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Control of Social Media: Changes in the Lineup

Not just Elon Musk but Ye West, Peter Thiel, and J.D. Vance have their hats in the ring

The social media field is seeing a wave of insurgents — not because it is profitable (it largely isn’t, just now) but perhaps because control is important for other purposes.

Of course, whether we want to or not, we must begin with Musk and Twitter. Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk must now acquire Twitter by October 28 or the whole thing goes back to trial in a Delaware court, where the judiciary will likely be peeved with him over antics that waste court time.

The only people who are really unhappy now are Twitter employees. Musk announced an intention to lay off 75% of them and they have responded with an open letter:

The letter demands that Musk commits to preserving Twitter’s current headcount if his takeover of the company goes through. It also demands he does not discriminate against employees based on their political beliefs and that he commits to “fair” severance policies and more communication about working conditions. “We demand to be treated with dignity, and to not be treated as mere pawns in a game played by billionaires,” the list of demands says.

Billy Perigo, “Exclusive: Twitter Employees Protest Elon Musk’s Plan to Fire 75% of Workforce” at TIME (October 24, 2022)

Obviously, Musk can’t agree to any of that because overstaffing and private opinion policing may account, in part, for Twitter’s poor financial performance over the years.

US President Joe Biden has expressed worries that the deal threatens national security and a national security review may be ordered, on account of Musk’s many politically incorrect remarks.

There is, in fact, a documented history of politically charged manipulation of information at Twitter; what role that plays in Musk’s calculations remains to be seen. Maybe we will be treated to yet another Big Tech drama on October 28. Feel free to make other plans.

Meanwhile, the controversial rapper and entrepreneur Ye West has agreed to buy Parler (4 million active users) an alternative social media app that says it does not sell your data. Founded in Nashville in 2018, it has been the target of Big Tech groups and a refuge for conservatives and others banned by Big Tech. Unfortunately, Ye West can fairly be described as a virulent anti-Semite, which won’t help the medium gain credibility.

And, while we are here, tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel and Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance have invested in Rumble, a YouTube competitor with 78 million monthly active users in August.

From a vitriol-laden article at Gizmodo, we learn a salient fact:

According to Wired, Similarweb data showed that monthly visits to Rumble skyrocketed from 5 million in September 2020 to 135 million by January 2021. Similarweb shows that traffic has since declined but remained at a respectable 81 million in April 2021. These numbers, like most web traffic data, are somewhat hazy and may not reflect the full reach of Rumble’s content when it is embedded on other sites.

Tom McKay, “Why the Hillbilly Elegy Guy and Peter Thiel Are Backing a YouTube Clone for Republicans” at Gizmodo (May 24, 2021)

In short, Thiel and Vance probably think it a good media investment.

Incidentally, many traditional sources (papers of record) are also under the control of billionaires. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was happy to tell Geekwire how he bought and reshaped the Washington Post. It’s all upbeat: “With his understanding of technology and “a sophisticated understanding of consumer behavior,” Bezos was positioned to help the Post succeed.” Did staff protest? If they did, we might be less likely to hear about it. Similarly Mexican cell phone billionaire had a controlling interest in the New York Times in recent years. He has since considerably reduced his interest.

According to Pew Research Center, alternative news media play an important role in helping their users stay informed:

These newer sites have created a small but satisfied community of news consumers, many of whom say one of the major reasons they are there is to stay informed about current events, according to a new Pew Research Center study. The study included a survey of U.S. adults along with an audit of seven alternative social media sites – BitChute, Gab, Gettr, Parler, Rumble, Telegram and Truth Social – and a detailed analysis of prominent accounts and content across them.

Galen Stocking, Amy Mitchell, Katerina Eva Matsa, Regina Widjaya, Mark Jurkowitz, Shreenita Ghosh, Aaron Smith, Sarah Naseer and Christopher St. Aubin, “The Role of Alternative Social Media in the News and Information Environment” at Pew Research Center (October 6, 2022)

The Pew researchers note that these alternative sites are symptoms of increasing polarization: “A majority of those who regularly get news from at least one of the seven alternative social media sites (66%) identify as Republicans or lean toward the Republican Party, in contrast with the news consumers on more established social media sites, who largely identify as Democrats or lean Democratic.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, 15% of alternative media accounts have been banned or demonetized by other social media accounts.

It will be interesting to see what impact new management and serious competition have on current monolithic Big Social Media.

You may also wish to read: Facebook and government: Working together for thought management. A critical distinction between Facebook and traditional media is that Facebook is global and total, not regional and partial. Louisiana and Missouri are currently suing over the federal government’s collusion with Facebook to censor Americans.

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Control of Social Media: Changes in the Lineup