Twittering about accountability – Vegter takes on The Left

Giving the world’s richest man the potential power to contain the conspiracy theorists and control the world of Twitter has provoked a mildly hysterical fit among the intellectual left, according to Ivo Vegter in the Daily Friend. While pondering the vexed question of just who gets to design the algorithms and thus direct Twitter, Vegter throws some cold water on those who suggest Musk would become some sophisticated modern-day Goebbels. He gives a sober perspective on just how much influence on the Internet Musk would generally have should his suddenly hostile bid to secure a greater grasp of Twitter succeed. Not much, he concludes, and in any case, who has the right to dictate what any private person or group of people is permitted to do with the companies they own, he asks. If Musk is not morally equipped to own a social media company, then someone else could decide left-wing professors are far too left-wing to go around indoctrinating impressionable young students, Vegter teases. – Chris Bateman

Musk’s Twitter bid sparks free speech hysterics

By Ivo Vegter  

Elon Musk’s hostile takeover bid for social network Twitter has respectable left-wing professors clutching their pearls.

Ivo Vegter. Image Credit: The Daily Friend

Elon Musk is rich. He is ultra-rich. He is super-mega-hyper rich. In fact, he is the richest person on the planet, on paper at least.

That makes him an arch-enemy of left-wing professors, who must mow down tall poppies for the sake of an egalitarian lawn.

Musk is capitalism personified (even though he sucks greedily from the government teat). He is the monopoly man (even though he operates in highly competitive industries). He is the very image of a capitalist fat cat (even though he isn’t fat and doesn’t wear a tux and top hat).

Poor people are poor because rich people are rich, is the basic economic principle to which left-wing professors subscribe, so Elon Musk symbolises everything that’s wrong with the world.

Hostile takeover

Just over two weeks ago, Elon Musk announced that he had, over the course of two months, acquired 9.2% of the common stock of his favourite social media company, Twitter. The company’s share price immediately jumped 24%, to $48.78.

On Twitter, he posted laconically: “Oh hi lol”.

The next day, Twitter offered him a seat on the board of directors, although the admirably brief agreement also limited him to owning at most 14.9% of Twitter’s shares.

On Twitter, Musk promptly started a poll on whether users wanted an ‘edit’ button. Alarmingly, three-quarters of his fan club were perfectly okay with that terrible idea.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and CEO Parag Agrawal both claimed to be delighted to have Musk on the board, and Musk claimed to be looking forward to making “significant improvements” to Twitter in the coming months.

Soon, however, news broke that Musk wouldn’t be taking up the board seat, after all. Instead of agreeing to a cap on his share ownership, Musk went hostile, offering a substantial $54.20 per share for all the outstanding stock of Twitter.

“Twitter has extraordinary potential. I will unlock it,” he wrote in the filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Although he was at pains to point out that his offer represented a 38% premium over the price on 1 April 2022, the day before his investment in Twitter was announced, and a 54% premium over Twitter’s share price on 28 January 2022, the day before he began to accumulate that stake, the market was unimpressed.

It doubted Musk’s ability to finance the more than $43bn in cash needed to seal the deal. Even for the world’s richest person, that much liquid cash is hard to raise, especially against volatile assets owned by a mercurial man.

The Twitter board was also advised that the offer was too low, although in an hilarious turn of events, the same firm advising the Twitter board, Goldman Sachs, also had a sell rating on the stock, having reduced its valuation from $36 to $30 a share. Awkward!

The Twitter board, having recovered from its champagne hangover, is no longer so delighted to work with Musk. It has prepared a poison pill in an attempt to stave off the hostile takeover.

Progressive professor

To get the wrong take on just about anything, one should always go to The Guardian. As usual, it does not disappoint.

It published a piece by Robert Reich, a broadly respectable, albeit left-wing progressive, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He was a frequent government appointee under presidents Ford, Carter, Clinton and Obama, most notably as Labour Secretary during Bill Clinton’s first term. Describing Elon Musk’s vision for the internet – that is, free speech absolutism – as “dangerous nonsense”, he opens his salvo at the Tesla and SpaceX CEO with confused contradictions.

On one hand, Reich is upset that, “The Russian people know little about Putin’s war on Ukraine because Putin has blocked their access to the truth, substituting propaganda and lies.” Arguably, the solution to that problem is exactly the free speech absolutism that Reich finds so dangerous.

On the other, Reich is upset that, “Musk tweeted that US tech companies shouldn’t be acting ‘as the de facto arbiter of free speech’.” The very idea that free speech needs an arbiter seems a contradiction in terms.

He observes: “Years ago, pundits assumed the internet would open a new era of democracy, giving everyone access to the truth. But dictators like Putin and demagogues like Trump have demonstrated how naive that assumption was.” The promise was never that everyone would gain access to the truth. It was merely that everyone would gain access to information, and be able to communicate freely with anyone in the world. Everyone would be (largely) free from government censorship.

Determining what to believe remained an individual’s own responsibility, as it was before the internet, when some people assumed The Guardian knew it all, others swore by The Telegraph, and most people read sensationalist, dishonest and hyper-partisan tabloids.

Who censors the censors?

Reich expresses his approval that former US president Donald Trump was banned from most major social media platforms, and expresses alarm that Musk might wish to reverse that decision.

