So it’s war.
Twitter, the social media platform that led the charge in censoring reporting on the Hunter Biden laptop, was reluctantly forced to approve Elon Musk’s $44 billion “leveraged buyout” Monday after running out of options to block the deal. With that move, the richest man in the world, with a day job running electric car manufacturer Tesla, instantly promoted himself to five-star general of a free speech army fighting to liberate the internet from top-down political control. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk tweeted in his first statement announcing the deal, where he also pledged to make the platform’s algorithms open source “to increase trust,” defeat the site’s spam bots, and authenticate its human users. “The Berlin Wall of censorship fell yesterday,” internet entrepreneur David Sacks tweeted on Tuesday.
If Sacks had wanted to use a different metaphor, he might have said that Musk had captured a key foothold—a defensible initial position from which to build up forces in an effort to gradually expand the territories in which it’s possible to dissent from the party line on issues like COVID-19 or U.S. policy in Ukraine where discourse has been most tightly regulated. Because, with this latest move, Musk and a merry band of fellow billionaires that includes Sacks and the venture capitalist Marc Andreesen seem to be coalescing into an American counterelite committed to breaking the monopoly on public discourse held by our current ruling class.
On the other side of the skirmish line we have the forces of the bipartisan political establishment under the command of General Barack Obama. The members of this faction are easy to identify because they have been engaged in an unhinged freakout for weeks. Ever since news first broke indicating that Musk was trying to acquire a controlling share of Twitter, his critics have been apoplectic about the dangers to democracy that will be unleashed by allowing users to more freely share and view information. Former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich captured the shrill zeitgeist of apocalyptic liberal technocrats everywhere when he warned that Musk’s “libertarian vision of an ‘uncontrolled’ internet [is] also the dream of every dictator, strongman, and demagogue.” Uh, sure, “what linked Idi Amin, Suharto, and Adolf Hitler,” James Kirchick recently noted in The Scroll, “was their belief in unfettered freedom of speech.”
But the official, buttoned-up version of the freakout was articulated by Obama himself. Less than a week ago in a speech at Stanford University, the former president warned that it’s necessary to impose more regulations on the internet, in order to prevent toxic disinformation from destroying American democracy by eroding citizens’ trust. “Once they lose trust in their leaders, in mainstream media, in political institutions, in each other, in the possibility of truth, the game’s won,” Obama told the audience at the Silicon Valley hub. “As Putin discovered leading up to the 2016 election,” Obama said, “our own social media platforms are well designed to support such a mission.”
The Stanford speech was a nearly perfect encapsulation of what is so corrupt about the disinformation discourse—which is, at this moment, frantically being redirected against Musk to force him into playing ball or being painted as a Russian stooge. In the same speech where he made the case for more censorship, even while hollowly proclaiming his commitment to free speech, Obama could not stop himself from echoing the single most destructive piece of disinformation of the modern political era—the establishment’s “big lie” that Russia swung the 2016 election for Donald Trump, a claim that has repeatedly been proved false but is kept alive because it makes such an effective political weapon.
Obama has to uphold the Russian collusion narrative, even if it means spreading disinformation himself, because that extraordinary claim established the basis for the joint government-tech company control over the information environment, which was expanded under COVID and he now wants to fortify. In the current system, which Musk is vowing to change, social media platforms take orders on censorship protocols from government officials and partisan functionaries with titles like “fact-checker” who work inside the complex of NGOs funded by the Democratic Party.
If Obama, or President Biden for that matter, was serious about curtailing the power of the tech oligarchs, they would put aside the culture war rhetoric and act in the national interest by using antitrust laws to break up tech monopolies. That might actually restore political agency to American citizens and political sovereignty to the government. So why hasn’t that happened, and indeed won’t ever happen? Because the Democratic Party relies on the tech companies to fund its political campaigns and regulate what kind of information reaches voters.
The populist movements of 2016 were an attempt on both the left and right to wrest power back from technocratic elites. Those movements relied on figureheads—Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—because average voters, even when they were tens of thousands strong, were too cut off from the levers of power located inside institutional centers to pose any long-term challenge to the American ruling class. Even Trump, at the time supposedly the most powerful man in the world, couldn’t quash the false Russia collusion narrative or keep himself from getting booted off of Twitter, and was forced to mope off pathetically like he was just another anonymous troll account.
Musk and other billionaires who are now coalescing into the counterelite are testing out what happens when they simply buy back the central institutions of public discourse and—exercising a degree of independence that only truly “fuck you money” can buy—remake the rules in a way that empowers average users but directly threatens the interests of the establishment elite.
It is, let us say, hardly ideal in a democracy to depend on the whims of a billionaire who seems to get off on winding people up to secure the basic constitutional protections of free speech. Let’s not forget that Twitter’s founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey—who has been embarrassingly woo-woo in his praise of Musk—was until very recently more than happy to go along with the Hunter Biden charade and the government’s other censorship demands. But given Twitter’s current ownership structure, in which the majority of its shares are owned by BlackRock and Vanguard, and the fact that the company serves an alliance of global financial capital, the Democratic Party, and progressive activists, I’ll take my chances on the counterelite.
This article originally appeared in The Scroll, Tablet’s afternoon newsletter, on April 26, 2022.
Jacob Siegel is a senior writer at Tablet and editor of The Scroll.