall into two rough categories. Start with the snobs. These tend to reminisce about having only three network television stations. If you miss Walter Cronkite, you’re a snob. Snobs speak often of “protecting democracy,” but their ideology is better understood as feudal. The lower orders should not be allowed talk too much, either to the snobs or to one another. Peasants should not think for themselves. Information, in the masses’ hands, is dangerous.
Max Boot has led the charge for this group. “I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter,” he tweeted. “For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.” (Try to define “democracy,” as used in that sentence.) Boot then reiterated his point in a Washington Post column, arguing that because his tweet was widely denounced as stupid, his observation must have been smart. “There is way too much nonsense online,” he admitted. Indeed there is.
In his column, Boot invoked a recent article by Jonathan Haidt, a thoughtful critic of social media. As Haidt observes, the dynamics of social media virality cause attention-hungry fools to chase online “clout” with sneers and insults. Boot himself trades in this coin. Call it the Boot Model: show contempt for your fellow citizens; get mad when they respond; lecture them about their place; pine for an imagined past when speech was “managed” and the Boots of the world suffered no backchat.
The other response category is the victims. Some act like free speech is a freaky new idea. Others believe that it is a longstanding tool of white supremacy. Either way, they fear “unfettered” conversations and “dangerous” ideas. They make up the “words are violence” crowd.
The victims begin with a real issue—online harassment. The Internet is infested with jerks. Viewed as a whole, those jerks are an ecumenical lot. They target everyone. Yet the victims turn this shared problem to individual account, wielding it as a political cudgel. Writing, like Boot, in the Washington Post, Ellen Pao, former CEO of Reddit, worried that a Musk-run Twitter would “disproportionately” harm women and minorities. Conversely, she claimed, “unrestricted amplification” benefits “the same people who have benefited from that privilege for centuries.” Her prescription? Freedom must bow to safety—or, better yet, be redefined so that “freedom” means “safety.”
It’s revealing that so many elites belong simultaneously to the snob camp and the victim camp. “We are persecuted!” cry the nobles. If the shadowy forces of ancient Western patriarchy are riding so high, Pao might have wondered at how her plea for the oppressed found its way into one of the nation’s most prominent newspapers. Or at how it is that that paper, and the legacy media writ large, is reliably progressive. Or at why her bogeyman is assailing the social media power structure from the outside. Like Augustus, the Left reigns in part by assiduously denying that it reigns.
Not only does the Left rule; it is accustomed to ruling. Its leaders suffer from “arc of history” brain—a tendency to assume that every cultural dispute will in the long run break their way. In consequence, progressives have lost the knack for game theory. They forget that the other side gets a move, too, and they tend to be shocked when it goes ahead and makes one. Progressives act surprised when the institutions they’ve politicized lose legitimacy. They are mystified when the large swath of society on whom they heap scorn flocks to populist politicians. They howl in protest when an eccentric billionaire resists their effort to make “hate speech” mean “things that offend woke activists.”
It’s a pattern. The Left adopts a tactic; the Right shows that two can play; the Left clamors for new rules. Nothing has shifted faster, as a result of Musk’s actions, than the Left’s attitude about private ownership of social media services. For years, “build your own!” was a common progressive response to conservative complaints about content moderation. But that Musk might acquire Twitter points up the need, Pao insists, “to prevent rich people from controlling our channels of communication.” This in the Washington Post—an outlet owned by Jeff Bezos!
Were Musk to succeed in taking over Twitter, he’d do well to add some diversity of thought to the ranks. Perhaps a few vocal executives with “underrepresented” perspectives could have softened Twitter’s clampdown on Covid policy debates or flagged the drawbacks of blocking a certain New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. Of course, Musk might improve (or damage) both the product and its effect on public discourse in many other ways. But the stubborn truth is that the drama surrounding Twitter is big news primarily to those who spend a lot of time on Twitter. Maybe the real lesson here is that the laptop class—Left and Right—should spend less time using, arguing about, and obsessing over social media.
As the philosopher Dave Chappelle once said, Twitter is not a real place.
Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images