The great rolling fiasco that is Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter got boiled down into a tidy pop-culture parable this weekend. As Dave Chappelle, the comedy world’s most prominent foe of all things woke, called Musk up to the stage at Chase Center in San Francisco, the Twitter titan was treated to a prolonged, lusty chorus of boos from the crowd. Footage from the show only erratically remained on Musk’s vanity platform the next day, and Musk himself suggested that he’d inspired “90% cheers and 10% boos” onstage—a falsehood so flagrant that it got “Boo-urns,” a 27-year-old Simpsons joke, trending on the site. For good measure, Musk—who’d also recently tweeted that something known as the “woke mind virus” was seeking to exert total control over civilization in a struggle in which “nothing else matters”—suggested that he’d “offended SF’s unhinged leftists,” without accounting for just why this offense-taking demographic would turn out in full force for a Dave Chappelle show.
The episode drove home just how much Musk’s self-ballyhooed takeover of the microblogging outlet is a protracted study in flop-sweat failure. As formerly banned hate merchants of the right stream back onto the site, and advertisers abscond en masse, Musk is left flogging the same wearisome tropes of culture-war exclusion into a yawning void of audience indifference, now verging on all-out hostility. His latest obsession is relentlessly promoting the content-challenged “Twitter Files”—a trove of documents from the regime of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey now selectively released into the tender care of pet journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss. What’s touted as a searing study in ideological censorship and “shadow banning” stands exposed instead as garden-variety content moderation, notable mostly for staidness and bureaucratic jargon. And, inconveniently, the actually existing record of message-boosting on the platform skews strongly and consistently rightward, as the corps of allegedly Maoist Comstocks and bluenoses directing things on Doresy’s watch readily conceded.
In short, Musk-era Twitter reprises longstanding maladies of the media industry in America—its chronic vulnerability to the vanity and whim of the right-wing ownership caste and its pronounced structural bias toward monopoly control. Prone to buckle under the keening choruses of aggrieved ideological messaging from the right, the media industry is acutely sensitive to the refrain that it represents a premier source and outlet of lefty agitprop. It’s a surreal discursive template that has guided media debate for nearly half a century, particularly jarring given that the true complexion of an ad-driven, cartelized culture combine is all but designed to lend undue weight to the economic and ideological agendas of the right. But Elon Musk is, in nearly every sense, its logical culmination.
To make sense of the Musk moment, says Siva Vaidyanathan, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, “you have to go to the fact that for the past decade his run has been so lucky that he’s convinced himself he can do no wrong. No amount of evidence is going to shift that position. He’s too calcified…. The dude has baked his brain. He seems incapable of subtle or complex thought, so what he’s seeing is a total projection. On a whim he signed a piece of paper agreeing to buy this company for $44 billion. So once he gets into the office, he sees just how bad this company is, and he sees there’s no way out of it. He looked at the books and thought, ‘I might as well try everything, and have fun while I’m at it.’ Well, fun to a guy like Elon is cruelty and chaos.”
That’s the problem of entrusting a premier medium of public discourse to the whim of an obscenely wealthy mogul who’s just bored and gullible enough to acquire it in the hopes of making it over in his own image. “The whole Internet economy is controlled by five or six companies,” says Robert McChesney, emeritus communications professor at the University of Illinois and author of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. “They can just print money and they can buy up everything else. Twitter isn’t Facebook, Google, or Microsoft, but it’s in that class of virtual monopolies. It’s a communications medium in a more exact way than newspapers are. It’s much more like the post office or a telephone company.”
That means, among other things, that extreme ideological directives of the type Musk has now routinely embedded in Twitter’s business model can’t be simply shrugged off as one more regrettable operating cost for a laissez-faire regime in the marketplace of ideas, McChesney argues. “Twitter is different—it’s what you might call a selective mass medium. Here the claim that an owner has the right to intervene in its operations, it would be like you’re discussing a country with one newspaper. We’ve seen countries like that, and it’s safe to say that’s not what you want in a democracy. For telecommunications devices, as with a post office, there’s no justification for an intervention for the owner’s agenda. It’s bad enough that they’re pushing an economic agenda down your throat, but to have an ideological one on top of that, which is what Elon Musk has already done, it compromises everything.”
For his part, Vaidyanathan says he’s “not convinced that Twitter is a quasi-monopoly platform. It is one of a handful of online platforms that molds opinion, but that opinion tends to be concentrated in the elites. It’s not as important or popular as Reddit, and it’s less than a tenth of the size of Facebook. Even TikTok is a much more influential platform for molding opinion, if not elite opinion.”
If that’s the case, Twitter could break down in more conventional market terms, the way that right-leaning social media sites such as Gab, Parler, and Truth Social are each on the verge of doing. That’s another curious factor in the extreme ideological pivot Musk is engineering for the site—Twitter is lunging into an end of the social media spectrum now rife with platform failures. In Vaidyanathan’s judgment, this is another reflection of Musk’s overall market-empowered nihilism—something that allowed Musk properties like Tesla and SpaceX to flourish as outlets with government contracting, and the Musk-owned Boring Company to attract enthusiastic public sector partners to a business model that’s little more than a glorified scam.
This economic profile also fuels the air of mounting desperation as Musk loads one right-wing meme after another onto the site. “I don’t know if he’s a true believer in, say, QAnon,” Vaidyanathan says, referencing the far-right pedophilia-obsessed conspiracy theory that Musk recently weaponized against former Twitter executive Yoel Roth. “But in a sense that’s immaterial. The fact is that he’s using QAnon to generate endorphins in the absence of money. There’s no way for Twitter to ever make money. From the moment he announced his intentions for Twitter, it was going from a slow downslope to a crash. He probably figures Twitter has a few more months left, so why not just do crazy stuff to see what works.”
In the toxic, cartelized economy of digital communications, a flamed-out and smoldering Twitter is likely a better outcome than a successful monopolized one. “If we’re going to solve this problem,” McChesney says, “it’s not going to be by finding a nicer billionaire to buy it.” It also means we’ll have to do a lot more than just boo this one offstage.