“Elon Musk he’s such a f***ing moron” (Conover, 2022) said Adam Conover in relation to Elon Musk on the Trillionaire Pod, a podcast. Elon Musk who recently bought Twitter in an effort to “clean house” of its woke ideological agenda and to “bring free speech back” to the platform, has come under criticism. This is due largely to Elon Musk saying that he will allow harmful speech that was previously not allowed on Twitter. In addition, Musk announced that Twitter would be rolling out a new program called Twitter Blue which essentially allows anyone to become verified on the social network by paying just eight dollars a month. Because anyone can become verified it creates the issue of impersonation and the circulation of fake news which is detrimental to a well-functioning democracy.
Musk’s rhetoric could be compared to that of a populist. Musk is acting in a way that is like a strong man and says how he will clean Twitter up, signifying Twitter as it currently stood before his purchase was a corrupt establishment figure in the form of media and information. This is highlighted in The Journal of Democracy under the chapter the Pipe Dream of Un-Democratic liberalism when it is stated that “the more people see “the elite” or “the establishment” as out of touch and unresponsive, the more likely they are to want to get rid of them.” (Berman 2017). This may be referring to elections, but, this notion coincides with the populist messaging that Musk displays as there are some people that support him taking over Twitter and truly believe that he will be the savior of freedom of speech on the platform. This is why there is such a backlash against Elon Musk being in charge of Twitter as he is displaying populist tendencies which are bad for democracy. Populism is bad for democracy because populist leaders tend to shake up the rules of the game and established precedents in the name of the “will of the people”, which is what Musk is doing in the name of freedom of speech for “the people” in regard to Twitter, which can be seen with his plan to implement the service Twitter Blue.
Twitter Blue is a program that Twitter users can opt into on the app by paying $8 a month to be verified. In addition, this program comes with exclusive features such as the ability to edit/undo a tweet. (Clark, 2022). These features can be problematic for maintaining a true free press in a functioning democracy for multiple reasons. An example of why this is problematic has to do with impersonation. Because anyone is able to verify themselves through Twitter Blue, it raises the possibility of people impersonating others and spreading fake news, specifically disinformation. This can be seen with an account impersonating Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company that makes insulin, that stated that Insulin would be now free on Twitter (Lee, 2022). Because this fake account had the verified checkmark, many people believe this tweet to be true. With so many people believing this tweet to be true, “the day after the fake Eli Lilly accounts had issued their fake insulin tweets, Eli Lilly’s stock share price tumbled by 4.37% or $16.08 down to $352.30”. This shows the economic damage that this dangerous spread of disinformation can cause. The company lost billions of dollars because of this, damaging the liberal economic markets that are a pillar of current liberal democracy in the U.S. This tweet had economic consequences, but all tweets that are forms of disinformation can damage democracy in different ways that don’t necessarily have to be exclusively economic. This is illustrated by the assertion that “in the words of the interim report of the UK parliamentary committee on fake news, the new information games ‘reduce the common ground on which reasoned debate, based on objective facts, can take place … the very fabric of our democracy is threatened. ’” (Pomerantsev 2019). Despite this claim being made in relation to the UK, the UK, similarly to the U.S is a liberal democracy as well in the western world that also relies on liberal economic markets as a pillar for their current liberal democracy, as well as sharing many similar qualities with U.S liberal democratic norms. Therefore, this this claim can also be applied to the U.S. In relation to Twitter Blue, this claim shows that fake news damages debate on policy which inherently threatens democracy.
The claim that fake news directly threatens democracy can be connected to the tweet by the fake Eli Lilly account. This is because that accounts tweet that falsely claimed insulin to now be free also hurt the conversation to be had about possibly lowering the insulin prices to be more affordable and fairer. This is because it indeed did bring the issue of unfair insulin pricing to light, however, it didn’t do it in a reasonable, traditional way that we have seen in the past in terms of liberal democracy. Furthermore, it may have increased polarization on the issue because of the false information being circulated. This tweet that was intentionally lying to people of twitter, is evidence the Twitter Blue program that is being implemented by Elon Musk, is a cause for concern of democratic erosion based on the evidence that has been provided.
- Berman, Sheri. “The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 28, no. 3, 2017, pp. 29–38., doi:10.1353/jod.2017.0041.
- Clark, Kendra. “Twitter Blue Explained: for a Fee You Can Undo Tweet, Bookmark and More.” 2022.
- Conover, Adam. TikTok, 2022, www.tiktok.com/@smalltownentrepreneur/video/7160154254383189294?is_from_webapp=v1&item_id=7160154254383189294.
- Lee, Bruce Y. “Fake Eli Lilly Twitter Account Claims Insulin Is Free, Stock Falls 4.37%.” 2022.
- Pomerantsev, Peter. “The Disinformation Age: A Revolution in Propaganda.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 July 2019, www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/27/the-disinformation-age-a-revolution-in-propaganda.
I agree with Elon Musk portraying himself as a populist while being unaware of Twitter’s state. His out-of-touch behavior makes him seem distant and elite. His blue twitter program is also causing a decline in the legitimacy of news circulating on the platform. Many people receive information from social media and other online platforms in the twenty-first century. When anyone can buy the verification on Twitter, there will be growth in illegitimate media. Thus, it can eventually lead to losing belief and trust in the media. Media is an essential component in the development and stability of democracy. If the creditability is taken from the news media, the county’s citizens will be left in the dark. Moreover, the rate of transparency of government institutions and officials will decrease, eventually leading to democratic erosion.
This is an interesting take on Musk’s claim to populism. He is a strange figure to make a claim in the first place as he is one of the wealthiest men in the world. But many buy into it. I believe that he has demonstrated a commitment to profit over people. With his recent banning of journalists who criticize him and Twitter’s already shaky past with democracy, it will be interesting to see where the platform ends up. I initially thought that the Twitter Blue fiasco was just a funny story and karma in action, but you made a good point about its potential ramifications.