Twitter CEO Elon Musk wants to control your brain

An escalating war to shape future politics through social media

Twitter CEO Elon Musk wants to control your brain
Photo by BUDDHI Kumar SHRESTHA on Unsplash

Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has turned out even worse than expected.

In a few short weeks, Twitter’s chief troll (and CEO) has enthusiastically championed misinformation, elevated hateful voices, flirted with fascism and pledged to restore abusive or dangerous accounts that had been permanently suspended.

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He has laid off thousands of workers tasked with maintaining the safety, stability and standards of the site. While claiming to Twitter’s advertisers that the app would not become a “hellsite,” he has done everything in his power to accelerate Twitter’s decline into disorganized decrepitude. Musk’s Twitter moves quickly, chaotically and, seemingly, without strategy.

But don’t be fooled. Musk is making a serious effort to seize as much power as possible in order to help define our political future. He’s trying to spark a political communications revolution by seizing the digital public square and tilting the discourse toward ultra-conservative politics.

“This is a battle for the future of civilization,” declared Musk on Nov. 29, and he’s right about that.

His $44 billion purchase of Twitter had one key goal: to buy as much of your brain space as possible. The world’s richest man has little interest in “free speech.” What he wants is the power to control what the public hears, and to shape reality by turning the so-called “digital town square” into a privately-owned propaganda machine.

With American democracy under threat, Musk’s Twitter is giving us a clear glimpse of the world he would like to see.

It’s a world that empowers dictators, fascists, white supremacists, Nazis, disinformation and misinformation. It’s a world in which billionaires enjoy total power over everyone else, and where straight white men hold dominion. It’s a world where people can no longer distinguish truth from lies because technology has sucked us all into the manipulative babble of Twitter. Musk seeks to create a dynamic where organized misinformation shares equal billing with respected journalism, and where people can’t tell the difference between the two.

Musk often fails to deliver, so there’s a good chance his Twitter strategy will also wither. In the meantime, we must take it seriously. At the very least, Musk’s Twitter fiasco provides clear examples of both the ideology and tactics shaping our political reality. Unless we find a way to systematically dismantle Twitter’s influence over society, the past few weeks are only a taste of the chaos and destruction to come.

This is hardly the first time Twitter’s power has been used for terrible purposes. As we wrote back in 2018, Donald Trump rose to political power largely by using Twitter to exert an outsized influence over the public discourse. Twitter eventually banned Trump after he used his account to help foment the violent insurrection at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

It’s important to remember that Trump’s rise via Twitter was not something he accomplished alone. He rose to unrivaled dominance and prominence with help from his fellow Twitter addicts, including some of the most powerful journalists and political influencers in the nation.

“Every time Trump tweets, he can count on an instantaneous reaction,” we wrote in The Sacramento Bee in Jan. 2018. “His tweet fixation fuels a parasitic economy in which people compete to ride his digital coattails. Reporters, Democratic politicians, and social media influencers fall for it every time. They obsessively retweet, analyze and attack. This helps Trump tremendously.”

We also outlined the four specific ways Trump used Twitter to control the news cycle and frame the debate. He primarily used the app to:

1) Preemptively frame issues (using name-calling or lies to frame an issue in his favor).

2) Divert attention from real issues (distract from scandal or problems by creating a new focus for public attention).

3) Deflect (attacking his critics, undermining the press).

4) Launch trial balloons (test ideas publicly without committing to them).

As a solution, we proposed that the press make a concerted effort to stop falling for these strategies, essentially by becoming more aware of these tactics and deemphasizing Twitter as a primary source of information. This is even more important now that the company is owned by Musk, who is using all of Trump’s tactics to dominate the public discourse via Twitter.

Twitter has become a key communication tool for millions of people, including journalists, government agencies and activists. It’s a central lens through which many influential people see the world. Unfortunately, it has now been captured by a powerful figure who seems intent on using the platform to empower chaos, disinformation, misinformation, extremism and bigotry. Thanks to his $44 billion purchase of Twitter, Musk’s extreme conservative politics have become both the medium and the message.

So, what can we do about it?

In the next few posts, we will examine Musk’s efforts to seize control of the discourse through Twitter and also analyze the main political beliefs driving his behavior. We will also suggest ways to undermine Twitter’s outsized influence over our political reality and our future.

Dr. Lakoff emphasizes:

Remember that what is at issue is Musk’s right to control your brain space, not merely what you hear but, beyond that, what ideas you have no choice but to take seriously because they have been “posted” by Musk in your brain.

We welcome your contributions, ideas and questions.

Further reading:

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