by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 28
April 2022
Debate
13:15

Calm down, liberals: Elon Musk is no threat to democracy (yet)

The hysteria over the billionaire's Twitter takeover is getting ridiculous
by Peter Franklin
Credit: Getty

Is Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter a threat to democracy? For some blue-tick Twitter accounts, it certainly appears to.

Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, is certainly concerned. Asking whether Twitter will be “Musked” he argues that “there is something intrinsically worrying [about] the rules for one of contemporary democracy’s most important public spaces being set by one man.”

However, it’s not as if Twitter was ever the social media equivalent of the BBC. Its ownership was dominated by a handful of powerful private interests including BlackRock and Morgan Stanley. If this select group of the world’s richest companies is now selling up to the world’s richest man, then the transfer of power is within the global elite not to it. 

One could argue that the real power of a corporation is exercised by its management, not its shareholders. Therefore, given Musk’s evident interest in Twitter’s inner workings, the fact of his ownership is more significant than the money men he’s buying the company from. 

But again what we see is not Musk wresting control from the general public, but from an oligarchy. In all the big social media companies, the decision-making power over what can and cannot be said is made by a small group of individuals. In the first instance, there are the executives who set the basic policy; and then, at a finer level of detail, a bureaucracy of moderators. Furthermore this is a narrow elite — drawn from the same knowledge class, influenced by the same ideologies and operating behind closed doors.

Well, fine — these are private companies and they can do what they like within the law. But by the same token, Musk can do what he likes – and that is to uphold the principle of free speech. 

Garton Ash worries that the “free speech we need for democracy requires certain minimum levels of civility” and “some procedures for checking basic factual veracity.” He adds that it’s “not clear” whether Elon Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist”, gets this. Perhaps the professor will be reassured by the following statement, which seems pretty clear to me: 

Of course, there have always been limits on free speech — and, arguably, there ought to be more. But in a free society these need to be decided openly and democratically, not sub-contracted to opaque, unaccountable corporations.

Because of the blood-soaked history of dictatorship it is understandable that we should see the “one man” as the eternal enemy of democracy. But it doesn’t take a monomaniacal autocrat to crush freedom — self-satisfied elitism powered by bureaucratic groupthink does the job just as effectively, if not more so.

Indeed, whether in the field of politics, culture, business or science — freedom and progress often depends on the stubborn individual who challenges the establishment. Whether Musk is truly such a man time will tell, but for the moment he deserves the benefit of the doubt. 

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Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
5 months ago

The pearl-clutching by the elite thought-police as they cry tears over over the prospect of just one online platform not being woke, is just priceless. Okay, maybe not priceless, maybe just $44B.

Last edited 5 months ago by Lennon Ó Náraigh
Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
5 months ago

Those like Garton Ash who are worried about Musk are either disingenuous or incredibly dense. Content moderation which goes beyond simple blocking of a set of banned words and pictures of naked people will intrinsically involve SOMEONE’S personal biases of what is acceptable, hateful, truthful. etc Saying they are concerned about Musk is equivalent to saying they prefer the left-biased censuring of information and ideas to the idea of someone else, possibly each individual, defining harmful content.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago

I think the current level and quantity of hate speech and hounding and harassing of individuals by the new ‘liberals’ is something Mr Ash should worry about. But he isn’t worried it seems.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago

Of course the Professor might have something to worry about if “TERF” was banned as hate speech, or the promotion of diversity and minority preference policies banned on the grounds of discrimination. But unlike the liberal consensus Musk seems happy enough to allow a fair competition in ideas without putting a finger on one side of the scales. We will see.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Musk wants to uphold Enlightenment liberal values of tolerance in a post-liberal world that has knowingly abandoned those very principles.
Enlightenment liberalism is dead. What apparently ran Western civilization for 250 years was an illusion; the fuel was the previous 1700 years of Greco-Judeo-Christian inertia. (The liberals liked to call it “natural law” as though it was universal and self-evident — it is neither.) We’ve burned through our philosophical heritage to find that liberalism is a “weak God” as R.R. Reno says. It stands for nothing. A society whose only shared commitment is “y’all do whatever you want” implodes. That’s what we’re living through.
Liberalism isn’t going to defeat the woke tyranny of “maximal individual autonomy”. Elon is hitching his wagon to a ideological dead horse; forgive me if I don’t jump on.

