December 9, 2022

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Elon Musk’s free speech absolutism may endanger fragile democracies

2 min read

The writer is founder of Sifted, an FT-backed media company covering European start-ups

It seems almost quaint today but back in 1985 the American cultural critic Neil Postman wrote a book warning that we were all Amusing Ourselves to Death. “Talking hair-dos” had turned TV news into showbiz entertainment, cheapening public discourse. Television, he wrote, had created a new “species” of information more properly described as disinformation — “misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information” that detracted from knowledge. Form now excluded meaningful content.

One trembles to think what Postman, who passed away in 2003, would have made of social media, which contains infinitely more creative forms to amuse ourselves. The emergence of the internet may have opened up extraordinary possibilities to deepen public discourse. But the spirit of our times was perhaps best captured by a tweet from Elon Musk at the weekend: “The most entertaining outcome is the most likely.”

The new owner of Twitter certainly practises what he tweets: Musk’s 119mn followers are riveted by his timeline. Interspersing SpaceX rocket launches, Twitter service updates, off-colour jokes and sly personal commentary, Musk is the master of the medium he now controls. Daily active users have hit record highs, he claims, in spite of his mass sacking of Twitter staff. Content moderation now reflects his personal whims or has been turned into immersive theatre — the decision about whether to restore former US president Donald Trump’s account became an online poll (52 per cent of 15mn voting users — or bots — were in favour). 

The instinctive response to Musk’s digital antics may be: so what? After his $44bn acquisition, Twitter is now a private company. If Musk wants to pull the wheels off his digital train set to amuse the crowd, then who cares? If users and advertisers are offended, they are free to quit and seek enlightenment elsewhere.

But the reason…

2022-11-24 07:25:23

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