What do you get the contrarian billionaire who has everything? Try a social network to call their own.
It certainly seems like the hot new thing. Almost one year ago, Donald Trump, freshly banned from mainstream platforms, ginned up a Twitter clone called Truth Social, which he claimed would constitute the first “non-cancellable” global community. Elon Musk appears to be going through with his acquisition of Twitter. And earlier this week, many awoke to the news that Ye, formerly Kanye West, plans to acquire Parler after getting the boot from Instagram and Twitter over anti-Semitic rants. If the deal does happen, he’ll inherit the social-media equivalent of a gutted city mall filled with the echoing cries of January 6 defendants and racists.
Soon, we may enter an era where mercurial celebrity landlords dictate the terms of service on their own social networks—ones that are explicitly positioned against content moderation and in favor of a facile understanding of free-speech maximalism. Although the rhetoric they’ve chosen to use to gain support for their stewardship is cribbed from a larger, years-long political battle against Big Tech’s influence, their actions are personal and, in two of the three cases, born from the desperation of running out of major platforms to publish on. None of these men has signaled any desire to create something new as much as they wish to roll the clock back to some shallowly conceived digital Wild West, where the powerful and hateful alike can inflict damage and experience no consequences.
Celebrities have always had vanity projects in the tech space that have allowed them to tap into and monetize their adoring fans (let us not forget the Jeremy Renner app—RIP). These projects almost always wither away in part because they’re weird, but also because they’re walled garden environments, or private spaces. Musk, Trump, and Ye are after something different: They are all obsessed with setting the rules of public spaces.
One way to look at the existence of these would-be social-media barons is as a logical, if depressing, conclusion of the “techlash” that started shortly after Donald Trump’s election. His campaign managed to activate and mobilize communities of trolls to make endless memes and organize harassment campaigns for their “god emperor.” Less than a week after winning, the Trump campaign touted Facebook as “the single most important platform to help grow our fundraising base” and later on extolled the company’s ad targeting as a helpful tool in attracting voters. Employees at both Twitter and Facebook very publicly fretted over the way their tools might have played a role in the 2016 election.
By 2017, Facebook was in front of Congress testifying about ads linked to Russian election manipulation. An understandable consensus began to form on the political left that large social networks, but especially Facebook, helped Trump rise to power. The reasons were multifaceted: algorithms that gave a natural advantage to the most shameless users, helpful marketing tools that the campaign made good use of, a confusing tangle of foreign interference (the efficacy of which has always been tough to suss out), and a basic attentional architecture that helps polarize and pit Americans against one another (no foreign help required). The misinformation industrial complex—a loosely knit network of researchers, academics, journalists, and even government entities—coalesced around this moment. Different phases of the backlash homed in on bots, content moderation, and, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, data privacy. People can and will argue over the utility and lessons learned from all these debates and scandals, but the broad theme was clear: Social-media platforms are the main communication tools of the 21st century, and they matter.
With Trump at the center, the techlash morphed into a culture war with a clear partisan split. One could frame the position from the left as: We do not want these platforms to give a natural advantage to the most shameless and awful people who stoke resentment and fear to gain power. On the right, it might sound more like: We must preserve the power of the platforms to let outsiders have a natural advantage (by stoking fear and resentment to gain power). Put another way, the political world realized that platforms and content-recommendation engines decide which cultural objects get amplified. The left found this troubling, whereas the right found it to be an exciting prospect and something to leverage, exploit, and manipulate via the courts (as evidenced by the Texas social-media law that aims to tell big platforms they can’t moderate the content on their sites). Crucially, both camps resent the power of the technology platforms and believe the companies have a negative influence on our discourse and politics by either censoring too much or not doing enough to protect users and our political discourse.
Because of this stark divide, there’s been more grandstanding than actual policy changes. And because these platforms are massive networks, connecting billions of human beings—and because speech issues and First Amendment law are complex and sometimes counterintuitive—one outcome of the techlash has been an incredibly facile public understanding of content moderation and a whole lot of culture warring.
Musk and Ye aren’t so much buying into the right’s overly simplistic Big Tech culture war as they are hijacking it for their own purposes; Trump, meanwhile, is mostly just mad because his tweets violated Twitter’s terms of service. Each one casts himself as an antidote to a heavy-handed, censorious social-media apparatus that is either captured by progressive ideology or merely pressured into submission by it. But none of them has any understanding of thorny First Amendment or content-moderation issues. They embrace a shallow posture of free-speech maximalism—the very kind that some social-media-platform founders first espoused, before watching their sites become overrun with harassment, spam, and other hateful garbage that drives away both users and advertisers. It’s not clear they even believe in unfettered speech as much as they believe in their own right to take up as much oxygen as possible and face zero penalties.
Another component of this new ownership era is the long-tortured relationship between celebrity and social media. Platforms are a minefield for famous people who post from the hip without PR teams. But for those who can hit the mark without getting banned, social media is a force multiplier for cultural and political relevance and a way around gatekeeping media.
Musk, Ye, and Trump rely on their ability to pick up their phones, go direct, and say whatever they want to their legions of fans, who sound a lot like the yes-men whom billionaires surround themselves with IRL. But the moment they butt up against rules or consequences, they begin to howl about persecution and unfair treatment. The idea of being treated similarly to the rest of a platform’s user base—that is, the people who are not exempt from following a platform’s rules—is so galling to these men that they declare the entire system to be broken.
Though the three all embody the various ways platforms can amplify ideas and confer power, they also demonstrate how being the Main Character of popular and political culture can totally warp perspective. They’re so blinded by their own outlying experiences across social media that, in most cases, they hardly know what it is they’re buying (or in the case of Trump, cloning)—and perhaps they don’t even care. None of these platform acquisitions is a particularly sound business decision. Musk, Ye, and Trump could be doing plenty of more useful or effective things with their money. Instead, they are using a culture war to justify carving out their own safe spaces.
These are projects motivated entirely by grievance and conflict. And so they are destined to amplify grievance and conflict. They couldn’t possibly solve the problems around free speech and power that these three men are nominally compelled by—but we can rest assured that they’ll find a way to create more of them.