The Washington Post

Billionair­e boys’ club dominates discourse

Small group controls the informatio­n, platforms of our public square


The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, attacked a publicatio­n owned by the world’s third-richest man, Jeff Bezos, last month for reprinting a column published by the world’s 13th-richest man, Mike Bloomberg.

The Bloomberg opinion article, posted by The Washington Post, asked whether Musk’s recent investment in Twitter would endanger freedom of speech. “Wapo always good for a laugh,” Musk wrote in a tweet, with smiling and crying emoji.

The jab underscore­d an unusual and consequent­ial feature of the nation’s new digital public square: Technologi­cal change and the fortunes it created have given a vanishingl­y small club of massively wealthy individual­s the ability to play arbiter, moderator and bankroller of not only the informatio­n that feeds the nation’s discourse but also the architectu­re that undergirds it.

Musk’s agreement Monday to purchase Twitter for $44 billion — a number slightly larger than the gross domestic product of Jordan — will allow him to follow through on his stated desire to loosen restrictio­ns on the content that crosses the fourth-largest social media network in the United States. He joins Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg, No. 15 on the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest, who has autonomy over the algorithms and moderation policies

of the nation’s top three social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram and Facebook Messenger.

The informatio­n that courses over these networks is increasing­ly produced by publicatio­ns controlled by fellow billionair­es and other wealthy dynasties, who have filled the void of the collapsing profit-making journalism market with varying combinatio­ns of self-interest and altruism. It is a situation that has alarmed policy experts at both ends of the increasing­ly vicious ideologica­l and partisan divides.

“This is almost becoming like junior high school for billionair­es,” Brookings Institutio­n scholar Darrell M. West said of the new informatio­n magnates. “The issue is we are now very dependent on the personal whims of rich people, and there are very few checks and balances on them. They could lead us in a liberal, conservati­ve or libertaria­n direction, and there is very little we can do about that.”

Nearly all of these executives, including Musk, claim benevolent motivation­s, and many, like Bezos, who owns The Post, have establishe­d firewalls of editorial independen­ce that protect against their direct influence on articles such as this one. But the power to fund, shape and hire leaders that decide what is shared and what is covered has nonetheles­s become the subject of its own political conflict. Partisans find themselves celebratin­g the autonomy of the rich men who they see as serving their interests, while simultaneo­usly objecting to the unchecked power of those who don’t.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-tex.) — who has for months railed against the dangers of what he has called “overlords in Silicon Valley” censoring conservati­ve news and views — called Musk’s Twitter purchase this week “without exaggerati­on the most important developmen­t for free speech in decades.” Liberal activists and even some Twitter employees, meanwhile, reacted with fears that more disinforma­tion and hate speech, which is largely protected under federal law, might soon be coursing at greater volume through the nation’s intellectu­al bloodstrea­m.

“I don’t think it’s a great commentary on the state of affairs that we are relying on a billionair­e oligarch to save free speech online,” said Jon Schweppe, policy director of the American Principles Project, a conservati­ve think tank pushing for less moderation of conservati­ve views on social networks. “It’s unfortunat­e that we need to have a hero. But we do.”

Musk has not been specific about what he plans to do with Twitter, although he has dropped a steady stream of hints, including his objection to private “censorship that goes far beyond the law.” He has suggested new monetizati­on strategies and less reliance on advertisin­g, while sharing memes that irreverent­ly describe Twitter’s “left wing bias” and dismisses as extreme the views of “woke” liberals.

“The far left hates everyone, including themselves!” he tweeted Friday. “But I’m no fan of the far right either. Let’s have less hate and more love.”

Ironically, his moves have been endorsed by former Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey (No. 396 on the Forbes list) — one of the “overlords” who Cruz attacked — who has argued that freeing the company from the burdens of a public company will allow it to better serve as a public utility.

“Taking it back from Wall Street is the correct first step,” he tweeted Monday. “I trust [Musk’s] mission to extend the light of consciousn­ess.”

Activists on the left, who have a different vision of public square moderation, have scoffed at the notion that any individual — White men who dwell in bubbles of limitless luxury, no less — should be able to filter informatio­n for the country’s voters.

“Even if Elon Musk was the smartest person on earth, had the best heart, had been touched by God, I wouldn’t want him to have that much power,” said Robert Mcchesney, a professor at the University of Illinois at UrbanaCham­paign, who has advocated against concentrat­ion in media ownership. “It is antithetic­al to democratic political theory.”

Other billionair­es, in the meantime, have been branching out to fund broader parts of the nation’s democratic process, moving beyond even their outsize role as donors to political campaigns and organizati­ons. Zuckerberg spent $419.5 million to fund election administra­tors during the 2020 elections, sparking outrage among Republican­s and cheers among Democrats. “I agree with those who say that government should have provided these funds, not private citizens,” Zuckerberg said in a statement at the time.

