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Can Elon Musk save social media?

Seeking a healthy competitive landscape instead of heavy-handed government intervention

Elon Musk Associated Press/Photo by Patrick Pleul (pool)

Can Elon Musk save social media?

Are private entities, like Facebook and Twitter, able to undermine democracy? And if so, how do we fix it?

During a period when political and social tensions between individuals and institutions abound, it’s a question some are asking, including the world’s richest person, Elon Musk.

Recently, Musk tweeted: “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.”

He followed it up with the question, “What should be done?”

Legislators, lobbyists, and an untold number of private citizens would love to offer up their preferred solutions to this question. The debate over the contours of content moderation rages from Capitol Hill to business board meetings and touches nearly every corner of our online social life. Some cite the challenge of misinformation, referencing Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. election in 2016. Others voice concern over censorship and de-platforming, noting Twitter’s willingness to allow brutal, authoritarian regimes access while suspending U.S. companies such as the satirical site Babylon Bee.

Responding to what consumers want, or might want, is one of the most essential responsibilities of any business owner, and with news breaking that Musk is now Twitter’s largest shareholder (possessing a 9.2 percent stake in the company), a new era in mainstream social media might be on the horizon. Twitter shares surged at the announcement of Musk’s intentions.

Undoubtedly, Musk has the capital and creative capacity to transform Twitter or, if he desired, to launch an entirely new platform that disrupts the market, much in the same way he has done in private space exploration and electric vehicles.

That’s a good thing. Many Americans, particularly those who lean conservative, would likely welcome high-quality social media market competition. In a free-market economy, increased competition creates a landscape that requires social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, to improve their user experience or risk losing their market dominance. Undoubtedly, Musk has the capital and creative capacity to transform Twitter or, if he desired, to launch an entirely new platform that disrupts the market, much in the same way he has done in private space exploration and electric vehicles.

But even if Musk pursues such an enterprise, the same challenges surrounding how to moderate such a space—keeping it free from being dominated by fringe theories, hardcore pornography, and gratuitously violent videos—will require its own terms of service that inevitably include commonsense content moderation. The reality is, it’s never in an online platform’s interest and long-term sustainability to forego the responsibility to maintain some minimal standards online. Even Truth Social, the recently launched platform bearing former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, boasts a sizable terms of service policy. That’s just common sense.

Like physical properties, such as churches, schools, and businesses, online property owners have a say over what is permitted in their establishment. Owners will often exert parameters over what content is allowed on their property to ensure their business is serving the needs and desires of its customers. Any existing or new social media company will face challenges related to fairness and must be prepared to skillfully navigate public relations quandaries.

Nonetheless, this might be just the time to take on such challenges. Today’s social media powerhouses have created a public image problem for themselves. In a 2021 Investor’s Business Daily survey, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and TikTok were at the bottom of the barrel of companies when it came to public trust. And conservatives have reason to fear the kind of censorship that so easily tempts online platforms.

At a time when lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are looking for ways to wage war—and fundraise—over their grievances with Big Tech, it’s important to keep our wits about us. This is not the time to create innovation-crippling legislation that would kill new competition in the tech sector. It should be noted that some of the most prominent players in tech, like Twitter and Facebook, appear amenable to some federal oversight for their platforms. But is that just another way of protecting their dominance? Some surmise that their openness to such oversight is to edge out emerging competitors who will not have the same resources needed to meet the inevitable regulatory burdens the government might levy.

More than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created online each day. Adam Smith wrote that a free-market economy is like an invisible hand, in which markets can find their coherence without relying on central planning from the government. Social media companies are a part of the market. The healthiest, most democratic way for Elon Musk to answer the question of what should be done when companies such as Twitter undermine the values of millions of their users is to help viable, engaging, and user-friendly social media platforms come to market. This, rather than excessive government intervention, is how social media might be saved.

Brooke Medina

Brooke Medina serves as vice president of communications for the John Locke Foundation and sits on the board of directors of ReCity Network, a Durham-based nonprofit committed to empowering civil society in combating poverty-related problems. She lives in Raleigh, N.C., with her husband and four children.

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