Elon Musk, Twitter and the New American Oligarchs

The quest to predict and control our behavior by powerful tech companies, which spread from Silicon Valley and spread to all sectors of the economy, has returned to the agenda with the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk.

California State East Bay University faculty member Nolan Higdon The conversationIn his article published in .

Here are the highlights of the article:

“19. In the Golden Age, which stretched from the turn of the century to the beginning of the 20th century, in the United States, names like William Randolph Hearst (founder of the largest chain of newspapers and country media) and Jay Gould (railroad investor, speculator) who pioneered industrialization made their enormous fortune and the news media They used it to steer the course of the economy through a variety of tools, including These names were in many ways the earliest examples of literal oligarchs, as they were “wealthy businessmen with enormous political influence.”

According to some, the United States is experiencing a second golden age, an era where income inequality, political polarization, xenophobia have peaked as in the first, and new types of oligarchs are using their wealth to increase their influence in media and politics.

Let’s come to the announcement of the billionaire owner of Tesla, Elon Musk, that he bought the social media platform Twitter on April 25, 2022. With this development, the richest man in the world will take full control of the world. one of the most effective communication tools in the world.

As a media communications specialist, I doubt Musk’s intent in buying Twitter was simply his desire to control and manipulate public opinion. A handful of super-rich Americans, today’s equivalents of Golden Age oligarchs, will have just that power with their purchases from the country’s media, but they will also have access to the personal information of Internet users and audiences. news.

Many American billionaires over the past decade The Boston Globe, Las Vegas Review-Journal, The Atlantic and Los Angeles Times They bought media platforms such as One of the most famous examples of this is that in 2013 Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos, who has a net worth of $170 billion, bought 250 millions of dollars. The Washington PostHe had bought it.

For decades, media communications pundits have expressed concern that the news media agenda in the United States is now set by a handful of corporations, empowered by their unlimited wealth and inadequate legislation. In fact, the number of companies that run the majority of news media in the United States has fallen from 50 in the 1980s to 6 today.

This concentration of the media industry in the hands of a handful of very wealthy people is worrying for a healthy democracy, where an environment of widely differing opinions and an unrestricted flow of information are essential for voters, according to the communications expert Robert McChesney.

The American people rely on the reports of journalists to determine whether they will participate in elections, how they will use their elections if they do, and whether they should organize and participate in acts of civil disobedience. This concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few has allowed a few media companies to normalize the perception of false and untrue news, such as news about weapons of mass destruction before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Like the 19th and early 20th century oligarchs in the United States, today’s billionaires are aware that they can control or shape the choices of Democratic voters by controlling the flow of information. For example, Sheldon Adelson, owner of a chain of casinos. Las Vegas Exam LogAfter the acquisition of Adelson, information was leaked to the public that information about Adelson had been censored or altered in order to preserve the corporate image of the city famous for its casinos in the public eye.

Likewise, Jeff Bezos The Washington PostIt is clearly observed that the newspaper news on Amazon, following the acquisition of . The Washington Post He denies both allegations.

The user as a product

With an estimated fortune of $268 billion as of April 2022, Musk is the latest example of the wealthy buying into a media platform. By choosing social media over traditional media, the CEO of Tesla takes control of an important news medium. According to a 2021 study by PEW (a US-based think tank), 23% of Americans use Twitter, and 7 out of 10 Twitter users say they get their news from it.

But the implications of a single billionaire controlling Twitter are far more complex and dangerous than in the era of wealthy media owners, who primarily sought to dominate the news.

Prior to Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, Silicon Valley was already controlled by billionaires who were executives of several companies known as FAANG – Facebook (now Meta) Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google (now Alphabet). These companies are essentially Prof. It is taking advantage of a new economic order that Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”. In surveillance capitalism, the user himself is a product; Companies collect user information and sell it to those who want to predict or even trigger human behavior.

In this new economic order, technology companies aim to get a sense of user’s thoughts and perceptual processes by constantly monitoring users on or off their platforms, collecting and evaluating information such as voices, videos, typed words, GPS and even DNA.

Big tech companies employ various techniques used in the gaming industry to keep people hooked to their screens to ensure this flow of information continues. Tech companies basically trick users into chasing that dopamine rush as a result of a Facebook “like” or a “friend request” or a “retweet” or a “new follower” on Twitter. As in the gaming industry, these techniques would be used regardless of the impact they might have on the mental health of the user.

For example, in 2022, a former Facebook employee announced that the company was aware that the design of the platform was harming its users, especially young people, but refused to make changes, fearing that it would reduce its profits.

Is it just freedom of expression?

In this context, Musk is not just a modern version of the 19th century oligarchs, but Musk’s power goes beyond shaping public opinion with superficial scams and censorship of certain content. In addition to shaping the public as he wishes, Musk will have every right to a huge amount of personal data. For example, when users use content from Twitter or related products, Twitter collects information about them, including information embedded in other websites, and stores the web pages the user has visited, their IP addresses, browser they use, the operating system and cookies.

Musk says his purchase of Twitter is due to his support for free speech. The same Musk is also known to actively seek revenge against those who criticize what is being done in his companies. Additionally, Tesla under his leadership still has contracts to prevent employees from quitting their jobs to criticize the company.

Moreover, according to computer engineer and philosopher Jaron Lanier and free speech activist and author Jillian York, social media platforms such as Twitter do not serve “true” freedom of speech, which can be defined like the ability to express one’s thoughts without interference. .

Moreover, it can be said that social media companies, which control what users will and will not see, are already violating freedom of expression. Because the algorithms of social media platforms personalize the news feed based on the user, with the content they think is most important to users, excluding other content.

Surveillance capitalism creates new opportunities for billionaires to influence their electorate. As in the first Gilded Age, Musk will be able to decide what users can and cannot see on his platform. Unlike its predecessors, it will also be able to collect data that will provide benefits to predict and even trigger user behavior by tracking and tracing what users are doing.

This article was first published on May 5, 2022.

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