In This Episode
Tech billionaires like Elon Musk are surrounded by sycophants and think they’re masters of the universe. But what happens when the shine comes off and the public starts to question their ingenuity, their power, their social value? Or when men like Elon Musk decide they’re right and everyone else is wrong, and then start deploying their immense resources toward making sure nothing stands in their way? Musk’s on again, off again, on again, hostile takeover of Twitter is a live fire exercise, showing what happens when rich men try to exert more power over society on a whim. Longtime Big Tech skeptic Frank Foer joins to talk about the worst possible outcomes of Elon Musk buying Twitter, and of a global movement of Kleptocrats fusing with our mighty tech barons to wage an information war against democracy.
Brian Beutler: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Positively Dreadful. I’m your host, Brian Beutler. This is going to be an episode about big tech, but not about Silicon Valley per say or the infinite scroll or algorithms that drive phone addiction or utopian fantasies or any of that stuff. What I want to try to understand better this week is what happens when the people responsible for all of that stuff. So people who have always fancied them, always fancied themselves the smartest men in the world, people who have been rewarded with Caesar sized fortunes and are surrounded with sycophants. What happens when the shine comes off and the public starts to question their ingenuity, their power, their social value? I’m specifically interested in what happens if and when they decide that, despite all that pushback, they’re right and everyone else is wrong, and then start deploying their immense resources toward making sure nothing stands in their way. This is obviously a fairly small universe of people, and they’re not all like that. They sometimes even back bite each other about how they and their competitors conduct themselves in public life. But some of them are like that. And I think Elon Musk’s on again, off again, on again hostile takeover of Twitter is a kind of live fire experiment in the risk of letting a handful of citizens in a democracy get so powerful that they can almost compete with America’s national sovereignty. It’s not just that Twitter will be in the hands of an ultra billionaire. It has been in the past. After all, it’s that it will pass in the hands of the richest man in the world at a time when he’s very publicly radicalizing against democracy, making business alliances of convenience with foreign autocrats, and seems to be joining forces with a nascent global network of right wing billionaires and politicians who idolize Viktor Orban and think the world would be better off without liberalism so long as they were the ones pulling all the strings. And that is a relatively new thing. In some ways, I guess it’s not all that new in that the American right wing and American industrialists have had dalliances with foreign dictators in the past. But what’s definitely new is how insanely rich these guys are, and more importantly, their level of control over how billions of people communicate with each other, what their sources of information tell them about what’s happening in their communities, their countries, and in the world at large. It’s novel enough that you kind of have to use your imagination to get a handle on what it might look like. What is the worst case scenario and how likely might it be? And that’s additionally challenging because the people who know the most about these masters of the universe types are often pretty sycophantic toward them. Their hagiographers, the people mesmerized by power, they’re beltway journalists. My guest today is an exception. He’s been a long time skeptic of big tech and its influence on American culture and society. He’s also somewhat separately reported in-depth on the global movement of kleptocrats, who now seem to be fusing with our tech barons here in the U.S.. On a third note, he’s just published a new profile of Merrick Garland for The Atlantic to gain a clear sense of whether Garland has the mettle to indict Donald Trump. Most importantly, he was my boss in a past life. So it’s extra great to welcome Frank Foer to Positively Dreadful. How’s it going, Frank?
Frank Foer: It’s great. Despite your introduction, [laughter] I mean your introduction as it relates to me was extremely nice.
Brian Beutler: Oh okay. [laugh]
Frank Foer: But the portrait, the portrait that you painted about what’s happening globally in our media space was quite grim. So probably accurately so.
Brian Beutler: Okay. Okay. That’s as long as long as you don’t think it was like way out there on the on the pessimistic side of things. A decade ago, I wouldn’t have said that Silicon Valley had, like, savory politics. Exactly. But the general sense I had was that the executives there were more liberal than your typical American business titan had fairly ordinary, boring politics. And today it seems like an increasing number of them have become really reactionary. And I’m wondering if that’s your sense, too. And if so, what what you think happened there, whether it was all just like Peter Thiel whispering in their ears or something more. More like fundamental to who they are changed what they think about the world.