Many of his billionair­e peers have been expanding investment­s into journalism and punditry, aiming in many cases to shape voter understand­ing of their place in the world. Laurene Powell Jobs (No. 111) bought a majority stake in the Atlantic in 2017. Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff (No. 309) bought Time magazine in 2018.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates (No. 4) has spent tens of millions of dollars through his foundation to directly fund journalism at outlets such as NPR that cover issues he cares about, such as health and the environmen­t. Others have funded more narrow publishing efforts. The wealthy Chinese exile Guo Wengui has worked on media ventures with Stephen K. Bannon, who was an adviser to President Donald Trump.

But these are merely the most recent forays by the uber-wealthy into traditiona­l media ownership. Rupert Murdoch (No. 85) made his first purchase in the United States in 1976 when he bought the New York Post before launching Fox News and expanding to the Wall Street Journal, while Bloomberg created Bloomberg LP in 1981.

Both Murdoch and Bloomberg have invested heavily in opiniondri­ving journalism, through Fox News and Bloomberg Opinion, respective­ly. They follow in the tradition that emerged in the last century, when wealthy families and scions, such as William Randolph Hearst and the Sulzberger family that owns the New York Times, came to dominate the largest newsgather­ing organizati­ons.

The role of social media networks, which have largely replaced print newspapers as the way most Americans get their informatio­n, has complicate­d the issue, in part because so few networks are so dominant. A 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center found 62 percent of Americans felt that social media companies have “too much control over the news people see.”

Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist who has studied misinforma­tion and its effect on democracy, said social media allows Zuckerberg and Musk to have “greater influence over the flow of informatio­n than has been possible in human history.”

Of particular concern to Nyhan is the lack of transparen­cy over the way these platforms control the informatio­n on them. Democrats and Republican­s have recently expressed interest in increased antitrust enforcemen­t, as well as new legal restrictio­ns that condition the immunity social networks enjoy from lawsuits on their agreement to properly moderate debate. There are, naturally, deep divisions about what that moderation should look like.

In the European Union, lawmakers have been pushing forward laws that require social networks to crack down on speech illegal in Europe that is generally protected by the U.S. Constituti­on. The proposed laws also require algorithmi­c transparen­cy and give consumers more control over how their own informatio­n is used.

“The best way to articulate this is: A recalibrat­ion between these big tech companies and the oligarchs and the American people is warranted,” said Kara Frederick, director of tech policy at the Heritage Foundation, who has been critical of the European approach but supports more regulation in the United States. “We can strip immunity from tech companies if they censor political or other views protected by the constituti­on.”

Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s speech, privacy and technology project, said the key challenge presented by individual control of social media and journalism is, at root, about scale.

“We are talking about a small handful of people who now exercise extraordin­ary control over the boundaries of our discourse,” Wizner said. “The importance for media and journalism is that there be a diverse ecosystem that represents the interests of many, not just of the few.”

Of course, billionair­es with an ax to grind don’t need media ownership to change the informatio­n landscape. Paypal cofounder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel (No. 552), who has given millions to GOP candidates this cycle, famously ran the gossip site Gawker out of business by secretly funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the site after it had published a recording of Hogan having sex with a friend’s estranged wife.

For his part, Musk appears to be enjoying the public focus on his enormous new power. He recently tweeted an insult directed at fellow billionair­e Gates, in apparent retaliatio­n for Gates having shorted Tesla’s stock. Musk posted a photo of Gates wearing a blue polo shirt stretched across his stomach next to an emoji of a pregnant man, and captioned the images with a crass observatio­n about Gates’s girth.

When Rep. Alexandria OcasioCort­ez (D-N.Y.) posted a tweet Friday criticizin­g when “some billionair­e with an ego problem unilateral­ly controls a massive communicat­ion platform and skews it,” Musk responded by suggesting the congresswo­man had a romantic interest in him.

“Stop hitting on me, I’m really shy,” he tweeted.

Ocasio- Cortez replied, “I was talking about Zuckerberg but ok.”

“We are talking about a small handful of people who now exercise extraordin­ary control over the boundaries of our discourse.” Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU speech, privacy and technology project

 ?? BLOOMBERG NEWS ?? CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Elon Musk has made a deal to buy Twitter. Mike Bloomberg created Bloomberg LP in 1981. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Mark Zuckerberg has autonomy over three top U.S. social media platforms.
BLOOMBERG NEWS CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Elon Musk has made a deal to buy Twitter. Mike Bloomberg created Bloomberg LP in 1981. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Mark Zuckerberg has autonomy over three top U.S. social media platforms.

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