John Riordan
John Riordan
4 months ago

“A society whose only shared commitment is “y’all do whatever you want” implodes. That’s what we’re living through.”

That’s not what liberalism is, though. The Enlightenment principles you’re criticising are a great deal more complex than you assume, and a great deal more robust as well.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
5 months ago

There is something intrinsically worrying [about] the rules for one of contemporary democracy’s most important public spaces being set by one man.

But no such problem when those public spaces are owned by Jeff Bezos (WaPo) or the Sulzberger family (the union-busting New York Times).

Vilde Chaye
Vilde Chaye
5 months ago

Why do you call them “liberals.” They’re anything but. I know they still think of themselves as liberals, but if you oppose free speech and embrace identity politics, you’re anything but.

Kieran Saxon
Kieran Saxon
5 months ago

This is a better take than the narrative affirming one in a previous article. There are some subtleties that are not being explored yet, though. Like the difference between a publisher, a platform and a service provider, and should Twitter have the power to act like a publisher. At the moment they are having their cake and eating it.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
5 months ago

“Minimum levels of civility” my a*se. Whenever you see “community standards” and “hate speech” regulation you’re dealing with zero-argument leftists who are trying to shut down contrary opinions to their own, Orwell style. Twitter, in other words. In a weird way, the left’s attempts to stop people arguing their case is analogous to the covid hysteria of the last two years. “Oh, we must force people to cover their mouths lest they infect each other”. Now the children are paying the price via weakened immune systems.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
5 months ago

You can live a fulfilling and well informed life without a Twitter account so it cannot be that important.
If a company is destructive of society then it will face legislation.
So why not live and let live. The only pattern I see in this is an intention by Musk to run for President. He believes in himself and needs a new challenge.

Last edited 5 months ago by Jon Hawksley
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

I cannot see him running for president. He reaches higher than that.

David Simpson
David Simpson
5 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Don’t think he can – he was born in South Africa

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
5 months ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Noted – then what does he want to do to stop getting bored?

R S Foster
R S Foster
5 months ago
Reply to  David Simpson

…a shame. If we thought the reaction to Trump winning was demented…a Musk presidency would certainly induce mass psychosis amongst avid readers of the “Grey Lady” and the “Grauniad”. Beer and popcorn all round..!

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
5 months ago

Most Americans understand that the biggest immediate question of this issue is whether Musk will admit trump back into twitter territory.
That would not be a constructive development for those of us who live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Once upon a time the twitterheads told donald to take his bluster bullsh and and go home. Musk ought to keep twitter nation just as it is now, sans trump.

Dave Corby
Dave Corby
5 months ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

It’s not ‘free and brave’ to moderate the voices of the half the population you disagree with – and completely deny the voice of some.
If you don’t want to read someone’s tweets, then do not follow them.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
5 months ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

America’s laptop class are constantly pushing for it to be the land of the censored and the home of the cowardly. They pretend to care about freedom while trying to destroy it because they cannot accept that it has consequences while having no clue how terrible the alternatives are. As for the brave, I would like to see them take an unpopular (i.e not Berkley campus approved) stance for once. Empty slogans from people who obviously don’t believe them is just embarrassing. Oh, and one last thing, these people need to get over Trump already. The only people who have not moved on from Trump are them and Donald Trump.

Last edited 5 months ago by Matt Hindman
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

There are more than a few people I want off Twitter. If we all make a list there will be no-one left.

Saul D
Saul D
5 months ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

If you can’t put up with someone having an opinion you disagree with, the land is neither free nor brave.

R S Foster
R S Foster
5 months ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

…a society which allows it’s own elected leader to be silenced for any reason is no longer a free one, much less an example to the World. When the history of the destruction of the glorious dream of freedom and democracy that was the United States of America is written, the point when Trump was banned from Twitter will mark the beginning of the end.
But that history won’t be written there, because by then it will be a Woke Theocracy run from California, akin to the dystopian nightmare described by Orwell in “1984”…but enjoying greater material comfort than he anticipated.
You obviously cannot see it, but you are turning your back on the freedom that was your birthright…which is a terrible loss to you, to all of those who see the best in your country, and to the world.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
5 months ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

Like most libs and leftoids, your first instinct is to shut your opponent up, lest you lose the actual argument.