His bid is apocalyptic if you believe that tweets decide the presidential outcome.
by Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., The Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2022
The law of scarcity applies to Elon Musk. Whatever his paper wealth, he is as impoverished as the rest of us in the time and attention he can devote to his many interests, which is one reason his Twitter bid is likely to fizzle out.
I can think of others. Mr. Musk is not the naïf he finds it useful to play. He knows, for business reasons as well as political reasons, that Twitter has crossed the river of no return in “moderating” the content that appears on its service—it can’t allow untrammeled free expression.
Advertisers can’t stomach it. The public, acting through politicians and mau-mau groups, won’t accept it. Twitter is obliged forever to be at war with organized actors—Russians, jihadists, white supremacists, antifa—who seek to use its platform for their own ends.
Unlike phone companies, which aren’t liable for messages their users share, social-media companies also intervene with algorithms to decide which of their billions of daily messages to promote to users. Inevitably, many unattractive causes are touted by Twitter adherents. For Mr. Musk, being the lightning rod for protecting the rights of these speakers would quickly become repellent in light of his primary business interests, especially Tesla, his electric-car maker.
And yet kudos to him for elevating a debate playing noisily in the background through the Covid wars, the 2020 election, the Russia “collusion” follies. By opening the door to “content moderation,” Twitter and Facebook opened their doors to organized interests trying to control their moderation policies. This is the real issue.
Mr. Musk may speak in terms of eternal verities like free speech; his critics speak in terms of their own eternal verities such as opposing racism, sexism and climate denial. But keep in mind certain non-eternal verities also in play: The expectation that the 2024 presidential election will be determined by as small and fungible a share of the vote as the last two presidential elections, each decided by fewer than 70,000 voters in three states.
The expectation that idiosyncratic, last-minute developments will be decisive in such a race: In 2016, FBI chief James Comey’s October intervention sank Hillary Clinton ; in 2020, Hunter Biden’s laptop called forth an unprecedented experiment in news suppression by the U.S. media and intelligence establishment to protect Joe Biden.
Finally, the expectation that Donald Trump will run again: Listen to any podcast featuring Larry Summers talking about inflation, Fiona Hill talking about Russia, or Bill Kristol talking about anything. Impossible not to detect between the lines is a gathering, deeply felt, whole-of-establishment urgency to keep Mr. Trump from returning to the White House.
Now you know why Mr. Musk’s proposal for a new laissez-faire content policy at Twitter—any tweets that aren’t strictly illegal will be permitted—has been greeted almost apocalyptically by the activist class.
In their real or imagined recent history, controlling Twitter’s content policy was tantamount to deciding the two last presidential races. Mr. Trump, after all, used Twitter to bypass a hostile national media and assemble his winning coalition in 2016. In 2020, progressives used Twitter to quash the laptop story before Election Day and, in their minds at least, to stop a coup after Jan. 6 by kicking Mr. Trump off the platform.
Polarized is not the right word for today’s electorate, which yields up closely fought elections that can seem to be decided by the vagaries of vote counting or last-minute furors. My guess is that big data is one factor. With their Index of Party Strength, reporters Sean Trende and David Byler showed that Democrats and Republicans have become increasingly efficient at dividing the national spoils since the age of Clinton. Even altering the Electoral College or Senate, as favored by some progressives, might not destabilize the duopoly stalemate for long. Ditto those Democrats and Never Trump Republicans who think the modern-day GOP has so soiled itself with Mr. Trump that it must disappear: Do they imagine his 75 million voters will go unrepresented in our political system?
Whatever the reason, control of Twitter, like few other assets, obviously matters if our presidential races are going to be decided by the last-minute whim of the least engaged voter.
Mr. Musk spoke a profound truth last week. In such a world, “in both the reality and the perception,” the only way to reconcile voters to such outcomes is to make sure the outcomes are seen to be as fair and above-board as possible. Astonishing is how many in the media fail to understand this and think that trying to silence their opponents is helpful instead.