December 16, 2022

Celebrate Elon Musk, but Don’t Lose Sight of Big Tech’s Structural Problems

The problems with Big Tech are sprawling; they are not idiosyncratic to Twitter.

The story of Elon Musk’s acquisition, transformation and public rehabilitation of Twitter is nothing short of remarkable. Here is that rarest of confluences: A right-leaning (or at least right-sympathetic) mega-billionaire privately acquires a disproportionately influential public company out of genuine public-spiritedness, perhaps even a hint of noblesse oblige, and an earnest commitment to preserving open discourse in our modern digital public square; exposes grievous previous company wrongs for the whole world to see in a dramatic unveiling of the eponymous “Twitter Files”; and makes decisive personnel decisions to toss out core leaders of the wretched and corrupt old regime, and begins to chart a promising new path forward.

There has been no equivalent story in my adult lifetime, and there is unlikely to be a similar story again any time soon. This is not the type of corporate development one typically reads about in The Wall Street Journal or sees discussed on CNBC. The story is a unicorn.

The remarkable nature of the Elon Musk/Twitter saga, and the specific revelations about Twitter’s blacklisting of the infamous 2020 campaign-era Hunter Biden laptop story and its censorship/shadow-banning of myriad other right-leaning content creators, has led many on the Right to fete Musk with praise — at times, even fawning adoration. To be sure, that praise is wholly warranted: Musk has thus far proven wrong the skeptics who were unsure just how big an impact he might be able to make at Twitter, answering the call of his civic duty as the world’s wealthiest man. Indeed, he has gone above and beyond his civic duty.

But as transformative as Musk has been in the nascent stages of his Twitter ownership, it is crucial to not forget the bigger picture.

Twitter, though the preferred communicative organ of the American political class and the broader commentariat, pales in comparison to most other Big Tech platforms in terms of its reach. In terms of pure social media platforms alone, Facebook is orders of magnitude more popular than Twitter globally, and is over four times as popular just in the U.S. based on number of users. Facebook’s fellow Meta subsidiary, Instagram, is also roughly three times as popular as Twitter based on volume of American users.

Outside of pure social media, Google and Amazon — the monopolistic internet gateways to information and commerce, respectively — are likely the two most powerful of all the Big Tech oligarchs and have both been exposed in the past for manipulating their internal algorithms to redound to parochial commercial interests. Furthermore, Apple and Google, which combined have a duopoly on smartphone app access, could, in the absence of additional legislation, easily collude — just as they did with respect to Parler after the Jan. 6 jamboree at the U.S. Capitol — to nuke users’ access to the Twitter app, thus severely diminishing, if not outright undoing, all of Musk’s salutary changes to the platform.

Nor is this a pure thought exercise. Just on the narrow topic of the “Twitter Files” revelations pertaining to the October 2020 chicanery about the Hunter Biden laptop story, it is important not to forget that Facebook is just as much to blame as Twitter. Recall how just in August, Mark Zuckerberg straightforwardly admitted to popular podcaster Joe Rogan that Facebook suppressed circulation of the New York Post’s Hunter laptop exposé, on the precipice of the 2020 presidential election, after an FBI warning about the dissemination of possible “Russian disinformation.” Let’s be clear: Musk acquiring, transforming and rehabilitating Twitter has no bearing whatsoever on preventing future malfeasance at Facebook.

Truth is, as great as Musk has been not merely for Twitter but for the health of America’s digital town square in general, concerted public policy and legal changes are still needed to wrest control away from powerful Silicon Valley bureaucrats and to restore that control to its rightful place: with the American people.

The most fundamental questions of all, when it comes to the Big Tech debate, pertain to sovereignty: Who will write the rules that govern our digital town square and our digital marketplace? Who will secure equal access to those digital institutions — woke, unaccountable and nerdy computer science Ph.D.s, or the American people? The beneficence of one serendipitously right-leaning (or right-curious) plutocrat does not in any way change how our legal and political processes should resolve these thorny questions. And specifically, it is crucial that all of the rethinking conservatives have done the past few years on Big Tech, when it comes to Section 230, antitrust and common carrier regulation, not be rendered moot now that Musk runs the big blue bird.

The problems with Big Tech are structural and sprawling; they are not idiosyncratic to Twitter, which has among the smallest user bases of any of the internet platforms typically included when politicians and commentators speak of “Big Tech.” When a new Congress is sworn in in January, it is imperative not to forget this.


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