The announcement of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has prompted a wave of despair over the future of this already imperfect platform: people planning to leave Twitter, or worrying about the safety of their data, or wondering if Donald Trump will be allowed back on. Musk has declared that his interest in the company lies in encouraging free speech, which could loosen even the few existing controls against hate speech and disinformation that Twitter imposes.
But to chalk all this anxiety up to Musk in particular, and to his loose-cannon persona, is to miss the bigger picture. Six of the 10 richest Americans now own or control a business that straddles the line between media and technology, raising questions about their influence over speech and information. Musk has merely joined the party—although to be sure, in taking Twitter private, he will be answerable to no one.
How the wealthiest Americans control speech in the US
Musk aside, most of the US’ 10 top billionaires have either made their money through a confluence of tech and media or have purchased such platforms after making their money elsewhere. Michael Bloomberg and Mark Zuckerberg run Bloomberg and Meta respectively; Sergey Brin and Larry Page co-founded Google and sit on the board of Alphabet; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post. Although they are no longer executives there, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer earned their fortunes through Microsoft, which owns different kinds of social networking and media platforms like LinkedIn and Activision. If the two holdouts in the top 10 went out and bought media giants tomorrow—if Warren Buffet snapped up Snap and Larry Ellison bought out the New York Times—we’d have a full house.
All of which is to say that the correlation between personal wealth and the tech-media business has been building for years. As has the recognition that the regulatory environment hasn’t been able to keep pace with this transformation. Recent moves, such as the EU’s string of laws and lawsuits, as well as the antitrust campaigns of Lina Khan, the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, feel like nibbles around the edges—preliminary actions to size up and curb the influence of some of these companies.
Regulating Big Tech is partly an HR problem
Part of the problem of tackling these titans is, of course, political: the ideological tug-of-war over the role government should play. But part of it is simply an HR problem, suggests Ravi Bapna, a University of Minnesota professor who studies the tech sector. “To me, the big lacuna is that we don’t have lawmakers savvy enough to understand the effects of Big Tech,” said Bapna. “Even Lina Khan, who came out all guns blazing—look at the quality of the first lawsuit she put out [against Facebook], which was dismissed. It was so badly put together.”
“My colleagues in other universities—these are the litigation experts being hired by the Googles and Facebooks. They’re the smartest people on this, and you’re going up against them,” Bapna said. “Whereas federal institutions have been undermined and the top lawyers simply aren’t working there. I know there’s a political problem out there, but this is also a tough problem that needs to be fixed.” Strengthening these regulatory agencies would, at least, start alleviating our constant and well-founded worries about what tech platforms are doing to democracy.