Discover more from Democracy Americana
The Sabotage of Twitter Is a Disaster for Democracy
Thoughts on Musk’s destruction of the virtual public square – and what democracy is losing
I am tired of Twitter. Tired of thinking and writing about it. Tired of reading about Twitter. I wish we never had to hear about Elon Musk again. Wish none of this mattered. But I believe it does. Which is why I have written and talked about it before, and why I am trying to collect and synthesize all my thoughts here, one more time.
On April 20, it finally happened: Twitter removed the blue checkmarks for anyone who is not paying $8 per month for Twitter Blue – for anyone who isn’t willing to pay money to Elon Musk for a quickly deteriorating service and the “privilege” of providing free content for a platform that derives all its value from exactly those contributions. The “legacy verified blue checks,” as Twitter calls them, are gone. Twitter’s verification process has been completely dismantled. Remember, that’s what the blue check was for: A way of distinguishing verified sources from imposters.
Thanks for reading Democracy Americana! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Very few people are willing to pay: The blue check is inevitably linked to Musk’s reactionary trolling campaign, and who wants to be associated with that? In a rather desperate, pathetic effort to conceal what an absolute disaster this is, Musk seems to be paying for the accounts of some celebrities, so that it may look like they have bought into Twitter Blue – and they want absolutely no part of it. The Right’s attempts to sell this as some kind of populist “sticking it to the elites” campaign (blue checks for everyone! A people’s revolt against the palace!) is equally bizarre. There are absolutely no winners here but those who enjoy seeing the platform descend further into chaos.
By ending true verification, Musk is significantly worsening the Twitter experience and further reducing the platform’s utility for anyone interested in actual debate or reliable information. One absolutely disastrous (pun intended, I guess) effect is the destruction of Twitter as a key tool of emergency response from officials, experts, and activists who have been using it to alert the public, especially those in danger, coordinate relief, and direct help to great success.
The lack of verification also removes crucial guardrails against political disinformation – that’s good for extremists and propagandists everywhere, and especially for those on the Right. What’s been happening to Twitter is not politically neutral. Musk’s actions have had a clear political valence. He sees himself as a brave crusader against the supposed dangers of leftism, and everything he’s done has contributed to making Twitter a more hostile environment for anyone who is not part of the increasingly overlapping circles of Musk fans and rightwing activists.
Musk’s politics are not complicated
None of this is new. Since Musk took over Twitter at the end of October, he has encouraged far-right conspiracy theories, consistently articulated rightwing extremist ideas himself while coddling and amplifying extremists who propagate them, changed or undermined content moderation in a way that allowed hate speech and far-right abuse to flourish, and constantly derided Democrats, liberals, anyone he perceives as part of “the Left” in an escalating crusade against “wokeism.”
I think we can confidently ignore people who still cling to the idea that Musk’s politics are hard to explain and “tricky to pin down,” as the New York Times infamously judged in December. The source of confusion – to the extent that it ever came from a place of good-faith inquiry – seems to be that Musk’s actions collide with certain assumptions about the supposedly liberal tech world that have dominated amongst liberals at least until quite recently. On the center-left, this perception of “Silicon Valley” and what it stood for had its breakthrough in the 1990s. After the end of the Cold War, at the height of neoliberal hegemony, a new generation of center-left political leaders in the “West” fully bought into the idea that the grand ideological struggles of the past had given way to a new era in which capitalist democracy reigned supreme without any serious challengers. In their view, the only way forward was to embrace a techno-utopian globalization without reservation, and all that was left to do for governments in this post-historical, post-ideological age was to manage progress as efficiently as possible. Bill Clinton was all in on this vision – and so were Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Germany, his counterparts across the Atlantic. Blair, who led his (New) Labour Party to victory in 1997, and Schröder, a social democrat who ended sixteen years of conservative rule, published their manifesto shortly before the 1998 elections in Germany: “Europe: The Third Way/Die Neue Mitte.” They focused on the task of “investing in human capital” to get everyone ready for the “knowledge-based economy” in which heroic figures who embodied a “new entrepreneurial spirit” would developing “new technologies” and lead the world into a glorious new “information age.” Theirs was a vision that Musk surely shares: “We want a society which celebrates successful entrepreneurs just as it does artists and footballers.”
