INTERVIEW – By focusing on Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, part of public opinion is missing the real issue, namely the way in which social networks are changing our relationship to the world, analyzes Charleyne Biondi, author of “Dé-coder , a counter- history of the digital”.
Charleyne Biondi is a PhD in Political Theory with a dual degree from Columbia (New York) and Cevipof-Sciences Po. Her PhD research focuses on the political history of digital technology and the regimes of truth that have accompanied its evolution, from 1950s cybernetics to Google surveillance capitalism. She just posted Decryption, a digital counter-story (ed. books, 2022).
LE FIGARO. – Should we see a broader Twitter crisis behind Musk’s theatrical management?
Charleyne BIONDI. – The theatrical management you speak of is not specific to Twitter. Elon Musk applied to the social network management techniques he had already used in his other companies, notably Tesla and SpaceX. In 2018, during the Tesla model 3 had production problems, Musk had also carried out massive layoffs, scared employees and investors with public alarming statements about his company’s financial health, and encouraged his teams to work as much as possible, while himself spending whole nights at his desk, sleeping on one at a time Conference room installed mattress chaining 120 hour weeks… obviously never happened. Classified in the context of Musk’s “managerial history”, the recent events surrounding his takeover of Twitter seem less specific to the social network than to the entrepreneur himself.
However, I’m not convinced Musk’s character deserves much attention. Definitely, your personality and its very clear positions give the saga a Takeover of Twitter a particularly “flamboyant” character; but basically these management practices or techniques that we are so concerned about – redundanciesthe “extreme” or “hardcore” corporate culture built in the name of profitability and the multiplication of “tests” without a future (such as the announcement of a paid subscription on the social network) – nothing wrong with this, which is common in the economic context of the United States, where the Markets, including the employment market, are deregulated and where the cult of free enterprise naturally caters to almighty entrepreneurs who should be “let loose”.
For Europe, controlling Gafam’s practices and the impact of new foreign technologies is a geopolitical issue: not having to submit to these new powers.
Twitter’s situation therefore illustrates less a “crisis” than a well-known phenomenon: that of the irreducible tensions that lie at the heart of any market democracy between the ambitions of its economic sphere and its political institutions.
Are we dealing with a redefinition of freedom of expression in our western democracies, or is this dispute of a different nature?
First, the “absolute” freedom of expression that Musk advocated when he took over Twitter has not materialized. It was once thought that Musk would employ an extreme, uncensored version of American-style free speech on Twitter, which seemed to confirm it Return in favor of Donald Trump on the platform. However, unmoderated freedom of expression on a social network can legitimately raise fears of the spread of hateful, racist language and disinformation – which has happened since the Twitter takeover. That said, Musk hasn’t eliminated Twitter’s content moderation teams, nor has he reconsidered the radical nature of his starting position… The concern remains, however, as there are fears that Musk bought Twitter to serve the political interests of the American right (or even on the far right).
The “absolute” freedom of expression that Musk advocated at the time of the Twitter acquisition has not materialized.
In Europe, Twitter will not be able to escape the standards of the Digital Services Act (DSA): according to European legislation, the unjustified closure of journalist accounts (as happened last month) would have been severely punished. Hedging is therefore possible, but often incomplete. However, the lack of regulation gives the social network’s owner the ability to turn Twitter into a propaganda weapon if desired. Again, Musk’s personality and provocative statements make him the focus of all criticism, but in reality the same issue applies to all social media, including Facebook/Meta. The solid formation of public opinion, which is nevertheless one of the pillars of democracy, depends on the good will of private actors and difficult-to-control algorithms.
All of this leads me to believe that it is not about regulating free speech, as even Elon Musk recognizes the need to regulate “free speech” and moderate content. Again, I believe that Takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk and everything that follows make clear above all the limits of a certain economic policy. In other words, recognizing the potential of social networks to influence public opinion leads neoliberal logic to a turning point: it (still) reminds us that democracy can only survive if the state regulates its market.