“Musk says he wants to ‘free’ the internet, writes Reich. “But what he really aims to do is make it even less accountable than it is now, when it’s often impossible to discover who is making the decisions about how algorithms are designed, who is filling social media with lies, who’s poisoning our minds with pseudo-science and propaganda, and who’s deciding which versions of events go viral and which stay under wraps.”

It isn’t clear, however, exactly what he means by accountability. Who, exactly, should Twitter (or Musk) be accountable to? To their board and shareholders? Surely not, since those are merely filthy capitalists.

To government regulators? If so, Reich hasn’t exactly solved his problem with either Trump or Putin, since both would exercise the power they had to promote their own propaganda, and dampen that of their opposition. Likewise, left-leaning politicians have shown ample appetite for censoring and de-platforming people with opposing views.

“Someone has to decide on the algorithms in every platform – how they’re designed, how they evolve, what they reveal and what they hide,” writes Reich. “Musk has enough power and money to quietly give himself this sort of control over Twitter.”

If not the owners of a platform, who else? Why would Parag Agrawal, or Jack Dorsey, or Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, or whichever Chinese Communist Party apparatchik runs TikTok, be any better at exercising that power?

They are quite evidently not better. They are the reason that polarising content gets surfaced by the algorithms, driving users to one or the other extreme of the political spectrum, all for the sake of engagement.

Their silencing of actors like Trump, or Qultists, or anti-vaxxers has not insulated the world from the consequences of these views. On the contrary: persecution makes conspiracy theorists stronger, and makes their delusions seem more plausible.

To whom, exactly, does Reich wish to make social media companies accountable? If it is to government, he would give those governments despotic power over what their citizens see, read and say.

If it is to other citizens, then who? Who has the right to dictate what any private person or group of people is permitted to do with the companies that they own? Why would anyone other than the beneficial owner be any better at making such decisions?


“In Musk’s vision of Twitter and the internet, he’d be the wizard behind the curtain – projecting on the world’s screen a fake image of a brave new world empowering everyone,” writes Reich.

Twitter is not the internet. It is a very small part of the internet, and Musk would control only a tiny fraction of it. Reich attributes power to Musk that he does not, and will never, have. Nobody can own the entire internet, and that is by design.

“In reality, that world would be dominated by the richest and most powerful people in the world, who wouldn’t be accountable to anyone for facts, truth, science or the common good,” he continues.

Once again, who should be the arbiter of facts, truth, science or the common good? I consider absolute free speech a common good, and I consider no one person or group an arbiter of facts, truth or science. Besides, people get rich and powerful in two ways: either by using force to expropriate others, as the government does when it taxes citizens; or by using persuasion to sell something to people that they’re prepared to pay for.

Twitter is entirely accountable to its customers. If its users were to abandon it because it no longer feeds the outrage machine or the compulsive need to scroll, it would go out of business tomorrow.

“[Dominating the world] is Musk’s dream,” writes Reich. “And Trump’s. And Putin’s. And the dream of every dictator, strongman, demagogue and modern-day robber baron on Earth. For the rest of us, it would be a brave new nightmare.”

One of those is not like the others. Putin and Trump wield(ed) government power, which includes a monopoly on violence. Putin does so absolutely, while Trump did so at the pleasure of voters in a democracy.

Musk is not a dictator, nor a strongman, nor a demagogue, nor even a robber baron (except in the green subsidies he gets for his electric cars and batteries). Musk is not some bogeyman. He is a capitalist in a free market, and is entirely dependent on delivering the goods for his customers. Any other capitalist is free to outcompete him. Like any billionaire, he could go broke.

What freedom means

Don’t get me wrong. While I admire some of his achievements, particularly with SpaceX, I think Elon Musk is a terrible human being. His antics are amusing, and he is an accomplished troll, but he has the morality of a plague rat.

His companies are cesspits of ‘frat house’ sexism and racism, which he believes women and black people should just swallow without complaint.

He punches down at people who criticise, upset or thwart him, publicly insulting or falsely smearing them, and siccing his baying Twitter mob on them. I entirely agree with Reich that he treats his staff badly (although arguably, that’s what they sign up for), and that he sneers at the law.

But here’s the problem with freedom, whether it is of speech or of the right to do business. Short of criminal transgression, it must apply to everyone.

If Robert Reich gets to decide that Musk is not morally equipped to own a social media company, then someone else could decide that Robert Reich is far too left-wing to go around indoctrinating impressionable young students (which he is).

“What is freedom of expression?” wrote Salman Rushdie. “Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

Fixing social media

In a free market, the solution to people or companies that act in ways you don’t like is to compete, or to support competitors.

In fact, that is exactly what Musk is doing. He saw a company that he likes, operating in a way he didn’t like, and proposes to buy it in order to change that. That is an entirely legitimate act in a free society. That’s not to say Musk will solve the problems caused by social media. He won’t. But those problems are a lot deeper than whether or not Donald Trump should be allowed to have an account.

Solving those problems is considerably harder than railing against an obnoxious centi-billionaire who buys a social media platform.

In the end, Reich’s pearl-clutching about free speech and his knee-jerking against the power of wealth are just superficial whining. They don’t solve anything. They don’t even correctly identify real problems.

For real insight into the problems caused by social media, rather read something like ‘Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid’, by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt doesn’t have the answers, but unlike Reich, he understands the problems. The hostile takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk isn’t one of them.

  • Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. Follow him on Twitter, @IvoVegter.
  • The views of the writer are not necessarily those of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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