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[INTERVIEW] When oligarchs control the media: an interview with Victor Pickard

As of this week, Elon Musk has agreed with Twitter’s board to purchase what is now a publicly listed company and take it back into private ownership. This has caused a lot of controversy and speculation about the future of the platform. What do you think are the main risks posed by private ownership of Twitter?

Most immediately are legitimate concerns about Musk single-handedly changing Twitter’s content moderation policies. As imperfect as they have been, to entirely remove these rules and create a free-for-all could unleash a wave of harassment and hate speech – disproportionately directed toward the most vulnerable, especially women of colour – as well as dangerous misinformation about everything from voting to vaccines. We don’t know exactly what Musk will do, but reading into his tweets suggests that he will relax or jettison restrictions on accounts, perhaps even reinstating Donald Trump and other Twitter trolls.

Musk claims he is a ‘free speech absolutist’, but that doesn’t withstand scrutiny coming from a billionaire who has tried to suppress the speech of those under his employ, who often shouts down those he disagrees with, and who operates within a broader political economy where greater wealth essentially equates with having more speech power. Any time he says he champions free speech we shouldn’t take this seriously at all and should instead fear the opposite — more freedom for the already-powerful, and less so for everyone else.

Twitter has far fewer users than the biggest social media platforms, but its popularity with journalists, politicians and other elites gives it an outsized influence. How do you think these developments will affect the broader media ecosystem?

I think it could have a very negative impact. We saw during the Trump years how his Tweeting drove discourse in dangerous ways throughout the entire media ecosystem.

You’ve previously made broader critiques of privatised and advertiser-funded media systems. What deeper issues does Musk’s acquisition of Twitter point to in our media landscape?

More broadly, I believe this episode underscores yet again what bad social policy it was to entrust our core information and communication infrastructures – what should be treated as public goods and essential public services in a healthy democracy – to private, profit-driven platforms. We should never have been in this situation in the first place where the wealthiest person on the planet can simply buy up a major social media outlet on a whim without any public scrutiny. It’s an absurdity for any democratic society.

Structural reform of the online media industry generally seems like quite a distant prospect. For example, the EU’s recently-agreed Digital Services Act opts to impose stricter regulatory compliance obligations on platforms, especially the largest platforms like Facebook and YouTube, but doesn’t interfere with the fundamentals of their business models and ownership structures. Where do you see realistic prospects for positive reform?

This is such an important question: What is to be done? In the short-term we can hope that the DSA and other EU policies will help curb the worst commercial excesses in social media platforms. But for the longer-term we need to aim for alternative models of governance – – models that are radically-democratized and not pegged to the commercial market.

Right now, ideas such as public ownership – whether it be based on a cooperative model or something more akin to a traditional public service broadcaster – seem to be utterly utopian. But we need to broaden our political imaginations and our policy debates to begin seriously working towards such alternative models. We can’t hope to maintain democratic societies if our information and communication systems are owned and controlled by oligarchs.

Author bio: Victor Pickard is the C. Edwin Baker Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the political economy of media institutions and the role of journalism in democracy, and his latest book is Democracy Without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society (OUP 2020).