Frank Foer: I think some of the vectors of American politics have changed. So it’s not surprising to me that their relationship to them has changed that you had in the Clinton and Obama administrations, governments that weren’t especially pro-union, where it didn’t feel like there was a likelihood that those those governments were going to boost their their tax bills in any sort of meaningful sort of way. So I think there’s some some some of that I think that as kind of the Elizabeth Warren Bernie Sanders wings of the Democratic Party have been more ascendant. That definitely, I think, is triggering for a lot of these people. And it’s kind of interesting, like the ways in which like the shifts within American cultural politics have seemed to be kind of fairly triggering to to Silicon Valley. And that kind of the cancel culture banner has been something that a lot of these moguls have felt really radical. They they feel strongly about. It’s been kind of a radicalizing experience for them. You know, I look at so I think that that that those are things that I would say have really changed. I also think that we overestimated how liberal Silicon Valley ultimately was, that some of the libertarian strands of Silicon Valley being pro-choice or being pro immigration are things that set them on, seem to set them on one side and had them aligned with the Democrats where it seemed like they were aligned with the Democrats against the the yokels for a long period of time. But those were just two, two strands of political thought in this broader political constellation. And it’s also, I think, important to remember that both Clinton and Obama did a lot to make those people feel welcome within the Democratic Party. And those Silicon Valley executives were just like any other executive. They wanted to feel like they were being paid attention to, catered to, that they had people in political power who respected them. And clearly, something has shifted for a lot of them.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. And I guess with Musk you pointed to Thiel, I know like he goes back with Peter Thiel—
Frank Foer: Yeah, yeah.
Brian Beutler: Right. The the point you made about labor is, I think relevant because Tesla is not unionized and Biden is very pro-union.
Frank Foer: And Biden has explicitly aligned himself with Musk’s competitors, like he’s gone to Ford and he’s and he has a great relationship with with GM. Those are companies that have a much closer relationship to the state in the Biden era. And so I think Musk feels shut out or threatened by that.
Brian Beutler: So there’s there’s those two vectors, there’s the tax vector, there’s the cancel culture thing which like, you know, Musk, I guess feels a victim of or something. So all that is a backdrop for him, sort of read, telling himself, given that he had. I’m wondering what you thought when that Musk Twitter news first broke back in April. Back whenever it first broke.
Frank Foer: You know, it’s I thought like this is in a way of a piece with Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post or kind of other attempts at Silicon Valley have made to amass cultural and political power. But what was striking to me about this is that when Bezos bought The Washington Post, I was very skeptical. Of that. I still am very skeptical of Bezos’ ownership of The Washington Post, but there are a lot of guardrails that comes with him owning that paper. I mean, that paper exists. It has is a fully formed set of rules that govern the way that journalistic owners are supposed to are supposed to behave. If an owner transgresses those rules, there’s there’s a lot of cultural penalties that can be paid. It’s there’s there’s a tradition of disinterested stewardship that comes with the ownership of an institution like The Washington Post and Twitter, which has enormous, a power that may exceed even even The Washington Post’s in terms of its ability to influence global thinking is something that exist without really any clear sets of rules. They’re making up the rules as they go along. And it’s not clear to me that there is the same sort of sense of disinterested cultural stewardship that comes with the way that these institutions, like an institution like Twitter, set up. I mean, if the institution that’s most roughly equivalent to Twitter is Facebook, and we know that Twitter and Facebook have a lot of the same architectural issues, that they’re both machines that are designed to capture attention through triggering some of the worst of human impulses that they’re both they’re both about about tripping our insecurities in order to get us to stay on their platforms. I mean, it is it’s a it’s a dangerous amount of power to place in the hands of one individual. That’s always that’s always been true. But I think that the questions of owning an institution like that and I’m using the word institution to try to distinguish it from. Platform entertainment or what are those things? Because I think the power invested in Twitter is such that it needs to be regarded as an institution and not just as another business. Because if that piece of the global public square is treated just as a business, it can be exploited for having nefarious ends.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. Okay. So it sounds like you weren’t terribly sanguine about it [laugh] when you when you heard.
