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The speculation around Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter remained hot topic news this past week. Some of it is predictable: right-wingers who believe Musk will return Donald Trump to his rightful place as loudest voice on the social media platform, and lefties who think all billionaires are evil. The most interesting narrative I read was one who predicted that Musk will clean up Twitter by making it difficult for disinformation to get very far (which would be nice), authenticating every human who uses the platform (not just a few who get blue checks), open-source the algorithms as much as possible (we can have more control of what we see), and eventually donate the asset to a foundation or a trust. That all sounds pretty good to me. The idea of turning Twitter into a free public utility is especially interesting. Fifty years ago, news platforms voluntarily followed certain journalistic protocols that ensured a reasonable level of accuracy. It wasn’t perfect but news back then had more public trust because there was at least an effort to provide the public with accurate, unbiased news. Today, news has become a massive profit center causing every major news outlet to become primarily focused on creating the best clickbait and producing content that brings in the most revenue – regardless of the impact on society.
The NY Times published a story yesterday on how Tucker Carlson built the highest-rated show on cable television. You can read the article, but what I found especially interesting is how scientific Carlson evaluates the audience’s reaction to his stories. It didn’t take him long to figure out that his audience, who are older and 95% White, reacts positively to his outrageous, White nationalist talking points. I met Tucker Carlson at a NAHREP conference a few years ago. Our former NAHREP National President Joe Nery moderated a session with Carlson and Henry Cisneros. I found Carlson to be intelligent and polite backstage; nothing like the fire-breathing, extremist he projects on Fox News. I only met him once, but hearing him then and watching him now definitely makes me think that he is playing a role. Let’s face it, his job isn’t to tell the news or even to give the audience his honest opinion, it’s to drive ratings and generate revenue – plain and simple.
So, what happens if Musk donates Twitter to a foundation? Well, if you remove the profit motive, does that mean Twitter becomes a more rational platform, and can it regain public trust? I think those are the questions, but even more compelling is the idea that if Twitter is run as a free public utility, what impact will it have on other news platforms? I believe there is a place for for-profit news, but it doesn’t all need to be that way. NPR has been around for a long time, so the concept of non-profit news is not new, but social media is where most people get their news these days there has never been a major, non-profit social media platform. It would be nice if people got the majority of their news from trusted sources that weren’t entirely motivated by money. I have been thinking a lot about how we became such a divided country and how we got to the point where there is no room for disagreement. Is removing some of the profit motives from our news and social media part of the solution? I think so. Will Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, be the guy who ignites that process? Only time will tell.
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