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The New Gilded Age

ACCORDING TO LIZ - Of all social media applications currently in use in the United States, Facebook and Twitter have by far the most penetration and, perversely, the greatest influence. 

Facebook has tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to rebrand itself as Meta to move beyond the increasingly unfavorable publicity concerning continuous breaches of subscribers’ confidential information not to mention its co-opting by Putin in 2016 to put Trump in office. 

Twitter, by the very nature of its ‘followers’ model, has also vastly distorted Americans perception of people and politics. It not only spreads the news it shapes the news. 

Both companies have attained monopolistic power in a world where social media advances so rapidly that it is almost impossible for regulators to comprehend let alone take action to protect the interests of those both within and outside the Facebook and Twitter worlds. 

The power they both exert has been of increasing concern to educators, sociologists, psychiatrists, other media, political scientists, and governments. 

Trump’s Big Lie was only the culmination of all the little lies posted and tweeted and amplified by social media. And then by the traditional media reporting on and further amplifying the full range of commentary, too often giving equal importance to fringe hallucinations over proven fact. 

To buy eyeballs for their advertisers, even mainstream media pumps up the outré giving credence to wild assertions, the repetition of which unfortunately given these the tarnish of truth. 

Hearings have been called, public outcry has demanded improvements – often too little too late. 

And now we have the wealthiest man in the world, one who has already demonstrated that he will do anything to burnish his own image, buying out the company with which he has warred over the past few years. 

The Problem

Prior to the rise of online social platforms, media outlets had a major incentive to curate what was published. They could be sued for any act or omission that gives rise to injury or harm, defined as a loss or detriment an individual suffers. Under tort law, courts can and do impose monetary damages. 

The lack of curation of the content spewed forth by some who use Twitter and Facebook to unduly influence on people understanding or, more accurately, misunderstanding of events traces back to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which specifically shields website owners from liability by decreeing that web platforms are not publishers. 

At the time, over 25 years ago… who knew that giant companies such as Twitter and Facebook would emerge to capitalize on posting incendiary content, drawing lots of eyeballs and clicks… and an overabundance of user data that they could then monetize. 

Even in the physical universe, extremist views tend to get repeated because their ideas are so provocative. This gives them a disproportionate level of news coverage – remember how Trump’s idiocies drew excessively greater coverage in his 2016 run for President that the lucid policies of almost all his Democratic opponents. 

Even so, depending on how Musk monetizes Twitter going forward and given his deep pockets, he may perceive lawsuits as just another form of publicity generating more Tweets 

The user data amassed could then be monetized even if the content encourages.

The advent of Mr. Musk

Perhaps because of his peripatetic attention span, Elon Musk excelled on Twitter, amassing 83.8 million followers. He has a history of tweeting with little restraint, running afoul of the SEC after an ill-advised Tweet cost Tesla which is a public company $15 billion on the stock market. 

With a privately and personally owned Twitter, Musk would face few if any restrictions. Which may be what he wants. 

After all, his pursuit and purchase of the company came in retaliation for Twitter's continuing efforts to moderate his posts. 

Less moderation in the Musk-verse does not necessarily mean free speech but the dissemination of disinformation and the promotion of extremist and often dangerous viewpoints, conspiracy theories and outright hate speech. And, presumably, outright lies, pornography, harassment, invasion of privacy and bullying. 

This isn’t freedom of speech but an abdication of social responsibility, a blatant laissez-faire approach giving platform to those put people at risk by encouraging violence and escalating anti-social behavior. These can range from proponents of the Big Lie to anti-vaxxers and those opposed to responsible mask mandates to domestic terrorists. 

Musk has stated he believes: "it's just really important that people have the reality and the perception that they’re able to speak freely within the bounds of the law." 

At issue is, whose law? His, or those of hundreds of millions of other people? 

As an oligarch, if the sale goes through – it has until October to close – his money will have made him the ultimate influencer. 

Freedom of speech?

Given what has happened in recent years culminating with Musk’s most recent action, regulators are working harder at effectively regulating social networks in the free world especially with regards to material that incites violence, or is abusive, or is classified as hate speech. 

Russia and China among other countries where speech is not free employ a different style of censorship but it may not be beneficial to their citizens in that it is essentially state-controlled propaganda designed to preserve their own governments. 

There are also financial considerations ranging from further monetization of Twitter’s voluminous data about its users’ personal information. 

Musk has floated the idea of selling subscriptions to raise money but after 16 years of freely dispensing their thoughts and amassing followers, Twitter users may not be willing to pony up. 

Confession: despite my inclinations to spread my opinions I also have a tendency to read what I agree to and do NOT have a Twitter account. The fine print clearly states that while Twitter the company will not use personal information, that obligation is voided if the company is sold (or words to that effect). 

Furthermore, much of Musk’s business empire can be impacted by regulations passed by various levels of government, not to mention that they have contracts with those same entities. Does anyone not think Musk would use Twitter in an attempt to influence decisions? 

Will his bullishness on Bitcoin potentially trigger a global economic crisis? 

And as for personal attacks? 

When Musk heard Bill Gates had bet against shares of Tesla, @elonmusk posted an unflattering photo of Gates with the caption “in case u want to lose a boner fast” 

Juvenile, yes. But highly predictive. 

Consequences

And it’s not just a few whiners. Many Twitter users followed through on threats to leave the platform if the sale went through. Obama reported losing over 300,000 followers and Katy Perry was down over 200,000. 

On the other hand, Marjorie Taylor Greene gained over 120,000 – which may point to a solution that has already started. 

Thank you, the thousands of concerned Americans, Americans who choose Obama over Mad Marjorie, who have already closed your Twitter accounts. Those accounts, and the access to their hundreds of thousands of followers, will hit Musk where it counts. Not necessarily in the pocket, because his is huge. But in his ego. 

As is another purveyor of his own social media platform. Enigmatically, yesterday @elonmusk tweeted “Truth Social (terrible name) exists because Twitter censored free speech” 

Just a thought, how many people follow the disgraced president on Truth Social? 

And as a previous Twitter CEO tweeted to Musk: “Bullying is not leadership” 

What’s most important now is to fight inertia, and resist giving in to the feeling nothing can be done. You can make a difference. If you’re on Twitter, close your account and look for another way to express yourself. If there’s enough of a vacuum, alternatives will fill it 

And I say alternatives in the plural advisedly, because more will mean more democracy. 

More may create silos of voices with similar views but hopefully it will strengthen the people who are being buried by the crazies rampant on Twitter now and give voice to a broader and more credible range of views so more people can “speak freely within the bounds of the law.”

(Liz Amsden is an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)