Frank Foer: No it’s also just like there’s this um, I mean, I’m repeating a theme that I think is pretty widespread, which is that there’s this dilettantes that comes with ownership of, whether it’s the newspaper or or or Twitter. I just happen to think that like dilettantism, as it applies to conventional media ownership, like places the owner within this elite ecosystem where there are there are important guardrails that constrain their ability to abuse that the power that they have but there’s. At the Washington Post there was always when Jeff Bezos bought the paper, there was Marty Baron. There was there was there was a journalist who’d been inculcated with a certain set of values who existed, as you know, he was somebody Jeff Bezos could fire the next day if he wanted to. But he also had his own cultural cachet. He also had a clear sense of what it was he was doing, and so that there was this healthy tension that meant that Jeff Bezos was educated as he became an owner. He was he was steered in a certain direction with Twitter. There is no editor of Twitter. There is no countervailing force.
Brian Beutler: In theory, somebody like Elon Musk could buy The Washington Post while Marty Baron was there, and they’d have a choice like bend to Marty Baron in most cases or, you know, they’ll all leave and you’ll still have this entity called The Washington Post, but it won’t be The Washington Post anymore in the same way, like Newsweek is not Newsweek anymore. And—
Frank Foer: This tracks with, this tracks with a story kind of close to home for us. But—
Brian Beutler: Yeah for the two of us. I said Newsweek on purpose. But and but, you know, in the case of Newsweek, like it basically turned into Epic Times and right. Like, if if Elon Musk turned The Washington Post into, like, the Washington Times, he’d still own a newspaper called The Washington Post. But the whatever cultural cachet he hoped to get out of it would would disappear. And so suddenly, like that aspect, that intangible aspect of the investment goes away. Whereas with Twitter, there’s no there’s no comparable thing. Right.
Frank Foer: What’s interesting is that Twitter doesn’t. Twitter doesn’t have rules yet. Twitter is still in its infancy. And part of the problem with the with these with these Internet platforms is that they’re messy, they’re a mess. They’re crying out for rules. They’re crying out for somebody to impose some order on them to to to to to acculturate them in some sort of way so that they’re, they’re less, they’re less trashy, that are more high minded. Whatever we want out of these things, they can clearly be much less toxic than they are. And so it’s not dissimilar for the like the appeal of having a strongman to come in to an institute, a place like that, and to impose some sort of order. That’s I think everybody in a way wants some version of that. And here you just happen to have the strongman coming into the system, you know, staking control over it by imposing a certain set of values, by having a polemical position which isn’t terribly well thought through about how he wants to remake the system. And he’s somebody who is distinctly not disinterested. So this is the thing with with media that so I think distinguishing about American media is that it it it’s not it’s not really. They’re not really places with partisan impulses that there is this set of values that just kind of grew over time about how they would behave. Some behave more like it than others. But even like at the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the reporting there behaves like, according to the same set of conventional rules that the New York Times and The Washington Post plays by, even if they have different underlying political dispositions and owners who couldn’t be more different.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. So you were concerned? I was concerned. I want to talk about. Where those concerns lead in a second. But I remember at the time there was a almost kind of amen choir response from the punditry about it that, you know, that Musk and Twitter were great, were made for each other. He’s a Twitter user, and so he should own Twitter if he thinks that he can make it a better tool, since he he’s so fond of it, he’s a visionary, whatever. Not much will change. There was just a just a slew of takes about how like this this could be more interesting and less significant than than doomsayers are worried about. I’m I’m just be curious to hear you as like somebody who like me, like knows the punditry well. Like, why why is it why is there this rush to avoid thinking through the downsides and to and depositing that like, hey, like everyone should just calm down.