The male-dominated tech world seemed “liberal” and compatible with social-democratic goals only because it was associated with supposedly limitless technological progress – and most of the (predominantly male) tech oligarchs were happy to play along, presenting a culturally permissive image. It is against this background that we need to assess Musk’s own previous claims about his political leanings. So, he doesn’t subscribe to all the typical “conservative” policy positions and never described himself as a “conservative”? Well, people say all sorts of things about their political leanings, they may even believe them – that doesn’t mean we should take their proclamations at face value. What people actually do, the political projects they support, is far more relevant. The key is that Musk certainly subscribes to the only position that matters on the Right today: He is rabidly anti-“Left.” It has become dogma on the Right to define Democrats, liberals, “the Left” as an illegitimate, “Un-American” threat – that all measures, regardless of how extreme, are justified in the defense of “real America” against the “woke” onslaught. That’s exactly where Musk is.
This doesn’t necessarily signal a fundamental change of his politics and worldview either. It’s more plausible to think of his trajectory as an activation of reactionary sensibilities and an accelerating process of radicalization, but not aberration. Much like other predominantly white, predominantly male elites who have been lurching to the right, the acceptance of democracy and pluralism was always conditional and depending largely on whether or not it would be set up in a way that preserved their status at the top. But that certainly doesn’t mean Musk was ever on board with the idea of leveling traditional hierarchies of wealth, race, or gender – clearly, he was not. As soon as his elite status as an obscenely wealthy white man was scrutinized, his fundamental politics was activated.
Twitter as a democratizing tool
Let’s remember why we even need to talk about this: An egomaniacal rightwing billionaire taking over a social media company and running it into the ground – does that matter? Unfortunately, it does. Because no amount of snark or schadenfreude will change the fact that the Twitter situation is a disaster for democracy. There are some real stakes here. Twitter has always been a mess. But it’s also, at its best, been a crucial instrument to democratize the political and cultural discourse – and in that sense, help democratize America.
There are two distinct, but intertwined issues here: There is the fact that a tech oligarchy, animated by an inherently anti-democratic worldview, holds so much power; and there is, more specifically, the deliberate dismantling of what used to be the world’s most important political communications platform.
From a democratic perspective, it’s highly problematic that tech oligarchs like Elon Musk are amassing so much power and influence. They are not democratically controlled in any way and they are not guided by any concern for the public good. Musk is yet another example of how short the path from a certain kind of libertarianism to the far-right is, a reminder that this type of libertarianism is driven by a desire for freedom from regulation and criticism of any kind. Musk believes that the world works best if people like him are in charge, get to do as they please, unhampered by regulations or demands for equality – because they are convinced that their personal interest is identical to the interest of humanity itself. It’s an inherently anti-democratic worldview that tracks very well with the reactionary political project and the conservative promise: that the world works best if it’s run by wealthy white men – and thus should always be run by wealthy white men. This is what is pulling these people to the Right, why they eventually gravitate towards autocratic regimes at home and abroad.
And now that inherently anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian worldview is animating the man in charge of the world’s most important political communications platform that has functioned as a virtual public square and as such constituted an essential part of democratic culture. Twitter could have been, should have been, so much better. But its enormous influence on the broader public, media, and political discourses is undeniable.
Twitter established a conversation between journalists, politicians, and public figures who are shaping the public imaginary with people who would otherwise never have had access to those levels of influence. For instance, Twitter allowed people from the academic world to share with a broader audience what they think and observe – and thereby inject their analysis and commentary into the public debate to an entirely unprecedented degree (yes, that’s people like me, a historian from Germany who, four years ago, was sitting on the other side of the Atlantic with almost zero connections outside German academia and no public platform at all).
