Apr 15, 2022 - Technology

Billionaires eye parallel media universe

Photo illustration of Elon Musk with a broken lightbulb over his head
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images

Elon Musk doesn't seem to have much of a vision for how to actually run Twitter, if his takeover bid succeeds. He's not alone.

Why it matters: A small group of tech moguls believe America is in the midst of what they call a "free speech" crisis, and they're investing time and money to change the terms of public discourse. But so far, they've made more headlines than progress.

Driving the news: Just hours after announcing his bid, Musk took the stage at the TED conference in Vancouver, Canada, to explain his takeover rationale. In doing so, he gave Twitter's board of directors ample reason to reject his bid.

  • Instead of delivering a distinct plan for Twitter's future, Musk gave meandering and sometimes contradictory answers about how he would address Twitter's content moderation challenges.
  • He said Twitter should use human judgment to evaluate free speech — while also saying Twitter shouldn't regulate users' speech, except to follow the laws of the countries it operates in.
  • He said he wants Twitter to hold on to as many current shareholders as possible once it goes private. Later he asserted: "I don't care about the economics" that would be paramount to many of those shareholders.

The big picture: Social media companies are increasingly willing to remove certain types of content, and ban those who post it, after years of casting themselves as neutral platforms.

  • This change has triggered an opposite reaction by individuals who prefer the earlier approach.
  • A lot of social media content moderation, like removing illegal photos or videos, is widely accepted.
  • But there are deep divisions when things turn to "misinformation" on COVID or Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Some of this runs along partisan lines. But it would be an oversimplification to limit the issue to politics.

Be smart: Most of the discourse revolves around Twitter, because that's where so many tech moguls, politicians and journalists spend their time.

  • Marc Andreessen has repeatedly tweaked Twitter and some of its users over the past month, often employing the "I support the current thing" meme, and also leads a venture capital firm that's invested millions of dollars into paid newsletter platform Substack and audio app Clubhouse.
  • Conservative billionaires have opted to create or back various versions of their own Twitter-like platforms — like Parler, Gettr, and Truth Social. But those apps are tiny compared to mainstream platforms. Truth Social still hasn't launched after months of tech and financing issues.

Of note: Both Musk and Andreessen appear sincere in their critiques of Twitter, but also have some negative personal experiences that may have influenced their opinions.

  • Musk got in trouble with the SEC for a false tweet about having "funding secured" to take Tesla private, and Andreessen was hammered for criticizing "anti-colonialism" in India, while defending Facebook's Free Basics program.
  • Musk settled with the SEC, but is now trying to back out of that agreement. Andreessen apologized for and deleted the tweet, and then largely stopped posting on Twitter for a few years (before returning with a vengeance).

Yes, but: Not everyone endorsing "free speech" has a history of consistency.

  • Peter Thiel, who for years has sat on Facebook's board with Andreessen, has put money behind "free speech" YouTube alternative Rumble. But he also financed the lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker. Plus, Facebook has implemented many of the same content moderation policies as Twitter, including banning Donald Trump.
  • Truth Social, the new social media app founded by Trump, originally had terms of service that allowed users to be banned for disparaging Truth Social or its team. That clause was later removed.

Between the lines: Left-leaning billionaires Reid Hoffman and George Soros are among those who recently backed a new public benefit corporation that aims to tackle disinformation by funding left-leaning local news sites.

  • And Jeff Bezos, Marc Benioff and Laurene Powell Jobs have bought up venerable, established media properties.

Bottom line: Rich people want to control terms of discourse. They always have and always will.

  • But controlling a major social media platform takes more than money: It requires deep commitment to product and attention to legal and societal expectations around content moderation. So far, few billionaires have cracked that code as well as Silicon Valley titans.
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