Opinion: Elon Musk targets newsrooms
“By the people, for the people,” says out-of-touch billionaire
Billionaire Elon Musk tweeted out a poll in March 2022 asking users if they believe Twitter complies with constitutional free speech. “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?” the tweet asked.
After eight months of promising to restore free speech to the site, Musk’s appointment to “Chief Twit” brought his lose-lose war with journalism into focus — spelling trouble for reporters. Aware of their essential role to democracy, reporters heavily rely on the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Within the context of the press, reporters rely on Twitter for sourcing and community. Users provide insight into international events and movements that publications can’t or refuse to report on.
This occurred 12 years ago, when reporters worldwide watched anxiously as #ArabSpring gained traction on Twitter. Beginning in Tunisia, the movement gained immense support in North Africa and the Middle East, resulting in a wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings in the early 2010s. Media blackouts and unreliable electricity transformed Twitter into a fundamental source for reporters outside the region. Similarly, Twitter was invaluable to news outlets monitoring Russo-Ukraine tension months before conflict erupted.
An associate professor of media, democracy and society at American University, Natalie Hopkinson first joined Twitter in 2008. She described the site as an organic space that helped the rise of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements.
“Twitter is where journalists and academics live,” Hopkinson told me in an interview. “The intersection has been an incredible resource for timely information and perspectives.”
Musk’s grudge against journalism is long established and poorly cloaked under the guise of equality. His short-lived blue check policy was his first active attempt to undermine the press.
Musk updated the verification check, making it available to any user for $7.99 a month and requiring no identity authentication. Immediately, there was a flood of fake accounts: @thewashingtonpost or @washingtonpost? @realTesla or @Tesla? Responding to critics, Musk reasoned his new verification policy would “democratize journalism.”
Although it led to many laughs, the new blue check policy sidestepped accountability. In the news world, what lends credibility to reporters and publications is their willingness to hold themselves accountable through trusted sourcing, fact-checking and public honesty.
To a degree, Musk has a point. As the West established the journalistic standard and turned journalism into a profession, mainstream media fell into the sticky fingers of private corporations and wealthy citizens. Their imposition homogenized news until it became relevant and relatable to upper-class white men and, later, white women.
Objectivity and neutrality became the journalistic standard, but bias is baked into the human perspective. Identity is intrinsic to every step of the journalistic practice, which is why recent years have seen newsrooms reject rigid homogenization.
Unfortunately, as the newsroom has evolved, so has the power of those who oppose free press. In December 2022, Twitter suspended a number of U.S. journalists who had previously written critically about Musk. The suspension targeted reporters from CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times. A conference with United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric summed up the thoughts of many: “the move sets a dangerous precedent at a time when journalists all over the world are facing censorship, physical threats and even worse.”
Even more alarming are Musk’s attempts to rebrand himself as a man of the people by emphasizing citizen journalism. Citizen journalism has always been a tool to force the spotlight on public issues. Issues that billionaires, politicians and everyone in between have historically found easier to facetiously ignore.
Free speech, democracy and citizen journalism; Musk continues to play anti-establishment, hoping that everyone watching will forget he’s a part of it. There’s an irony in how he uses the people’s plight as buzzwords, longing for a sense of belonging he’s never felt as a man born into wealth and notoriety.
Elon Musk retains a duality as a billionaire and an average joe, riling up the far right and anyone with a bone to pick at bad reporting. His position as CEO of Twitter has amplified the spread of fake news, misinformation and hate speech on the platform, all three of which are often a precursor to violence.
Being a journalist is an increasingly dangerous job. The Committee to Protect Journalists found journalist killings rose sharply in 2022. Journalists worldwide were dying in combat or crossfire, on dangerous assignments, or from the largest category: targeted murders.
Billionaires directing additional doubt and prejudice at the newsroom only heightens the risk. While direct action to dismantle their control may not yet happen, journalists need to strengthen their solutions through storytelling, fact-checked reporting and community-based journalism.
Samantha Margot is a junior in the School of Communication.
This article was edited by Alexis Bernstein and Nina Heller. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis, Leta Lattin, Luna Jinks, Natasha LaChac and Sarah Clayton.