Frank Foer: So. I think there Musk is somebody who has had, um, cultural cachet for, because of what he’s created in the physical world. And I would say that when I would think about Silicon Valley oligarchs in a way, like for all of his flaws, I was usually pretty well predisposed towards Elon Musk, not because I thought he was a good person, but I actually liked the fact that he hadn’t dabbled in the attention economy, that he was actually building things, he was manufacturing things. He was, you know, the fact that he created this company that was a wedge that started to popularize electric vehicles in the United States. Like, you know, I can take, you know, liberals like that type of thing, like that type of thing, that he had the imagination to pursue space exploration at a point where government had kind of started to lose interest in space exploration. That’s an attractive quality unto itself. And then, look, we in media have have a messiah complex where we look for saviors who can come in and rescue institutions. And those saviors are almost universally rich people who we think will shower their infinite resources on protecting something or improving something that we care about. And that’s just that’s just a wrong instinct that a lot of people in media have.
Brian Beutler: Okay. So I think that that’s actually like a really nice way to think about like why, why, why? I was like the last thing people wanted to think about, like all the ways that this could go wrong. But on this on this podcast, all we do is focus on the ways things could go wrong. So like, what problems do you foresee or worry about or that you think are like reasonably likely to emerge if if Musk goes through with the purchase like. The flourishing of hate speech. The the entanglements.
Frank Foer: I don’t know specifically how things work will go off the rails. But just look at the erratic behavior that he has engaged in in the course of purchasing Twitter. I mean, he is he is an unreliable steward. His sense of what the rules are are constantly shifting. And I think even his sense of what he wants to make of this thing is quite inchoate. Inchoate. And I began this conversation by talking about the underlying politics of it all. And I think part of the problem is, is that he’s got this this unchecked power that he has is in the name of ideals that he doesn’t really understand. And so at the core, he doesn’t know if he’s on the side of democracy or autocracy. And so the risk always with Silicon Valley is that they have these relationships with governments that are so tight. So, for instance, there’s this question of StarLink, which is the system that is being used, a satellite system that’s provided Ukraine with Internet coverage in the course of the war, and it’s allowed them to withstand all the Russian attempts to shatter their vital infrastructure. It’s an incredibly important thing for Ukraine that he seemingly was providing for free, but then started to charge the government for, a whole variety of levels, whether it’s his space program, whether it’s vehicles that he’s going to be selling. He has he has every reason to develop tight relationships with governments. And if you have those types of type relationships with governments around the world, some of whom are engaged in very, very invasive surveillance and targeting of their political enemies, what’s going to prevail in the end? Will it be his adherence to the democratic standards, or is monetary interest in adhering to autocratic standards. [music break]
Brian Beutler: I mean so that’s that’s the like after like some of the initial fog had cleared, I think that people were like, whoa, you know. He makes a ton of money from China through Tesla. If he picks up Twitter and China says no more, no more badmouthing China on this platform or we want from Twitter the names of these people who badmouth us, like where they’re located or whatever, what they said in private, you know, that sounds like super ominous, like very dangerous. At the same time. You know, that would also be, I think, pretty ruinous if it came to light that that’s the that’s the route he took. And so I go back and forth on and on, wondering whether, like, is that what’s going to happen or is what’s going to happen is that he’s going to see that Tesla’s financial interests are imperiled by the fact that he owns Twitter, if he doesn’t bend to, in this case, China’s demands. And so he’s going to be like, I don’t I made a mistake here. I need to offload this this albatross that I accidentally placed around my neck. Will somebody buy it for me? I’ll. I’ll eat the loss. Like what happens? Like, something has got to give I think, right?
Frank Foer: It’s interesting, you look at… First of all, I don’t know that Twitter is that addictive platform. The fact that Elon Musk is going to own it and maybe impose. Bad things on it isn’t going to deter you from being a power user, right?
Brian Beutler: Probably not. I’ve thought about it a little bit. I don’t really know. [laugh]
Frank Foer: But you look at Facebook, it’s like no matter what we say about Facebook like there, it’s still a massive, massive platform that people trust in ways that they personally know that they shouldn’t trust. And so I don’t know, I’m I’m skeptical that people will will bail ever.
Brian Beutler: So you think that he could he could keep his business, his Tesla business, and and do it by abusing his ownership of Twitter? And—
Frank Foer: I don’t I, uh, yeah. Yeah, I think that’s possible. It’s not inconceivable to me that that would be the case.
