Elon Musk: “Après Moi, Le Déluge”
Chasing crazy dreams, our would-be Big Tech Emperors are hastening the destruction of any kind of healthy democracy
Five years ago, when Facebook hit two billion global users, no one imagined that we would start referring to the company in the past tense as something that used to matter, with a slumping valuation now lower than Home Depot, the big box store. Nor did anyone think that Twitter, then at the center of whatever was happening right now — Game of Thrones!, @RealDonaldTrump!, Beyonce is pregnant again! — would become the icky plaything of the world’s richest man and on the verge of an employee meltdown.
But here we are, watching the creative destructive forces of capitalism (plus some state sponsorship from China) steadily steal oxygen from these once high-flying Big Tech platforms. Along with the concurrent collapse in online advertising revenue, which is dragging down Alphabet/Google’s valuation, and the chill in consumer spending that is causing Amazon to cut back its workforce and nipping at Microsoft’s profits, we’re seeing the humbling of the high flyers of the last decade. If you’re a critic of Big Tech’s monopolies, it’s tempting to raise a glass and cheer. Finally something is bringing the barons down to earth.
I’m not so sanguine, for a bunch of reasons. Even if the doomsayers, like my friend Dave Karpf of George Washington University, as sharp a digital observer as any, turn out to be right in the long run about the impending dissolution of Twitter now that it is falling into the hands of Elon Musk, the damage that the barons of Big Tech are doing to our societies may well get much worse before their gilded offices close and the last executive with the last golden parachute turns out the lights.
First, it’s just infuriating how little Big Tech has done to address the spread of hate, disinformation and extremism on their platforms, despite years of intensive efforts by civil rights organizations to alert them to the problems. Meta, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube have all paid lip service to the issue, doing very little to actually shore up their systems for protecting election integrity, most urgently. As a new report from sixty affiliated groups led by Free Press points out, “All four companies…