Unmusked: How Elon Musk is Using Twitter to Destroy the Concept of Objective Truth
Heidi Siegmund Cuda reveals how Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter fits a disturbing global trend
When Twitter owner Elon Musk Tweeted his support for returning Crimea to Russia, Russian analyst Fiona Hill accused Musk of actively transmitting a message on behalf of Putin.
Canadian academic Michael McKay agreed, describing it as ‘active measures’ - a term used to describe how the Soviet Union used covert disinformation operations.
“Elon Musk is turning Twitter into VKontakte, the Russian information warfare outlet disguised as a social media platform”, McKay told Byline Supplement.
These claims have to be taken seriously. Hill is a foreign affairs specialist who was a witness during the first impeachment of Donald Trump, and McKay is a noted Ukraine expert with a PhD in political philosophy from the London School of Economics.
“Under the guise of ‘free speech’ Musk’s purpose is to destroy civil speech – genuine communication that connects people”, McKay explained. “Musk and Kremlin propaganda do not present a point of view. They seek to destroy the idea that truth and a shared experience of reality exist.”
To understand why the purchase of Twitter by a Kremlin-friendly billionaire matters, one need only to look how other autocrats and oligarchs around the world have abused their powers.
In 2018, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban encouraged owners of hundreds of Hungarian media properties to ‘donate’ them to a Government allied foundation. The Central European Press and Media Foundation (CEMPF) began absorbing cable news channels, internet platforms, newspapers, radio stations, and magazines. The result was a centralized right-wing Government-controlled media syndicate.
Freedom of the press has been on a steady decline in Hungary ever since.
Orban’s attacks on the rule of law ramped up during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he declared a state of emergency and began seizing unlimited power to rule by decree. Among the targeted groups were the LGBTQ+ community, women, journalists, academia, and asylum seekers.
Russia itself has a similar history. Two decades ago in Russia, as Vladimir Putin came to power, the media tycoon Vladimir Gusinksy said he was pressured to relinquish his empire to the Government.
He had formed a media consortium during perestroika and his organization’s coverage of the first Chechen war was critical of Russia. In addition, he refused to back down from an investigation into a series of apartment bombings that independent journalists claimed were the work of the Russian intelligence service, the FSB. The Kremlin blamed the bombings on Chechen rebels.
In the mid-‘90s, Gazprom, the state owned gas company, became a 30% shareholder of his media holdings, and this investment was later weaponized against Gusinsky, according to a human rights court. Gusinksy alleged Russian operatives declared ‘open warfare’ against him, as he was hit with repeated charges that prompted him to flee to Spain. The European Court of Human Rights determined the charges violated Gusinky’s rights.
In modern times, autocratic leaders are increasingly seeing the value of controlling social media. Former Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte had a rabid fan base online, with an army of bloggers who defended him, and who also went after journalists critical of his savage anti-drug policies, which often resulted in bloody public executions.
“If it’s drugs, you shoot and kill”, he famously said.
Before leaving office, Duterte used his presidential power to block the franchise extension of the country’s largest media conglomerate, ABS-CBN, silencing a network that had been critical of him and which he said refused to air his 2016 political ads.
Earlier this year, an ally of Duterte’s took control of the network, causing media watchdogs to decry the move as ‘shameless’ and ‘concerning’.
Shutting Down Critics
Elon Musk’s former partner in PayPal, Peter Thiel, famously called Hulk Hogan a ‘single-digit millionaire’, as he defended funding the wrestler’s invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against the once-influential media site, Gawker. Thiel had been outed by the publication for being gay and according to multiple media reports, he spent $10 million dollars bankrolling Gawker’s death by a thousand legal cuts.
In his final column on August 22, 2016, Gawker managing editor Nick Denton wrote: “This is an act of destruction.”
He called it a “fitting conclusion to this experiment in what happens when you let journalists say what they really think”, and he called freedom “illusory”.
Twitter is now at risk of a similar ‘death by a thousand cuts’ except the threat comes from inside the organization, rather than outside.
Although always a wildly imperfect platform, Twitter broke news faster than any other site and the direct global communication it offered for journalists and activists was unparalleled. Now, that’s in danger of being replaced by a free-for-all for those with a darker agenda.
“What all of this means is not that ‘it’s a bummer that Twitter is dying,’ it’s that Musk is providing the largest on-ramp for brainwashing, for coercive propaganda in history”, Jim Stewartson, the cohost of RADICALIZED: Truth Survives, an investigative podcast about disinformation, told the Byline Supplement.
“That’s why this is so dangerous”, he said.
Michael Mckay said Musk’s nihilism runs contrary to the needs of a healthy functioning democracy, which requires a shared narrative of truth.
“Nihilists want the opposite of civil society”, said McKay. “They want us to be angry, atomized, zombified and lonely individuals, crying out in a cacophony of noise.”
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