Do you think that France and the European institutions are more aware of the need to regulate social networks and new technologies?
For Europe control the practices of Gafam and the impact of new foreign technologies poses a geopolitical issue: not being subservient to these new powers. The data collection and processing capabilities of large digital companies represent an unprecedented tool of influence. Public opinion is now at the mercy of algorithms, and to avoid becoming the ‘digital colony’ of an alien industry, the European Union has created a legal framework to monitor the management of personal data and content. These laws, unparalleled anywhere else, clearly reflect the political will to create an alternative to Sino-American models and to defend ethical technology. unfortunately, the results of these initiatives will remain tenuous as long as the big companies in the digital industry are foreign.
The recognition of the influence of social networks on public opinion leads neoliberal logic to a turning point.
However, it should be borne in mind that while the problems surrounding data are unprecedented, this is not the first time that industrial players have played a significant role at the geopolitical level. Before technology, the aerospace or mining industries also embodied political issues for and between states and crystallized major tensions on the international stage. It’s important to keep this in mind so as not to indulge in overly sensationalist talk about the “power” of the technological giants.
In your opinion, we must succeed in detaching technology from the analysis of power and try to understand the fundamental movement that it imprints on our imagination: that is?
Take Twitter as an example: by making the social network the weapon of Elon Musk or the vehicle of the political interests of the American far right, we are reformulating, we are updating a debate as old as capitalism, which consists in political institutions to guard rival market powers. The “power” of the big business, the excesses of their practices, the social and environmental abuses, the collusion between the economic interests of one side and the political parties of the other: none of this is unique to our time. The digital industry offers from this perspective only a new iteration of power issues and struggles for influence that already exist.
However, I am convinced that the digital age is about something specific; that these ubiquitous technologies, essential to all aspects of our existence, are profoundly transforming society, not only by redefining the old power relations that structure them, but much more fundamentally, by shaping our relationship to the world “from within”. The purpose of my research is to highlight the impact of digital technology on society independently of all its “superficial” instrumentalizations by such industrial actors or states.
There is indeed a connection between the digital transformation and the “crisis of meaning” or “crisis of trust” that the great Western democracies are going through.
In a way, attaching technology to one or the other’s “power” blinds us to what it is and what it produces, and prevents us from analyzing it. However, at a time when the digital is asserting itself as the ordering principle of the world, it seems imperative and urgent to develop critical thinking about digital technology itself and not just about its industry.
How does this new ecosystem disrupt the model of liberal democracy inherited from the Enlightenment?
Digital technology has become a strategic issue for the sovereignty of states: from the point of view of national defense, it is both a new weapon and a new space of conflict; from an administrative point of view, it is both a new strategic infrastructure and a new tool for managing public policies and the population; and as we have seen, it is also a new economic policy issue. Consequently, the need for large-scale public action (to regulate industry, develop sovereign strategic technologies, etc.) is becoming increasingly evident. However, admitting that technology is now a “political object” is not the same as saying that technology “threatens” democracy. On the contrary: As a political object, i.e. as a “subject” of this or that public order, technology is completely harmless. We are not threatened by what we can regulate.
However, and this is the starting point of my book, there is indeed a connection between the digital transformation and the “crisis of meaning” or “crisis of trust” that the great Western democracies are going through. Contrary to well-known clichés, this connection is not limited to misinformation on social media, but goes much deeper. Computer science has created a new paradigm, a new grid for understanding the world that we almost always adopt without realizing when using a digital tool. However, this new way of seeing the world, this new “digital rationality” pervading the contemporary imagination, is creating an ever-widening gap between the aspirations of our digitized society and the political order that governs it. The risk is believing that our institutions and the key principles that underpin them are “immune” to it digital transformationthat they might remain exactly the same while all of society, all practices, all individual and collective habits are radically overturned elsewhere. So the political issue is digital not so much regulation of your industrythan to dare to question the legitimacy of past institutions.
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