Why Musk's Twitter takeover is a threat to democracy

Preserving democratic legitimacy thus means protecting a democratic information space – a domain of mutual trust in which citizens feel confident that they can debate and criticize freely on the basis of a shared consensus about reality

By Jason Stanley

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Published: Wed 30 Nov 2022, 8:24 PM

Why did Elon Musk purchase Twitter? His official answer – to defend free speech and democracy – is so unconvincing that the question won’t go away. Musk’s repeated appeals to these ideals to justify important decisions he has made since taking over are so confounding that they raise deep suspicions about his motives.

For example, Musk castigated the decision to remove former President Donald Trump’s account, arguing that “freedom of speech is the bedrock of a strong democracy.” But Trump’s account was removed because he was using it to spread conspiracy theories about the election to a wide audience with increasingly violent language. It’s difficult to imagine a more effective way to undermine democracy than to give the president of the United States a platform to claim that a free and fair election that he lost was “stolen.” How would allowing Trump, still the leader of the Republican Party and the former leader of a democratic country, to use Twitter to attack democracy make democracy stronger?

A democratic system relies on widespread acceptance of the legitimacy of its rules. This legitimacy is expressed, most obviously, in voting. So, it is no accident that those seeking to destroy the legitimacy of democracy spread disinformation that undermines trust in the electoral system.

But there are other ways to undermine democratic legitimacy. Democracy is based on political equality. The most obvious expression of this is the principle of “one person, one vote.” But political equality has a broader significance – it means that each of our voices can be heard. As the philosopher Stephen Darwall has argued, in a democracy, it must be possible to speak truth to power.

Preserving democratic legitimacy thus means protecting a democratic information space – a domain of mutual trust in which citizens feel confident that they can debate and criticize freely on the basis of a shared consensus about reality. There are well-established methods to undermine a shared sense of reality, and hence destroy the possibility of a democratic information space. Giving a platform to powerful people who spread outrageous conspiracy theories is one of them.

There are plenty of others. In their book Merchants of Doubt, historians Naomi Oreskes of Harvard and Erik Conway of Caltech showed how both the tobacco industry and the fossil-fuel industry funded research intended to spread doubt about the scientific consensus surrounding smoking and climate change. The result was policy paralysis. Undermining public trust by sowing illegitimate doubt destroyed the possibility of a democratic information space to deliberate about these issues. Even if you are concerned about climate change, you may oppose efforts to mitigate it if you believe that the real agenda behind those efforts is a plot to subjugate humanity under an eco-totalitarian regime.

All that is needed to destroy the possibility of a democratic information space for particular political issues, such as climate change, is to provide a platform for, and give legitimacy to, would-be propagandists. But it is possible to generalize this strategy – to target the possibility of democratic legitimacy tout court, by destroying the possibility of consensus on any issue. To do so, one would need a platform that gave equal weight to all voices spreading conspiracy theories about every imaginable issue of public political concern. Kremlin operatives attempted this with their RT television channel. Musk is now attempting this strategy with Twitter.

It is clear why the fossil-fuel industry would want to undermine the possibility of democratically sanctioned action on climate change. But why would the world’s richest man want to undermine the legitimacy of democracy itself?

The answer, by now, should be clear. In a healthy democracy, a shared democratic information space allows everyone to speak truth to anyone. This is the essence of political equality. In a healthy democracy, a middle-class journalist can publish well-researched exposés of multinational corporations or spectacularly wealthy individuals that contribute to a popular consensus in favor of constraining their actions, increasing their taxes, or otherwise holding them to account. If one destroys that information space by nurturing the spread of mass suspicion, it will no longer be possible to marshal citizens against the powerful in this way.

For powerful individuals, democratic legitimacy is a threat, because it is a check on their power. Why wouldn’t one of the world’s most powerful individuals want to eliminate it?

- Jason Stanley is Professor of Philosophy at Yale University.

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