What does it mean now that Tesla and SpaceX entrepreneur Elon Musk is buying the social media site Twitter?
If you go by what Musk’s fans and detractors say, it’s either a great day for free speech or an existential threat to democracy.
“I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter,” tweeted Washington Post columnist Max Boot when Musk first expressed a desire to buy Twitter. The Washington Post, of course, is owned by another tech billionaire entrepreneur with his own space launch company, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
The hyperbole from Musk’s supporters is no less over the top, although few of them occupy lofty perches of public opinion.
Musk styles himself as a “free speech absolutist.” He might be more inclined in that direction than other tech entrepreneurs, but his record is hardly unblemished, including once demanding that Twitter silence an account that kept track of Musk’s airplane travels by publishing publicly available information.
Still, the main worry is that Musk will favor “too much” speech on Twitter rather than too little, including allowing back onto the platform people who have been banned for various reasons, including former President Donald Trump.
Twitter banned Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. Since then, Trump has started his own social media platform, although he doesn’t seem eager to use it, and it has plummeted in popularity since its launch.
Nevertheless, Trump has said he has no interest in returning to Twitter even if allowed back. Perhaps he realizes he doesn’t really need Twitter to have a major public platform. He is, after all, a former president of the United States. Also, going back to Twitter when he has his own social media platform would be an admission of defeat.
Almost lost in this debate over Twitter in particular and social media in general is another possibility. Maybe it’s not as influential as many fear and others hope.
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center Survey, about 1 in 5 U.S. adults said they use Twitter. Roughly 20% of adults is a significant number, but that’s not the whole story. Less than half that number (42%) said they use the site to discuss politics. The rest are talking about movies or sports or sharing photos of cats. Even fewer followed President Trump (19%) or former President Barack Obama (26%). Of those who followed Trump, just more than half (54%) viewed him favorably.
More to the point, of the 20% of Americans who use Twitter, few of them use it all that often.
“The median Twitter user produces two tweets per month,” Pew found. “However, among the most prolific tweeters — defined as those in the top 10% in the number of tweets they send — the median user produces 138 tweets each month. And that group of highly prolific tweeters dominates discourse on the platform more broadly: 80% of all tweets from American adults come from the top 10% of tweeters.”
Basically, Twitter is a small fraction of Americans tweeting among themselves and, occasionally, driving one another crazy.
Some have called Twitter “America’s new town hall,” but it is nothing of the sort. It is a private company that caters to the needs of its users. At most, it is a small part of America’s political dialogue, which includes everything from newspapers and network news broadcasts to cable TV and thousands of websites devoted to news and opinion.
If there has been a real negative consequence to Twitter, it’s that somehow many elite journalists have convinced themselves it’s the real world and things that happen there matter.
Maybe what happens on Twitter does matter. But it doesn’t matter as much as what happens at the corner store, the city council chambers, churches and schools.