Who has been more effective at driving hope and change?
Barack Obama: A political icon and former president with a methodically crafted public persona? Or Elon Musk: An unfettered, polymath, wild card, entrepreneur?
Obama and Musk each have lofty ideals, zealous fans, ferocious critics, and cautious optimism about the future.
"I am more optimistic about the future of America than ever before," Obama told the audience at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
When TED conference head Chris Anderson asked Musk about the future in April, Musk told him that "as long we push hard…and are not complacent…the future's going to be great."
They once seemed like natural allies. Musk says he strongly supported Obama for president before the Democratic Party was "hijacked by extremists," and Obama helped make Musk's SpaceX possible by opening up the final frontier to private companies.
They're the politician and businessman with the most followers on Twitter. And they've both expressed concerns about the future of speech on the internet in recent weeks, putting forth starkly divergent visions of the future of social media, though only Musk has put his own money on the line.
But comparing Obama and Musk ultimately underscores why entrepreneurs, not politicians, are the more effective agents of social change.
And that's one reason why Musk's Twitter takeover could be just the wild card American political discourse needs right now.
Obama was a political outsider who used the new tool of social media to overtake and eventually become "the establishment." For Obama, state action is how you change the world for the better.
Musk starts companies.
Obama mostly failed to limit greenhouse gas emissions through subsidies and regulation. Musk created America's first successful electric car company.
Obama expanded online surveillance, allegedly to make us safer. Musk developed satellite internet technology that could one day help citizens access information censored by authoritarian rulers.
There's also a lot to criticize about Musk. There's no honor in slandering a critic as a pedophile or toying with shareholders on Twitter. He has exaggerated both the promise of battery technology and advancements in self-driving cars. His companies have received billions of dollars in tax breaks, subsidies, and other government handouts, which have certainly been a factor in their success.
It's also true that Musk's boldest plans haven't come to fruition—and may never. Although investor optimism has made Tesla the world's highest-valued auto manufacturer, its total share of the U.S. auto market is merely 2.4 percent, and that's with the benefit of tax breaks, credits, and other subsidies.
But much of the anger Musk attracts has nothing to do with the help he's received from taxpayers. It's rooted in the belief that under capitalism billionaires have too much power, and that Obama's approach leads to a fairer world.
But Musk's latest wild card play is the best illustration of the effectiveness of the entrepreneur versus the politician—each in this case looking to reform how social media platforms present information to the public.
A few days before Musk reached a deal to purchase Twitter, Obama gave a talk at Stanford about the future of online speech.
"The way I'm going to evaluate any proposal touching on social media and the internet is whether it strengthens or weakens the prospects for a healthy, inclusive democracy," said Obama. "I also think these decisions shouldn't be left solely to private interests…regulation has to be part of the answer."
Obama, like most of the Democratic Party establishment, wants to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act so that social media platforms can be held liable for content posted by users. He favors regulation that would allow the federal government to inspect and approve the algorithms that social media platforms are employing as a way to combat misinformation.
Musk, by contrast, told a TED audience that speech should be "as free as possible," and says he wants to make the algorithms more transparent to users. He wants moderators to focus on removing fake accounts, bots, and illegal material while users are trusted to sort out fact from fiction.
That sort of laissez faire approach is a scary prospect for a lot of people.
When Obama talks about threats to democracy, he's referring chiefly to the man who incited a mob to contest an election.
If Musk lets former President Donald Trump back on, could that help him retake the White House? If extremists run rampant, could they foment the kinds of political violence that social media has spurred on in other countries?
Twitter will be his property, so he'll be able to do what he likes—barring new regulation—but he'll also have to bear the consequences if users abandon the platform. And Facebook's collapse in daily active users is a reminder that social media platforms can't count on unshakeable user loyalty.
Obama is pushing for more government control of information across all platforms, which is what's actually dangerous. There's no shortage of false information online, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made all too clear—the question is, who decides what's deemed false?
Government officials shouldn't be the arbiters of truth. We've seen how fallible they can be, claiming that vaccinated people cannot spread COVID-19, or that the Hunter Biden laptop scandal was Russian disinformation. Mask mandates, climate change policy, and gender identity laws are all examples of contested political questions that social media platforms often have treated as factual ones. Rushing to declare political disputes "settled science" and suppressing skeptics isn't protecting liberal democracy. It's undermining it.
The ideal would be a totally decentralized social media landscape, where neither government regulators nor large corporations nor a single billionaire decide what information gets shared. Maybe we'll get there.
But today, the choice is Obama vs. Musk: Technocratic control vs. markets, which are both fallible, but in the case of Twitter, only one side put $44 billion on the line. And that's the main difference: If Obama gets his way, all large social media networks will be forced to implement speech restrictions, making discourse less free across the board. On the other hand, if you don't like what Elon Musk does with Twitter's moderation policies, you can leave for a site run more to your liking.
Love Elon Musk or hate him, recognize the value of the wild card. It changes the game. For years, the trajectory of social media has pointed towards more centralized control and heavier moderation. Now, the deck has been reshuffled.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller; graphics by Tomasz Kaye and Nodehaus.
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