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28 August 2023

Elon Musk owns Donald Trump now

The former president has returned to a platform that is little more than a circus.

By Sohrab Ahmari

Following a two-year hiatus, Donald Trump returned to the app formerly known as Twitter last week to post his mug shot, instantly garnering some 250 million views (and counting), if the platform’s metrics are to be believed. That figure attests to Trump’s sheer personal magnetism on the platform that made him and his presidency.

Yet if Trump sticks around, he’ll soon find that Elon Musk’s Twitter – sorry, X – is a lousier experience than it was under Jack Dorsey’s ancien régime. For all their censoriousness, the lefty technocrats of old somehow conducted a livelier digital public square. The new platform, by contrast, is a circus of opaque algorithmic shifts, janky monetized services, bizarre content you don’t want to see, and marijuana ads. And the circus master, Musk, just has to be at the centre of it all, all the time.

I say this, mind you, as a former comment editor for the New York Post, whose tenure at the paper coincided with the Hunter Files censorship saga. Having been in the eye of that censorship storm, I still think Musk’s supposedly free-speech-oriented platform is worse in almost every way. More than that, I’ve come to believe that Musk ended up saving the Big Tech oligopolies from the sorts of reforms that could actually safeguard free expression online.

On the morning of 14 October, 2020 – one of those dates permanently etched in my mind, alongside my anniversary and my kids’ birthdays – I found that I couldn’t tweet our own story about emails showing Hunter Biden arranged a meeting between his father, at the time the vice-president and the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine, and an executive from Burisma, a sketchy Ukrainian energy firm that was paying Hunter upwards of $83,000 a month to serve on its board.

That story has since been vindicated. Yet at the time much of the American media class cheered on Twitter’s censorship, and clapped like seals when 50 former senior intelligence agents signed a letter claiming, on the basis of zero evidence, that the Hunter Files story was a piece of Russian misinformation. The Post – America’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper, founded by Alexander Hamilton – had its Twitter account suspended for days.

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Similar censorship took place around the public health response to Covid-19 and the origins of the novel coronavirus. Following the 6 January riot at the Capitol, Twitter banned (and Facebook suspended) Trump, the sitting president, a striking demonstration of the supremacy of private economic power over public political authority. In response, Republican lawmakers worked themselves into a lather over Big Tech’s abuses. On the table was reform to end the special statutory exemption that allows social media platforms to act like publishers (that is, to censor content) but without bearing any of a traditional publisher’s liabilities.

[See also: That mug shot is a gift to Trump]

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As usual, Republican populist rhetoric was just that. It amounted to tub-thumping on Fox News and in congressional hearing rooms, without any meaningful legislative action. Then along came Musk, promising to buy Twitter and to restore online discourse through courageous private enterprise. I was sceptical, urging the right to “hold the hosannas”, since “faith in the genius or benevolence of market actors like Musk is what got us here in the first place”.

Soon, Musk pulled off his master stroke. Through a handful of journalists, he leaked evidence of apparent collusion between federal officials and Twitter executives. At issue was no longer the power of Big Tech to control discourse, but something far more comfortable for Republicans: government misdeeds (not to mention the partisan spectacle of walloping Hunter).

Under Musk, conservatives finally had their “own” platform, led by a crusading entrepreneur opposed by the liberal scolds, abandoned by “woke” advertisers, and demonised by the traditional media for the crime of forcing us to face our racial “realities”: which mainly means watching videos of black children fighting in school (a genre Musk’s algorithm seems to privilege over all other content, save perhaps for the Tesla boss’s own political musings). But free speech was no safer than before.

Then, too, a general “enshittification” followed Musk’s massive layoffs of staff. Things just don’t work well under Musk, a lesson Ron DeSantis learned the hard way when the Florida governor decided to launch his presidential campaign with a Twitter “Spaces” conversation, featuring Musk himself, naturally. The event was overwhelmed by technical issues, and many who tried to log on couldn’t do so. The Twitter algorithm constantly and unaccountably changes, while suspensions are still rampant, and now often based on political antagonists mass-reporting each other, with no human being on the other end to adjudicate the disputes; customer service is nonexistent.

Trump may well return to Twitter stardom, but only as another exotic beast in Musk’s circus. The deeper point is that complex societies require complex administration. That very much extends to global corporations. The way to tame concentrations of private power and protect the individual isn’t to abandon administration and put our trust in billionaires but to embrace better administration. That lesson is likely to be lost on the American right, including its Trumpian wing.

[See also: Only snobbery can stop Elon Musk]

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