We cannot rely on billionaires to create necessary guardrails on social media

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Source: Washington Post

“The most epic troll ever.” That’s how one Twitter employee described Elon Musk’s offer to buy the platform, and how it has largely been covered — as the latest entrepreneurial romp in the billionaire’s ever-growing cult of personality. A self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” who sees Twitter as the “de facto public town square,” Musk did what any zillionaire with a savior complex would: purchase the town square, for $44 billion.

A troll it might be, but the focus on Musk’s unconventional style distracts from a more urgent problem: the growing consolidation of online media that allows a select few of the wealthiest people and companies to control digital discourse.

With online searches dominated by Google, and Facebook parent Meta buying up the world’s biggest social media platforms to amass 3.6 billion monthly active users — almost half the planet — online discourse has centralized under a handful of corporate umbrellas. Worse, it’s increasingly not just a few companies shaping this conversation, but a few individuals: ​​based on the 2021 Forbes 400, eight of the top 10 richest people in the United States have a significant stake in online media or the public’s access to it. These so-called “public” platforms have become plutocrats’ platforms, and their dominance makes them difficult to avoid — witness that, to comment on the potentially dangerous repercussions of the sale of Twitter, I myself took to Twitter! Like many others, I am trying to see through the vertigo of the situation and figure out what comes next. Because one thing is clear: This consolidation does not create the conditions under which free speech thrives.

The online oligarchs appear to believe that if they could simply break off the chains of regulation, a marketplace of ideas would flourish. But we’ve consistently seen that unmoored online platforms don’t result in the best ideas rising to the top. If anything, it’s a race to the bottom. Fredrick Brennan, the creator of 8chan — a site intended to be a “free speech utopia” — saw how a lack of moderation allowed violence, misinformation and hate to dominate the platform. Now, he pleads: “Shut the site down. … It’s not doing the world any good.”

Increasingly, it seems, every platform needs guardrails. And we cannot rely upon benevolent billionaires to be objective and thoughtful in shaping them.

Mark Zuckerberg has hailed the value of free speech and expression — yet when TikTok’s meteoric success threatened Facebook’s relevance, the company manufactured a nationwide campaign to discredit the app. When a teenager created a popular Twitter account that tracked the movements of Elon Musk’s private jet using publicly available information, the free speech absolutist himself tried to quell the operation, offering the student thousands of dollars to take down the account. The student refused — and look who turned around and bought the entire platform just months later.

Fortunately, we can take steps to reclaim online communication as a public good. That starts with countering consolidation through antitrust reform. Anti-monopoly advocate Stacy Mitchell argues that splitting corporations such as Google and Amazon into component companies could eliminate the conflicts of interest that let them unfairly disadvantage competitors — and allow a broader variety of players to shape the online world. [Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.]

For example, last year, the Nation, where I serve as publisher, joined with two other media outlets to sue Google for stifling competition in online ad sales, which many publishers rely on to survive. In excluding rival ad networks from its marketplace, Google drives up profits for itself and prices for everyone else. So the lawsuit calls on Google to divest from its ad-selling business and help create a truly free market for online advertising.

Breaking up big tech could be the beginning of a broader political project: bringing the platforms used by the public into public hands. As media expert Victor Pickard recently argued in a piece for the Nation, “Ideas for structural reform are flourishing, though you wouldn’t know it from the narrowed parameters of mainstream policy debates.” We could transfer ownership of these platforms to workers and run them as cooperatives. Or we could build a digital public infrastructure to ensure all Americans have access to and protection in their freedom of expression — in the same way that the government has handled previous communication technologies, including the telegraph, postal mail and radio. If we can have the U.S. Postal Service and PBS, why not have a public social media option and a federally owned search engine?

At a time when democracy globally — and at home — is under assault, it seems urgent to create environments that foster a vibrant, open, productive exchange of ideas. Indeed, if we don’t, Twitter could be far from the last of our public squares subject to a hostile takeover.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, writes a weekly column for The Post. She has also edited or co-edited several books, including “The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama” (2011) and “Meltdown: How Greed and Corruption Shattered Our Financial System and How We Can Recover” (2009). Twitter

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