Most importantly, Twitter has been instrumental in amplifying the voices and demands of traditionally marginalized groups. That’s where it really demonstrated its democratizing potential. Much of the moral panic over “cancel culture” – which animated Musk to buy Twitter in the first place – is a reaction to precisely this: Traditionally marginalized groups have gained enough influence and have acquired the technological means to affect the political debate.
Twitter has been crucial in this uphill struggle of traditionally marginalized groups finally making their demands heard, being able to extract a political cost for certain discriminatory speech and behavior: a tool for organizing, a platform, a global amplifier. It has enabled people with absolutely no traditional access to power, no powerful institutions to back them up, to speak to elites directly, criticize them in the public square. How valuable this has been is evidenced by the fact that many of those elites are so consistently bemoaning “persecution” – and, like Musk, wish to sabotage and destroy this instrument for public criticism. To the extent that traditional societal elites – and elite white men, in particular – face a little more scrutiny today than in the past, that they have been deprived of their supposed “right” to unquestioned deference and affirmation, Twitter has helped democratize public life.
Losing this hurts – it will hurt the attempts to finally make America live up to the promise of egalitarian multiracial pluralism, to become the democracy it never has been yet. It is a massive failure of those elected to safeguard democracy that they have seemingly cared little about this.
(Re-)Building a more democratic virtual public square
So, what comes next? Many people have left Twitter – my subjective impression is that a particularly high percentage of academics who used to be active on the platform have turned their back on it. Among the people I read and follow, those who are still using Twitter are doing so begrudgingly. Most are generating far less engagement compared to the pre-Musk era: that’s certainly been my experience as well.
Everyone is looking for alternatives. In addition to Twitter, I am more active on Mastodon. I have shifted almost all my writings to Substack, after hesitating for a long time before getting into the newsletter business. I actually don’t think *everyone* needs a Substack, and it’s a struggle to find the time to put in the necessary work to make it worthwhile for people to subscribe and get invested. But I am certainly trying. And, starting now, I am also trying Substack Notes (come join me if you like!).
I am, however, also still on Twitter (although far less active than before). Why? Basically, as I see it, the alternative to Twitter, as of right now, is not “All the good, none of the bad” – it is “Less of the bad, a lot less of the good.” There is a real cost to every option still left on the table. Which is why it’s best not to lecture anyone. There are certainly very good reasons to leave Twitter behind. But I am over there not for entertainment, but for work – and Twitter still offers a lot I can get nowhere else.
For everything I do, for my own understanding of the world, I need not only the thoughts and ideas of people with whom I’m mostly familiar. I need exposure to new, challenging perspectives. At its best, Twitter has been an excellent tool for providing that. No other place offers the kind of diverse input I used to get there – information, analysis, perspective. No other place can, as of yet, provide the kind of platform for any output that results from my work.
It’s not just about my output, of course. Some of the smartest, most incisive analysis I have encountered is coming from writers, academics, and activists who a) have no or little traditional platform (through a big institution) and b) depend on Twitter to find an audience. I fully understand why people want to be done with Twitter. But let’s at least remember that the livelihoods of some really important voices out there depend on the community and platform they have built there. Once that’s gone, they simply won’t be able to keep doing their thing. In effect, many of those voices and perspectives from outside established institutions are going to perish because they won’t be able to make the transition and build anew in time. And this will disproportionately affect people who happen to be not white men. I have learned so very much from perspectives to which I would have never been exposed without Twitter. Where is that going to come from? Because if it’s not coming, my own analysis and politics will be so much worse.
I worry that we are going back to what it was like before. It was significantly less diverse, less interesting, less innovative, less daring, less challenging, less smart. It was worse. With everyone, myself included, looking for alternatives and dispersing in different directions, I also worry about the re-fracturing of the public / political discourse (and, frankly, I feel like I’m already operating over the limit of how many different platforms I can use effectively…).
But the situation is what it is. I consider this newsletter my home. And I hope to preserve access to the insights from so many smart, thoughtful observers as best I can. We are all trying to make it work somehow. It’s a shame that Musk was ever allowed to make it so much more difficult.
And with that, I really don’t want to write about Twitter again.
Thanks for reading Democracy Americana! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.