It’s absurd that oligarchs can simply purchase—as one might buy a T-shirt—entire social media platforms and do with them whatever they want. I have no love for the other ruling class owners who controlled Twitter before Musk. But it’s a big problem that things like social media platforms, which ought to be democratically controlled as public utilities, are even up for sale to the highest bidder in the first place.
The same is true of newspapers and other large media institutions—and let’s not forget that Jeff Bezos recently purchased The Washington Post. It’s a deep problem for democracy that key parts of the public square are the private possessions of the rich.
But if you ask some of the milquetoast liberals at The New York Times, the main problem here seems to be that Musk might loosen the regime of corporate censorship at Twitter. (Though I may prove mistaken, I doubt he will actually do this.)
I’ll come back to the point about corporate censorship in a moment. For now, let’s sit with the fact that the bulk of liberal commentary about Musk’s takeover doesn’t object in any way to corporate domination of social media platforms, streaming services, and other digital infrastructure.
In fact, this is taken for granted. So, the consensus view seems to be that it’s fine for social media to be ruled by corporations so long as the companies in question brand themselves in the appropriate way and virtue signal regularly. The politics of media thus gets reduced to a conflict over how the ruling class owners of certain companies comport themselves in public and whether they tend to publicly agree or disagree with people like Trump.
But this only makes sense if you view politics as having nothing whatsoever to do with challenging the entrenched power and privilege of corporations and the rich. It only makes sense if you believe corporations who occasionally make empty symbolic gestures actually care about ending structural oppressions like racism and sexism. In effect, it only makes sense if you think the central question is who our particular corporate overlords ought to be, rather than the more important question of whether it’s a good thing for democratically unaccountable capitalist firms to control so much of our culture and social life in the first place.
This brings me to the question of censorship. To call for, say, Twitter or Facebook to heavily moderate speech is to imply that profit-driven corporations should generally have the authority to decide what should be censored and what shouldn’t be. But this gives them a kind of power they don’t deserve, which we know they will routinely abuse in pursuit of their own private interests. In a healthy society, public speech, especially calls to harm people and abuse campaigns, would meet with some form of accountability. But it simply shouldn’t be up to billionaires like Musk or Zuckerberg to make calls about what kind of speech is acceptable and what isn’t. This is the kind of thing we must settle democratically.
Now, it’s true that there are legions of far-right activists—including outright fascists, Nazis, and Klan members—who want to use platforms like Twitter to recruit, to propagate racism and misinformation, incite violence, and so on.
But the grave problem of how to stop the growth of the far right—here in the U.S. as well as abroad—isn’t going to be solved by appealing to capitalists to more heavily police and control what we can say on the internet. First of all, we know those same capitalists use this power to police oppressed groups and censor radical left activists. Second, the capitalist class (generally speaking) has neither the desire nor the ability to address the social problems that create an opening for the far-right in the first place, like escalating inequality, alienation, economic powerlessness, poverty and insecurity. Finally, corporations are invested in the status quo and are deeply skeptical toward any measure that proposes to seriously shift wealth and power away from them toward oppressed groups. So, it’s a grave mistake to see them as reliable, sincere allies in the struggle to smash oppressive systems like white supremacy, heterosexism, and misogyny. (To see what I mean, just think about how Amazon and Starbucks are currently responding to efforts by workers to organize themselves into unions. Or consider whether J.P. Morgan Chase—which has historic ties to profits derived from chattel slavery—has any interest in relinquishing its stolen wealth and returning it to the descendents of those who were enslaved.)
Where does this leave us? Perhaps instead of worrying about whether trolls like Elon Musk will less intensely police what’s said on Twitter, we should recall what happened in the Spring and Summer of 2020. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, defied politicians and economic elites, and demanded radical changes to this society. They loudly and unapologetically criticized the deep connections between white supremacy and U.S. capitalism. The reverberations of this movement are still being felt today. This is how we will ultimately defeat social pathologies like racism, xenophobia, and sexism.
To think there’s a corporate solution to these problems involving censorship is to miss the point entirely.