Elon Musk and our continued hypocrisy

I have been involved in social change work since my teen years; my earliest memories of social justice work are getting involved with raising funds for The Committee in Solidarity with The People of El Salvador. That was my introduction to how US imperialism has both shaped and harmed others, at least outside of my experience as a descendant of enslaved Africans. It was that early work that led me to actively protesting against the first Gulf War and defending the right to burn an American flag. 

My late teens and early 20s—despite getting married at 18 and having a child shortly thereafter—were spent devouring books and hanging out in leftist and Black bookstores, learning from elders and dreaming of change. Even my adult son, who is now 30, has told me that some of his early memories of childhood were our almost weekly stops at the local Black bookstore and how I used to spend way too much time talking to the owner about pan-Africanism. 

I share this to say that there has never been a time for me when I wasn’t aware of how unfair our world and its systems are. The last time that I ever said the full pledge of allegiance was at 14, and even when I was sworn in for my current position as a member of the Portland Charter Commission, I had to sit with the words that I would uphold the Constitution, as I think it most certainly is a contradiction. 

While I did spend a few years in my early 20s working for corporations, the majority of my professional career has been spent in the non-profit sector. A sector I discovered after my brief stint as an AmeriCorps Vista. While the sector no doubt has its issues, the majority of people that you find in non-profit work actually have a deep commitment to social change. So much so that we pretty accept that—barring winning lotto tickets, lucrative side hustles, marrying well, or family money—we are taking vows of poverty. 

But with over 25 years of experience working everywhere from facilities for the unhoused, people struggling with substance abuse disorder, kids in need, people of color living with HIV and racial justice, I can say that most of our work—while needed—is often a bandage and that the real change we need has to occur at the structural level. But—and you knew there was gonna be a but—structural change is harder to achieve because that requires a blowing-up of systems and mass discomfort. To be frank, most of us, yours truly included, are hypocrites who care but aren’t going to intentionally inconvenience ourselves in a sustained fashion. Especially in our current climate of comfort as self-care. 

Unless you have been living under a rock, no doubt you have heard that the world’s richest man, Elon Musk—a man so loathsome that he is a walking advertisement for most of the worst traits that plague white manhood—intends to buy Twitter. The sale, of course, hinges on Twitter’s shareholders actually agreeing to the sale, along with a few regulatory agencies giving their blessings. This is important to note, since the mainstream media’s reporting leaves one to assume that Musk passed off a fat check for $44 billion and took possession in the same fashion that one buys a new car or the neighbor’s old lawn furniture. 

I have to say that as someone whose personal and professional life has been enhanced by Twitter, the idea of Musk at the helm is scary. His idea of free speech is the stuff that brings out and gives voice to the most heinous who walk among us. Twitter is a unique platform. In the last decade-plus, we have seen social movements take shape on Twitter. It has reshaped modern journalism and has allowed those with the least access to media to use their voices for the greater good. Yes, the undesirables live there too, but like any tool, it can be used for good or bad. 

For many, the announcement that the Twitter board—which includes Twitter founder Jack Dorsey—had greenlighted Musk’s offer for their town square left millions of Twitter users loudly declaring that they were leaving the platform. In some cases, they were looking to jump over to new platforms such as MeWe and Counter Social, whose origins are still unclear. In other cases, as I witnessed, people deleted their Twitter accounts and proudly announced it on Facebook, eager to tell everyone of their resistance to Musk and his antics. 

That would be lovely except that every major social media platform and almost every remaining media outlet is owned by someone who has far more money than they need and in some cases, such as with Facebook, the platforms are hardly paragons of virtue. It isn’t hyperbole to say that Facebook, for example, has definitely rearranged our society in ways that don’t benefit us. Or that Facebook’s domination was partly because its founder helped to snuff out the competition. I mean, Instagram and Whats App are also part of the Facebook family and other than TikTok, almost all new social media innovations have lived at the fringes with no little to no chance of going mainstream.

So, leaving Twitter for another platform isn’t the win that some are making it out to be, and it isn’t even a protest. It’s performative activism at best. much like the big storm a few months ago over Spotify allowing Joe Rogan to stay on their platform. Many canceled their Spotify accounts only to shift their music streaming accounts to Amazon Music and Tidal. In the case of Amazon Music, it is still owned by Jeff Bezos. The same Jeff Bezos who isn’t exactly known for treating his employees well. The same Jeff Bezos who also owns the Washington Post. The same Jeff Bezos who was married to MacKenzie Scott, and whose divorce made her one of the world’s richest women—though unlike her ex-husband, Scott seems to be a sincere and dedicated philanthropist. 

