Speaking at a TED conference in Vancouver last Thursday, Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk, announced his bid to buy the social-media platform Twitter for US$43 billion. He later posted his bid on the popular platform in an apparent effort to demonstrate his sincerity.
In this venture, he mirrors Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, the current owner of The Washington Post. Musk says he wants to buy Twitter to fight for free speech and truth, and a return the public town square. But is this really possible?
Social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have come under fire for being anti-democratic by capturing people in informational silos and feedback loops of one-sidedness. Users are also worried about government and platform surveillance of their activities and collection of personal data, as well as other forms of manipulation social-media scholar Shoshanna Zuboff describes as "surveillance capitalism."
For Zuboff, the problem with social media is that it tends toward constant surveillance of user activity. But media surveillance not new; what’s new is the pace and precision with which platforms gather and analyze user information. This is just the latest stage in a much longer history of commercial media.
The media have always relied on audience demographics, ratings and market research. Media companies rely on this to maintain profitability. But how does profit impact media democracy?
The media are important for democracy. In early days, "the town square" Musk wants to recreate was important for public debate. The modern newspaper and the later development of journalism were important for gathering and disseminating information, but the high cost of newspaper production encouraged commercial sponsorship as a means of lowering the cost to consumers.
This direction continued into the emergence of radio and television, and the same is true today with contemporary corporate social-media platforms.
This commercialization turned media it into a business, where the bottom line can conflict with the foundational goal of promoting democracy. The need for media platforms to maintain a steady base of users conflicts with their function as tools of critical rational public debate.
Platforms have learned to curtail the more upsetting experiences of users by changing curation programs to keep users involved in very specific "niche" communities online. This still creates a problem for democracy, because people with opposed views are not encouraged to come together to debate in a rational way, and instead descend into online feuds.
Social media use, too, is driven by the logic of the attention economy, in which individualism and competition drive participation in public life. When gaining the most attention is the supreme goal of public life, it becomes very difficult to create incentives that would allow us all to understand each other’s points of view in a clear and rational way.
This is not a condition that has been created by social media, but it is one social media amplifies.
Anxieties about social media surveillance also bleed into the so-called "cancel culture." Critics of cancel culture ring alarm bells about the end of free speech, but those accused of being part of cancel culture say they are trying to fight hate. This issue is at the centre of Musk’s defence of free speech, along with ongoing concerns about "fake news."
Musk’s plan to purchase Twitter to bring back the feeling of the public town square — and the stated desire to enhance free speech and the pursuit of truth — may appear noble, but given the history of commercial media, it seems quite unlikely that platforms designed with the pursuit of profit at their centre are able to create the conditions that would help to maximize our democracy and free speech.
What’s at the heart of the current free-speech debacle, really, is the contradiction between the need for our media to serve a democratic function and the all-important bottom line of corporate media companies.
Until we start to see media as a public good rather than as a venue for commercialization, it is unlikely that the presumably noble visions of very wealthy entrepreneurs such as Musk or Bezos can do anything to help with our current crisis of democracy.
Matthew Flisfeder is an associate professor of rhetoric and communications at the University of Winnipeg and the author of Algorithmic Desire: Toward a New Structuralist Theory of Social Media.