There’s a famous saying among those who discuss freedom of the press that’s so familiar it was quoted to me by several people I interviewed about Elon Musk’s move to take over Twitter.
The maxim, now embedded in media lore, is sometimes attributed to a quip by U.S. journalist and humourist H.L. Mencken whose writings in the first half of the 20th-century referred to media moguls of his own time.
“Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one,” goes a version of the quote, which in another one of its variants is credited to journalist A.J. Liebling.
Influence of the world’s richest man
Whoever coined it, the point of the quotation is that far from the model in which democracy is upheld by widely distributed local newspapers — once owned by opponents of the governing elite, like Canadian radical William Lyon Mackenzie — the free press and its later incarnations, radio and TV, have mostly fallen into the hands of the rich and powerful.
Musk’s move to take control of Twitter, which has yet to be finalized, has reignited controversy over the power that wealthy people have in influencing the democratic process through ownership of these global platforms.
The Tesla and SpaceX mogul is already the world’s richest person — and he’s helping to redefine the famous maxim about ownership and press freedom, but this time in the era of globalized social media.
Even among those who push for greater democratic control of media, the effect of Musk’s sway over such an influential platform as Twitter is widely disputed.
Some, like the American Civil Liberties Union, say that mogul’s influence may be benign or even positive. But others interviewed suggested the combination of Musk’s libertarian “frat boy” ethics and his Midas Touch for making money could make the divisive social media business model even more toxic.
“The idea of the extraordinarily rich, typically men, owning key media outlets has a very long history in Canada and internationally,” said James Turk, director of Canada’s Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University.
In the early 1900s, Lord Beaverbrook, a.k.a. Max Aitken, parlayed a Canadian business career into ownership of the newspaper with world’s highest circulation, the Daily Express, and used his paper to spread his conservative views to the working class.
Affecting the public discourse
Turk points to 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 who created Fox News, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post to mention just a few.
“They do it for a variety of reasons,” Turk said. “They want to influence the public discourse, they have their own views of the world.”
The influence of those who own social media giants is different from those who own print newspapers at least partly because of algorithms, the embedded software that decides what you see — a form of control not always obvious to people using Twitter, Facebook and their many competitors, Turk said.
WATCH | Elon Musk strikes a deal to acquire Twitter:
Unlike the printed pages of a newspaper where someone can choose which articles to read, the algorithm puts different stories or tweets in front of different people. While the algorithm is largely dictated by the user’s viewing history, it’s also informed by decisions made by the social media company itself. The specific ingredients that go into those formulas are a secret to users, something Musk says he will change.
For human rights lawyer Faisal Bhabha who teaches at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall law school, there is evidence that such social media algorithms can mean some perspectives just don’t get as much attention. He refers to a much-quoted case of Palestinian supermodel Bella Hadid who found that comments about Palestine did not go to all of her many social media followers.
Musk has said he will 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 those varied definitions.
The meaning of freedom
“I don’t know what Elon Musk means by freedom, but if he means no control whatsoever over content, I think most experts think that’s unrealistic,” said Bhabha.
Just this week, anti-hate groups suggested that social media platforms, including Twitter, need more — not less — supervision and control.
Musk has said he wants to run Twitter efficiently and not manipulate it.
That may be the case, but one has to ask why it is that so many of the rich and powerful buy control of media outlets, said Dwayne Winseck, a Carleton University professor conducting research on Canadian media concentration.
Are they in it for the money — or the influence? he asked.
“When you have owner-controlled companies, you don’t know,” Winseck said. “And so it makes it a very real prospect that this is all about political influence and not about business pursuits.”
Winseck said he’s worried 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 get people like Musk or [Facebook investor] Peter Thiel, these rich billionaires who are all in for freedom but very critical of the extent to which democracy can constrain their own freedoms, I think we’ve got a problem.”
While such subtle influences are hard to put your finger on, one complaint about Musk’s purchase of Twitter is that he will turn the platform into a forum for even stronger views.
Carmen Celestini, who spends a lot of time reading outrageous tweets as part of a Simon Fraser University research project about the rise of Canadian conspiracy theories on social media — including QAnon — said there are already plenty of strong views there.
Not quitting Twitter
“If we put this into context, disinformation, extremism, exists on Twitter as it stands right now,” said Celestini, who monitors many different viewpoints using her various Twitter accounts. (She said she has no intention of abandoning Twitter.)
Celestini said that by celebrating his own version of freedom, she thinks Musk will appeal to a rising international wave of nationalism and populism in what online critics of Twitter have described as a hotbed of left-wing perspectives.
For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally
Of course, because of the algorithm, people often see what they want to see. Celestini said that as Musk encourages “cleavages between left and right,” there is no reason to think the billionaire will lose money.
“The focus on Musk owning Twitter is missing the key issue,” said Turk, who noted that the business model behind social media is about gathering information from users so paying advertisers know exactly who they are talking to.
“They are able to extract that information from the rest of us by keeping our eyes on their site,” said Turk. “They know what attracts public attention is controversy, hyperbole, outrage — not complexity, contemplation or nuance.”
Even as governments try to tame the worst excesses of social media with rules and regulations, Tuk said that audience-grabbing strategy is one that stretches back to the days of H.L. Mencken.