The thing is, we are living in the era of outrage where there’s so much to be pissed off about but people want quick fixes. Hence, taking “actions” that feel like something in a moment but upon a second look don’t move the needle—they just make people feel good about themselves. If you aren’t connecting the dots, look no further than the George Floyd protests and 2020. Global protests declaring that Black lives matter, calls to defund the police, anti-racism books selling like hotcakes. It seemed like we might really be on the cusp of change. 

Fast forward to 2022, and almost all the calls and offers to defund the police have proved to be empty. In fact, we are seeing a reversal of that energy—in many jurisdictions law enforcement is receiving even more dollars to combat the “growing” crime problem even though the crime isn’t really growing like pundits, politicians and police unions claim, and spending more on policing almost never reduces that crime. 

Where are all those people who were demanding transformative justice? What happened to defunding the police? Do Black lives even still matter? It was almost exactly two years as I write this  that the world exploded with a new social consciousness and yet here we are: Most people have moved on. Sure, people will post a supportive article on Facebook, but are they showing up? Are they moving material resources to aid the most impacted? Are they living their stated values? Or is it a matter of picking and choosing and doing as little as possible to avoid be inconvenienced? 

Back to Twitter and Elon Musk, though. I posed the question the other night on Twitter: “Would anyone consider paying for a more just and safe social media platform?” And almost no one said “yes.” While not scientific, this definitely aligns with the known fact that most ethical and independent media platforms are dying. Just this past month, independent and feminist powerhouse Bitch Media announced they were shutting down. The reason? No money. As someone who discovered Bitch magazine in my 20s and has been a supporter for years, this wasn’t a surprise. I see the letters they have been sending out. 

In fact, over the past year a number of platforms that gave voice to the marginalized have ceased operations. In every case, it is a lack of financial resources that caused them to shut down. 

As I have said before, paying for your access to the internet does not give you access to everything on the internet. Real live people are creating content, whether it is a blog, a magazine, newspaper, or social media platform. Those real live people also have expenses and desires for food and shelter, just like you. But unless those people are working for the handful of insanely wealthy people who now control most of the media landscape, and whom we mostly all agree are evil, how exactly do you expect those people to live? 

Every time you read those sites, or engage on platforms without thinking about how the people are getting paid, you are essentially saying they don’t matter. But at the same time, you blast the super-wealthy for not doing more. The super-wealthy in most cases are super-wealthy precisely because they don’t care about the greater good. The sooner we all accept that and stop wishing for these people to do better, the better off we will all be.

Instead, we can look at what we each can do, individually and collectively. Who can we support and how? No, we don’t all have the means to offer support, but in that case, can you amplify voices so they can get support elsewhere? Can we examine our own expectations around why we expect entertainment and knowledge to be free, especially when we are willing to be nickeled-and-dimed by the zillion streaming platforms. 

I am old enough to remember when one bought a TV, turned it on and there were things to watch. No cable boxes, streaming services or special antennas required. You just turned on the TV and there was stuff to watch until TV took a break at 3 a.m. and went off the air for a few hours. 

Now, though, we know that watching TV requires either paying for cable TV or streaming services. We’ve accepted it and yeah, it sucks. But we also realize that in this case, the funding model has changed and the trade-off is that not only can we watch shows when we want but in many cases, we even get to avoid commercials. 

We are in a place where everyone wants ethical and just behavior but far too few people are committed enough to make it happen. Thus, whether we intend to or not, we make it easier for the oligarchs to take over our lives. 

While Twitter has changed a lot of things about modern life, for all the bad things about the space, it has seeded social movements and many careers for folks who previously did not have access to mainstream access. I include myself in that category.

But a money maker? Twitter hasn’t turned a profit in eight of its last 10 years. As someone who went to graduate school for management, I absolutely understand the board of directors accepting the Musk offer. I am pretty sure that while the board recognizes the cultural importance of Twitter and how it has served as a vehicle for change, they also know that no one, even its most devoted users, are interested in paying for it. I suspect even Musk knows that too. So the perfect storm was created. It remains to be seen if the Musk sale will happen, but this moment is larger than an overgrown man-child looking for a shiny new toy. 

At what point do we actively decide to create the world we want? Or will we allow these people to control every facet of our lives? 

We are all hypocrites on some level. I live on an island, and by choice I don’t own a car, and I use Amazon Prime. Using Amazon Prime is bad, but not driving is good. We all have decisions to make, and none of us are going to be pure. But we can strive for consistency and work every day to live our stated values. 

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Image by Kenny Eliason via Unsplash