In the United States, the daily news accounts of Twitter’s decline and possible demise can give the impression that Elon Musk’s disastrous early days as the owner of the social media company is a largely American story.
One day, the headlines are dominated by Musk polling his Twitter followers to determine whether former U.S. President Donald Trump should be allowed to return to the platform. Unsurprisingly, given Musk’s politics, he was. Another day, the public learns that Marjorie Taylor Green, one of the most radical exponents in Congress of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement, has been granted renewed access to Twitter. And at virtually the same moment, Canadian psychologist and media personality Jordan Peterson, a long-standing provocateur in the United States’ culture wars and notable opponent of the protection of rights of transgender and nonbinary people, was welcomed back to Twitter.
Anticipating widespread criticism, Musk, who often comes across as a gleeful adolescent and exhibitionist, tweeted, “Hope all judgy hall monitors stay on other platforms – please, I’m begging u”.
Some prominent U.S. commentators have dismissed what is going on at Twitter. Marketing professor and podcast host Scott Galloway, speaking on CBS News’s Face the Nation on Sunday, said the platform is “not a national treasure”. But there are many reasons to mourn the ongoing spectacle. With all of its shortcomings, Twitter has been a powerful agent in the democratization of information over the past generation.
Depending on one’s age, it may be all too easy to ignore or forget what the human information ecosystem was like a mere generation ago. When I was starting out as a journalist in the early 1980s, the news in my country, the United States, was utterly dominated by a small number of companies, starting with the so-called national newspapers such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Most Americans got their news from the three national television networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC—which mostly took their leads straight from the big papers, allowing their coverage decisions to be especially guided by the Times’s front page.
In that era, the United States had a far more vibrant local information scene, with strong competition among daily newspapers in even medium-sized cities. Most of these have disappeared or been gutted by the internet. But for news of the world, even financially strong local papers often relied heavily on the syndicated offerings of the three big national papers.
I have worked at one time or another of my career on every continent. And although it is difficult to make a blanket statement covering the news industry globally, for the people of many—and perhaps most—countries, the news diet at this time was far thinner than in the United States and often dominated by official government publications and broadcasters.
Social media in general, and perhaps Twitter in particular, have helped destroy the old information system. By serving as what economists would call a “multiplier”, they have vastly expanded the range of offerings that we are all exposed to, as well as the reach of both smaller players in the information economy and individuals. Like almost anything so consequential, this has not come without problems and drawbacks, which I will come to in a moment. First, though, more needs to be said about what Musk has been destroying.
Others have commented on the destruction of all sorts of human networks and communities as Twitter suffers a battering from within. If predictions of Twitter’s ultimate demise are not utterly premature, I, for one, will find it immeasurably harder to do what I do. As a journalist with far-flung interests, that means staying abreast of information in every corner of Africa, in northeastern Asia, in academic history circles in the United States, in the publishing industry, and in many other areas. In addition to its reach, Twitter has allowed people like me to curate their sources by following people who are reliably interesting—and relatively reliable in the quality of information they share.
In recent days, I have been experimenting with some of the new alternatives to Twitter, such as Post.News. But however promising some of them look, it will be hard—or, more likely, impossible—to reconstruct some of what years of careful Twitter use had built for me and millions of others.
If these strike readers as relatively mundane considerations, there is one other way to think about the damage being done to Twitter that is the opposite of parochial, American or otherwise. Galloway notwithstanding, the destruction of Twitter would be a geopolitical catastrophe not only for the United States but also for the democratic world in general. With his shallow understanding of freedom of speech, these stakes seem to escape Musk.
As the world’s leading authoritarian society, China’s response to Twitter and other Western social media was to allow only stringently policed conversations on authorized (or at least not forbidden) topics on platforms such as Weibo. Musk’s free speech absolutism might seem like the opposite, but, in fact, it represents an abdication of responsibility and good sense in the name of his personal ideology.
It is true that Twitter has long allowed some level of disinformation and fake news on its platform, and that in some circles there was always lots of shouting, falsity, and ugliness. But the company expended considerable energy to keep things within bounds and enforce standards. By allowing virtually anything to appear on Twitter—no matter how hurtful, untrue, irresponsible, or even hateful—through the gutting of the platform’s Trust and Safety unit, Musk is destroying free speech in the name of saving it.
If things continue down this path, we will end up in a situation where democratic countries will have proved themselves as incapable as authoritarian ones in providing for untrammeled communication and the sharing of information globally.
This, and not Musk’s shallow and sterile vision, would be the true defeat of free speech. And there is no one who would be happier than its most powerful sworn enemies, the authoritarians. Listen carefully, and you may already hear them clucking.
Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.