For better or worse, I can’t say that Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter really interests me much. I’m not on Twitter, and I hope to have the strength of character to stay away from it in future.

Nevertheless, Musk has described this acquisition as a contribution to free expression and political communication: these being foundational to democracy. It’s a development that should interest us all.

In what has become a frequently quoted remark at a TED talk last month, Musk put it in these words:

[Twitter is] really important for an inclusive arena for free speech. Twitter has become the de facto town square, so it’s really important that people have both the reality and the perception that they can speak freely within the bounds of the law.

The town square is an interesting image when you think about it. Perhaps not so much a forum for the bold parry-and-thrust of public debate on the hustings as a crowded, bustling urban stretch, hemmed in by decaying buildings past their prime, where hustlers and harlots jostle for position.

If I read this correctly, both Musk’s supporters and his critics seem to have drawn on both images of the ‘town square’. Each believes in Twitter’s role as a facilitator for public communication. Each is dissatisfied with how it operates. Where they differ is in how to approach it. Should the chaos be regulated and controlled, some of the more obnoxious users banished, in hopes of taming it? Or would it be best to see this disorder as an asset, an unruly but lively market for the exchange of ideas in all their confusing variety?

I suspect they’re both missing the point.

In 1985, Neil Postman, an American academic, published a book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. His thesis was that politics in the United States – his chief concern, although this model could be applied more broadly – had come to value ‘performativity’ over deliberation. The public conversation, right up to news bulletins, had effectively become a species of entertainment, or as he described it, ‘the dissolution of public discourse in America and its conversion into the arts of show business.’

Television was central to his argument. Television and the technological universe behind it made the dissemination of decontextualised, up-to-the-minute information possible in ways that had not previously been possible. The medium came to determine the message and the manner in which we received and experienced it. In much the same manner that smoke signals cannot communicate complex philosophy, so – in contrast to the printed word, which it was increasingly displacing – television was not suited to nuanced and complex discussion. (An aside: Postman was on to something, but television still has some considerable use as a forum for deep and serious debate. This is a 1983 episode of Firing Line, hosted by the conservative author William F Buckley. No flashy set or catchy mood music or catcalling from the audience; just a hardcore exchange of ideas and information, assuming a deep familiarity with the issues. Nearly an hour long.)

Trajectory has accelerated

Nearly forty years on and this trajectory has accelerated. While television may not have been suited for complex communication of the world’s realities, the internet age has made it possible for people to create their own realities. Not only did it give news platforms unprecedented reach, but it allowed them to proliferate. In a very real sense, this was the radical democratisation of media.

Internet access created the conditions in which pretty much anyone who was interested could have a say: this involved established news brands going online, the legions of people who piled into the comments sections (previously something limited to a few who could get a letter to the editor published), the ascendancy of new online platforms of varying quality and integrity or the do-it-yourself world of blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels.

Twitter was a logical destination of this process. Note that I hesitate to say ‘the’ endpoint, since competitive technology seems able to ‘find a way’. (Credit to the amazing 1993 movie Jurassic Park for that line.) Who knows what lies ahead?

And this brings the town square as a chaotic dystopia back into focus. Not only can anybody who chooses have a voice, an instant, real-time ability to hold forth to a (potentially) global audience on just about any matter. It’s a noisy, inhospitable space in which register overwhelms reason. Leave aside questions of intent, this is fundamentally a structural issue.

One of the more obvious limitations of Twitter is that tweets cannot exceed 280 characters. You don’t get to communicate much through that, and not with much nuance. Sure, it’s possible to do a numbered thread – someone like Gareth van Onselen does this to good effect – but this is not how it tends to be used.

Tower of Babel

But its problems go beyond this. Jonathan Haidt of the New York University Stern School of Business has recently delved into the impact of social media in a piece in The Atlantic entitled ‘Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid’. (He developed this in a fascinating discussion with Bari Weiss.) His framing metaphor is the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, and confounding of mutual understanding that God inflicted on the builders.

Haidt sees the early optimism of communication technology as a bridge for mutual understanding and a bulwark against authoritarianism – I recall reading sometime in the 1990s about new technologies that ‘cannot be controlled’ – as having been misplaced. Rather, it had become a tool of division and intimidation. He describes this as a dart gun, not physically lethal but able to inflict a great deal of pain, and accessible to millions of people who can repeat the process again and again.

With some irony, he argues that it was the introduction of ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ functions that gave social media its particular toxicity, along with the notorious algorithms steering users’ content. Together, these allowed material to be transmitted effortlessly and with ruthless efficiency, at little personal cost – indeed, frequently behind the parapet of an online pseudonym – driven largely by emotion, and particularly negative emotions.


