Apr 14, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Musk’s saga reveals how core Twitter is to U.S. politics

Illustration of the twitter logo modified to look like a a U.S. eagle with an olive branch and arrows

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

No matter what happens with Elon Musk's hostile bid for Twitter, the political megaphone is up for grabs in a way we've never seen before.

Why it matters: No single company does more to drive moment-to-moment political conversation. For all its toxicity and biases, Twitter is politicians' first stop for breaking news and shaping views.

Musk's surprise move sent shockwaves through Washington, even with Congress in recess — and through state and global capitals.

  • Several Republicans hailed Musk as a hero and Twitter as the problem. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) tweeted (!): "Twitter's censors are freaking out about Elon Musk because they can't buy his silence."
  • Democratic analyst Mary Anne Marsh tweeted: "@elonmusk offer to buy @Twitter heading into the #2022Elections and #2024Elections isn’t a coincidence. It is a threat to our #democracy."
  • "The cheers and jeers for this tweet is all the proof needed," she wrote afterward.

Between the lines: The debate over whether Musk would be good or bad for Twitter isn't just about power or money. It's about the most American of ideas — free speech — and private companies' rights and obligations to sort the boundaries between disinformation and censorship.

  • It's also about where to draw the line on concentrating power in one person's hands. And the anti-big tech antitrust fervor right now means there may be less chance of a rival bid.

The backstory: Musk's move shows just how vital Twitter has become over its 16 years to the instant dissemination and analysis of political information.

  • Since Russia's invasion, Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky has used it to message to the world and press President Biden and other leaders for help.
  • It's also a signpost for how deeply partisanship divides every facet of Americans' engagement with one another.

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chair of the Republican Study Committee, told Axios in a statement that “Republicans haven’t been able to communicate on equal ground online since 2016, and it’s become worse since Biden took office."

  • "Big Tech has censored posts of mine about biological sex, COVID, Hunter Biden and even about kitchen table issues like energy prices," Banks said. "Democrats’ electoral strategy now relies on censorship."

Former President Trump's permanent suspension from Twitter is still a driver of the conservative backlash. And just before Musk's move, the former president's rival platform, Truth Social, had to retract a verified account for Fox News after a spokesperson said the network had nothing to do with it.

  • Arguably, Musk appears to be contemplating what Trump wants to do — but with the money to do it.

What they're saying: "I think the reason Twitter matters is, it's the place where a very self-selected slice of extremely politically active, politically motivated people go," said Aaron Smith, director of Data Labs at Pew Research Center.

  • 10% of U.S. adults on Twitter produce 90% of the tweets, he said. Twitter users skew to college-educated vs. non-college users. They also skew Democratic.
  • Of 30 members in Congress with more than 1 million followers, Smith said that of his last count, 20 were Democrats and 10 Republicans.
  • And the 10% of U.S. lawmakers with the largest number of followers were getting 84% of the favorites and 81% of retweets that go to Congress collectively.

Smith's team reports that from the 114th Congress to the 116th Congress, lawmakers' collective posts jumped from just over 1 million to 1.6 million. During the same period, Democratic lawmakers' use of Twitter grew faster than Republican lawmakers'.

  • "This is the terrain where stuff is being fought over now," Smith said. "There's a real-time feedback loop with journalists, lawmakers. What does that do to our discourse?"
  • "Twitter is a place where members of Congress are going to get their message out — everything from, 'Hey, I'm going to be on this show at 5pm, check me out'; or, 'Come support our local heroes,' to memes and partisan attacks and everything in between," Smith said.

What we're hearing: Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), ranking member of the House subcommittee that deals with antitrust concerns, told Axios in a phone interview that when it comes to Musk, “I think if they turn him down … he may very well start his own."

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