Brian Beutler: Is it do you think it’s reasonable to be concerned? So, you know, he said he was going to buy it, then he tried to back out and then he was like, okay, fine, I’ll buy it for the price that I promised to buy it from. And then like within days he was like, Oh, and also here’s, here’s a really cool plan to end the war in Ukraine that like seemingly was dictated to him by the Kremlin. And here’s here’s a really other cool plan for to, like, ratchet down tensions between China and Taiwan that was seemingly hand like, you know, obviously we can’t know because we don’t know. But like the the timing can’t be denied. And I don’t, I hate to seem conspiratorial, but it doesn’t seem, it seems foolish to not wonder if there’s a connection between those two things.
Frank Foer: Yeah. It’s, what’s interesting is like it’s a vanity, it becomes a vanity publication in a way that is a little bit different. Like he’s he doesn’t need it as a vanity publication. He will always be a power user on the platform and people will always listen to what he says and does. I don’t know if if buying Twitter makes his broadcast of these ideas any more powerful. What I think it does suggest is that that there is maybe a vulnerability there to him personally that makes some of the worst case scenarios more plausible. That why is if he’s allowing a dictator to whisper in his ear, which is what has been alleged like that, that doesn’t bode well for his stewardship of the platform.
Brian Beutler: Right. I guess I guess what gets my spidey sense tingling is like, why is Marjorie Taylor Greene so psyched about Elon Musk? [laugh] Why? Why why are people why are people who desperately want to propagandize American society so jazzed that he’s going to take it over? Like in 2016, you had the situation where Russia exploited social media sort of indifference or nonpartisanship to exploit the algorithms as they existed, to mislead Americans, right. To pit Americans against each other. But I think more than anything, to create a widespread sense of disquiet, the kind of thing that might make people wish a strongman would come and restore order and. Like, wouldn’t it have been easier for them if they they just happened to own Twitter outright? Obviously, yes, it would have been, but Musk buying it seems kind of like almost the same thing. And so if their interests, political or financial align. For any reason. We know that Twitter and Facebook. Facebook, but in this case, sort of like Twitter’s underlying architecture, can be used to warp. How, like warp reality for people who get their information from it—
Frank Foer: Yes.
Brian Beutler: Shouldn’t we just expect that that’s what will happen?
Frank Foer: Yes. I mean, it’s it’s. We don’t need to believe that the worst case scenarios are true. We don’t need to. Everything you alleged about this this alliance or suggested, that’s kind of troubling about this alliance that seems to be forming where his biggest fans or some of the worst people in America that may be there may be coincidental. But I think that we just live in this world where we allow single individuals to amass too much power and is it’s like not enough for him to be the richest guy in the world who’s like privatized space exploration, who’s got control over whether whole countries who are at war have Internet access, who are creating kind of this next platform of the electric vehicle, which will be the next equivalent of the phone, this inclusive space. It’s not enough for him to have that much power. We’re granting him the ability to control this huge part of the public square. And so if he does end up being the worst version of what we imagine, like he’s got this this near monopoly on the future, that I think is incredibly troubling. And why is it that we only allow, you know, three or four people to have this kind of expansive, horizontal control over the future? It’s it’s it’s it’s a democratic problem.
Brian Beutler: You wrote a big case for breaking up Amazon when we worked together.
Frank Foer: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: That that was ahead of a lot of the the late you know, later thinking on tech monopolies and blah blah blah. What, you know, given that you’ve dedicated some time to thinking about it in that context, what can and should the government do about a situation like Musk taking over Twitter?
