During the Gilded Age in the late 1800s and early 1900s, American business moguls like William Randolph Hearst and Jay Gould utilised their enormous riches to control many sectors of the economy, including the news media. “Very wealthy corporate executives with a considerable degree of political power” is how the dictionary defines oligarchs.
As in the previous Gilded Age, there is a widening gap between the rich and the poor, as well as an increase in the amount of money being used to buy influence in both the media and politics.
That takes us to Elon Musk’s announcement on April 25th, 2022, that Tesla’s billionaire Elon would buy the social media company Twitter, barring any last-minute hiccups. With this deal, the world’s richest man will gain control of one of the world’s most important communication channels.
When it comes to purchasing Twitter, I believe that Musk’s motivation extends much beyond a desire to influence public conversation. While they will have that, the current generation of media oligarchs will also have access to a wealth of personal data from users and news consumers. This is today’s version of the Gilded Age oligarchs.
There are more newspapers than one could ever want to purchase
The Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, to name a few, have all been owned by American millionaires in the last decade. Of course, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and CEO, paid 250 million of his approximately 170 billion net worth in 2013 to acquire The Washington Post.
For decades, media academics have expressed worry that a few firms in the United States have been able to dominate news media coverage due to their money and lack of government supervision. Since the 1980s, the number of news media businesses in the United States has decreased from 50 to six.
A healthy democracy requires that the voters have access to a varied range of viewpoints and free flow of information, which media researcher Robert McChesney argues is threatened by the concentration of media power in the hands of a few affluent people.
Journalists are trusted by the public to convey information that they may use to make informed decisions about how and if they will vote, as well as whether or not they should organise and take civil disobedience actions. Because of this, a small number of corporate news sources have been able to mainstream reporting that is based on inaccurate or misleading information, such as the reporting on WMDs before to the 2003 war of Iraq.
Just like the American oligarchs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, today’s billionaires are aware that they may influence or control public involvement in democracy by restricting free flow of information. When Sheldon Adelson acquired the Las Vegas Review-Journal, rumours appeared that articles about the billionaire were being blocked or edited so he could control the public’s perception of his enterprises in the gambling-centric city.
According to several detractors, the Washington Post’s coverage of Amazon softened when Bezos acquired the newspaper, while Bezos’ political opponents were harshly criticised. Both of these allegations are refuted by the Washington Post.
The product is the user
As of April 2022, Musk has an estimated worth of 268 billion, making him the richest person to own a media platform. The CEO of Tesla is gaining control of a key news distribution system by purchasing social media rather than a conventional news agency. Twitter is used by 23% of Americans in 2021, according to a Pew Research Center study, and 7/10 Twitter users say they get their news from the medium.
Individual billionaires wielding control of Twitter offer much more serious challenges than those previously faced by rich media owners, who could merely influence the news.
The FAANGs — Facebook (now Meta), Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google – already ruled Silicon Valley before Musk ever considered buying Twitter (now Alphabet). As Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff puts it, “surveillance capitalism” is the new economic system that these corporations benefit from. Those that are interested in predicting or even influencing human behaviour may buy and sell user data collected under surveillance capitalism.
On and offline, tech corporations regularly monitor their users for the goal of analysing data, which may include everything from audio to video to written words to GPS information or even DNA, so that they can get insight into a user’s thoughts and cognitive processes.
Big internet corporations use gambling-industry strategies to keep users glued to their screens in order to keep the data flowing in. The first dopamine high that comes from a Facebook “like” or “friend request,” or from a retweet or “new follower” on Twitter, is what keeps people hooked. Reports show that these methods are used with little concern for the mental health of the people who utilise them, much as in the gambling business.
Even though Facebook was aware that its platform design was damaging users, especially young people, it declined to make any adjustments because of concern that it might undermine revenue in 2022.
Are you a proponent of free speech?
Unlike the oligarchs of the 19th century, Musk is not a modern-day oligarch in this perspective. His influence extends well beyond the manipulation of public discourse via the selective removal of material. It’s possible that he can do this. However, he will also be in control of a substantial quantity of private information. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, Twitter gathers and saves information on the user’s IP address, browser type, operating system and cookie information when a user accesses Twitter content or products, including those that are incorporated into other websites.
Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, has said that he bought the company because he believes in free expression. However, this is at odds with his propensity for pursuing retribution against individuals who criticise his enterprises. To make matters worse for its former workers, Tesla has remained true to the terms of its employment contracts throughout his tenure.
According to computer scientist Jaron Lanier and free-expression campaigner Jillian York, social media platforms such as Twitter are not conducive to “genuine” free speech, which is defined as the freedom of one to express one’s thoughts without interference.
Furthermore, social media firms, it may be claimed, are interfering with speech by deciding what content users see and what information they don’t see. It is true that social media platforms’ algorithms curate news feeds to feature just the articles they feel would be most interesting to the user.
New avenues for billionaires to influence the voters have opened up as a result of the surveillance capitalism age. In the same way that the aristocracy of the first Gilded Age controlled what information people saw and didn’t see, Musk can do the same. Because he can watch and monitor people, unlike his predecessors, he has the ability to gather valuable data that can be utilised to forecast or influence their actions.