This coincided with the maturing of the so-called ‘Generation Z’. Well-attuned to the digital world, they understood how to weaponise it. They had also been raised in an ethos of ‘safetyism’ (Haidt co-authored a book a few years ago that has some relevance here, The Coddling of the American Mind – How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure) and were quick to take offence and go on the offence themselves. As they have exited universities, and begun their careers, their influence has spread.

The result has been a culture on social media, and particularly Twitter, given the form of communication it facilitates, where the loudest and most strident – left and right – dominate, where a sort of Manichean absolutism reigns, and where burns, roasts, snappy put-downs and memes are a substitute for discussion. It foregrounds the momentary and the trivial. (Something like Facebook does a little better, although it lends itself to many of the same pathologies.)

Social media is a fundamentally destructive form of engagement, providing its users with a feedback loop of an ever-expanding universe of reasons to hate one another and to retreat into their tribal factions. And moderate or accommodating voices – again, to the left and right – are either intimidated into silence (more often than not, by their nominal co-ideologists) or quit participation altogether out of distaste.

Hence the image of the Tower of Babel: mutual communication has become ever more difficult, even as the (technical) means to do so has expanded.

Indeed, Haidt argues that social media engagement is not designed to contribute to better thinking, but to advancing its participants socially. There is typically little interest in having one’s positions critiqued, and the medium is not geared for it. There is also scant expectation that the targets of one’s attacks will be persuaded. But they will perhaps generate the admiration of one’s supporters.

‘A democracy cannot survive if its public squares are places where people fear speaking up and where no stable consensus can be reached.’ Haidt writes, ‘Social media’s empowerment of the far left, the far right, domestic trolls, and foreign agents is creating a system that looks less like democracy and more like rule by the most aggressive.’

In this sense, Twitter has incubated a form of discourse that can be positively harmful to democracy and civic freedom. It represents as much as anything an opportunity for the ‘democratisation of intimidation’ and the promotion of ‘structural stupidity’.

Smoke signals are unsuited for philosophy, and perhaps as much could be said about the relationship between Twitter and democracy.

It’s far from apparent that much can be done to change this, Musk or no Musk.

Pathologies of Twitter

Let me turn to the local scene. Adriaan Basson, the editor of News24, invited Musk to see the pathologies of Twitter in contemporary South Africa: ‘Brother Elon, come to SA to see everything that is wrong with Twitter’. I imagine that Basson’s position is broadly in line with that of Musk’s critics, but no matter. I more or less agree with his sentiments:

Twitter gave a powerful platform to people who have no interest in the truth or the public good. I’m not referring to robust debate or critical engagements; I used to enjoy these in the good old days of Twitter before it became fair game to hate, swear, and curse anyone and anything you disagree with.

If this is the situation now, I wonder why Musk’s takeover would be of such concern, since the town square is squalid already. Basson’s point probably has to do with Musk’s position as a ‘free speech absolutist’; Basson’s position is framed in terms of accountability. There is merit to this, but I’d say that accountability in this sense also needs to be properly interrogated, since there seems to be a rather thin barrier between accountability and the mob tactics that sometimes accompany its enforcement. Or in defining just what should attract a demand for accountability – dart guns being wielded freely and recklessly.

Yet I’m sure that at a bare minimum, all of us interested in a credible media environment would agree that basic standards exist for keeping reporting and analysis rooted in facts. This should, I think, be the strength of established (or ‘legacy’) outlets. Yet at times they fail to guard the integrity of their output as zealously as they might.

We’ve recently seen Independent Media stained by the apparent manufacturing of the Tembisa decuplets story. There appear to have been others where a certain creative licence was taken.

News24 twisted itself into contortions to ‘contextualise’ and explain away President Ramaphosa’s lie in the US in 2018 that there were no farm murders in South Africa. Whatever sympathies that journalist or institution may have had with the President, this was a compromise with reality, hardly very different in its overall import from what happens on Twitter. Just a more erudite expression.

And I have written extensively on the credibility of the IRR’s polling in response to critics who clearly have no idea of how polling works, or for that matter of any contradictory evidence to challenge us with.

The conduct of so many Twitter users is abominable, but may at least be understood (if not condoned) in view of the design of the system. News outlets have no such limitations and have a responsibility to do much better.

Finally, let me say that politics in South Africa has historically been more conflictual than politics in a society such as the US. Haidt’s remarks about Generation Z may be applicable to ourselves, though this is bolted on to long-standing pathologies that see legitimate opponents as enemies, and that romanticise violence and manipulate emotion against ‘out groups’. This may sound like Twitter, but it could equally serve as a description of much of our ‘public discourse’, and the content of more than a few documents put out by the ruling party.

Thought leaders might wish to take note of this.

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.