Frank Foer: I’m not sure there’s there’s anything that they can do about Musk taking over Twitter. But I think that. Now that he owns Twitter, there’s a certain amount of control that the government can can impose upon him and how he expands outward. And so this is not a satisfying answer to your question, but there’s this tendency that Facebook has shown, that Amazon has shown, and presumably Twitter will show now that Musk is there is to kind of buy. Buy immunity from competition. So there’s like a you preserve your monopoly once you you gain a hold of it. And Twitter is not in and of itself. It’s hard. It’s it’s really confusing whether you can consider Twitter a monopoly. I think by most conventional standards, it would. It’s probably. It’s probably not. But he you know, he shouldn’t be allowed to buy the equivalent of Oculus that allow Facebook or Instagram or do take all of these other steps that his competitors have taken in order to entrench themselves. So that’s one thing that I think is is important.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. I’m with you in that, like the, you know. Government’s existing monopoly powers may be a bad fit for tech in general, but Twitter in particular is just so small. But it is. At the same time, it’s like the nerve center for all of political communication. Right. It’s incredibly powerful in that sense. And so, like, you know, that maybe augurs against the idea that there is like a like a law enforcement aspect to it or to what the government ought to do. But. I mean, committees in Congress can can and have brought the platform monopolists to testify. I don’t know that it’s been super rewarding because members of Congress are fairly tech illiterate—
Frank Foer: I actually think it’s been, can I just say one on behalf of Congress? I think it’s been incredibly important.
Brian Beutler: Okay.
Frank Foer: I think that David Cicilline in his report about tech did a lot to prime the work that the Justice Department is doing right now in its Google case. I think that I think it’s interesting that once Jeff Bezos started getting hauled in front of Congress, he started to retrench from Amazon and decided to let somebody else become its public face. I think that there’s some pretty uncomfortable questions that have been asked of them. And I think it’s it’s created an environment that in some ways is harder for them to navigate than it was before. It’s not like their power has been curbed in a way that produces maximal democratic results. But I think it has been useful.
Brian Beutler: That’s interesting. I like that. It makes perfect sense. And you’ve followed it more closely than me. So I’m going to I’m going to buy that at the same time. And so, in theory, you could imagine it paying dividends in the in the in the in the Musk-ified Twitter world. But but like at the same time, it’s been. It’s been six months almost since Musk said he was going to buy Twitter. And I don’t think Congress has taken any interest in it at all.
Frank Foer: No, they haven’t.
Brian Beutler: So coming back full circle to your Garland piece, which I mentioned in the introduction. Are we in a situation where we need liberal institutional leaders to act with urgency but are just unfortunately stuck with. Actual leaders who behave like Hamlet?
Frank Foer: [laugh] I think. That the the Democratic emergencies are in a way connected that that the fact that we’ve allowed. A select few of rich people, super, super rich people to basically start to control the primary means of public communication. Is is of a piece with the fact that. Donald Trump is has this kind of unassailable control over the Republican Party and represents a threat to the country. There’s something really deeply unhealthy about the state of American democracy as as we defined it, at kind of the most macro level. And so if we don’t fix both of these problems, we’re not going to solve probably either of these problems. That was my— no, but you’re right. Ultimately that in the end, we need leaders to step up and take on these very uncomfortable issues where they’re having to venture into territory where we haven’t ventured recently before. And if they don’t act boldly, then we may never be able to act.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. Good thing that after November, I guess—
Frank Foer: Yeah. No, everything [laugh] equilibrium will be restored to the Republic. [laughter]
Brian Beutler: Frank Foer, thank you for taking so much of your time to talk to us about both of these important topics.
Frank Foer: Thank you. [music break]
Brian Beutler: We took a little bit of a risk recording this with Frank on Tuesday, knowing that Musk is so undependable and because he’s so undependable. We should say beyond the possibility that he just walks away from the agreement to buy Twitter again. It really could come to pass that Musk takes over Twitter quickly, finds it to be unrewarding and gets bored or delegates the job to someone relatively harmless. But just think about how the past several years have played out. Really? We’ve lived through almost a decade of powerful right wing forces around the world, scheming and encroaching with various gambits, often catching liberals by surprise with their unscrupulousness and how aggressive they are. So it’s worth imagining what would someone like Donald Trump or Steve Bannon do with control over Twitter? And it’s not a big leap from there to realize that Elon Musk has basically joined that posse. More generally, it’s worth understanding how people in the highest echelons of the international right wing think and conduct themselves, either to prepare for what’s coming or ideally implore their principal opponents to put a stop to it. Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez. Our producer is Olivia Martinez and our associate producer is Emma Illick-Frank. Veronica Simonetti mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.