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Is Twitter the new Fox?

Last week, Twitter hosted a live interview with Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, who used the platform’s audio feature, known as Twitter Spaces, to launch his presidential campaign. Instead of being a triumph for both the company and DeSantis, the event was an unmitigated disaster: the first twenty minutes or so were mostly dead air—punctuated by occasional comments from Elon Musk, Twitter’s owner, who was to interview DeSantis alongside David Sacks, an investor and DeSantis donor—before the Space restarted with what appeared to be a dramatically smaller number of listeners. Twitter and the DeSantis campaign both tried to portray the technical problems as a sign of how many people wanted to participate in the event, but Zoë Schiffer and Casey Newton reported, in their Platformer newsletter, that the problems were more likely the result of Musk’s staffing cutbacks. The team working on Twitter Spaces once had as many as a hundred employees. It now has around three.

Glitches aside, some observers saw the event as the latest in a series of moves, on Twitter’s part, to position itself as the network of choice for the American right—the most significant of which arguably came last month, when Tucker Carlson announced that he would bring his show to the platform. (Technically, he remains under contract with Fox News, which ousted him in April in the aftermath of its defamation settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, for reasons that remain unclear.) “There are not that many platforms left that allow free speech,” Carlson said in a video. “The last big one remaining is Twitter.” Reports circulated that Musk had discussed the move with Carlson prior to his announcement, though Musk denied cutting any kind of deal, insisting that Carlson will be “subject to the same rules & rewards of all content creators” and that he hoped “many others, particularly from the left,” would join the party. In addition to the Carlson and DeSantis moves, the Daily Wire, a right-wing operation staffed by commentators including Ben Shapiro and Matt Walsh, announced that it will be bringing its slate of podcasts to Twitter.

When he took over Twitter last April, Musk said that he wanted to make it a nonpartisan space for “free speech,” unlike the left-leaning network that he said it used to be. In order for Twitter to earn the trust of the public, he said, “it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally”; he later added that his acquisition was “not a right-wing takeover.” And yet evidence soon mounted that he was moving the platform inexorably to the right. Shortly after he acquired the company, the idea that Musk personally was a political moderate became “untenable,” Philip Bump wrote for the Washington Post, noting that Musk “endorsed Republicans in the midterm elections, suggested that Anthony Fauci should be prosecuted, and elevated baseless conspiracy theories about the attack on Paul Pelosi” (the husband of Nancy, the former House Speaker, who was beaten with a hammer by an intruder in his home in October). Musk also repeatedly engaged with fringe far-right voices on Twitter and allowed both disinformation and hate speech to proliferate, Bump noted.

In December, Charlie Warzel, of The Atlantic, argued that, judging by Musk’s actions since he acquired Twitter, it was accurate to characterize him as a “far-right activist” and his purchase of the company as an explicitly political act, aimed at advancing the right’s “culture war against progressivism.” Warzel writes now that Twitter has undeniably been transformed into a platform “that offers a haven to far-right influencers and advances the interests, prejudices, and conspiracy theories of the right wing of American politics.” In addition to cozying up to Carlson and the Daily Wire, Warzel notes, Musk has reinstated many right-wing accounts that were previously banned and has “emboldened trolls, white-nationalist accounts, and January 6 defendants.” In his own tweets, Musk has moved “from trolling to dog whistling to outright conspiracy peddling,” Warzel adds, culminating in a recent anti-Semitic post about George Soros. Twitter, Warzel concludes, is following the playbook of platforms like Rumble, which “used to be the go-tos for canceled and deplatformed right-wingers seeking a soft landing and the promise of revenue.”

Myriad other observers seem to agree: Zeve Sanderson, the executive director of NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics, recently wrote in Barron’s that Musk had sent “contradicting signals”—emphasizing the importance of verification “while launching a new system that enables more convincing impersonation,” for example, or speaking at length about free speech while agreeing to censor posts at the request of the Turkish government—but that “there is now a clear conservative trend” in Musk’s behavior. Indeed, particularly in the wake of the recent Carlson and DeSantis moves, the F-word has increasingly been used to describe Twitter’s trajectory: Fox. Last week, Sara Fischer and Mike Allen, of Axios, wrote that, at least in recent times, Musk has “displaced Rupert Murdoch and Fox News as the king of conservative media.”

For Bump, it has become obvious that Musk’s intent in buying Twitter was “not only to dismantle an institution that he perceived as a tool that empowered the media but to transform the social media platform into a heavyweight in the right-wing ecosystem.” In some ways, he writes, Twitter is better positioned to become this than Fox News—it doesn’t have to pretend to be a neutral or objective journalistic organization, providing clear space for it to host content preferred by the political fringe. While Fox News was “pulled between the massive appetite from its viewership for false claims about election fraud and its ostensible newsgathering duties,” Bump noted that Twitter “can give that same audience an endless supply of nonsense from users that he can frame as simply allowing free speech.”

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But there are also reasons to be skeptical that Twitter has the power to overtake Fox, even if Musk might want it to. Fischer and Allen acknowledged that, despite a recent decline in ratings in Carlson’s old 8pm Eastern hour, Fox News is still “by far the highest-rated cable news network in America,” averaging at least one and a half million viewers per night in prime time. My colleague Jon Allsop wrote recently in this newsletter that “no one has ever lost money betting on the resiliency of Fox News,” adding that any pretender to its audiovisual dominance will probably “first need to work out how to host an audio-only livestream.” In general, the audience for cable news is shrinking rapidly—since 2016, the percentage of TV-owning households paying for cable or satellite has dropped from 70 to below 40 percent—but Bump points out that Twitter and other social media platforms “are much less heavily used by the older Americans who are Trump’s and Fox’s base of support,” making it unclear that they’ll ever switch over to Twitter.

As DeSantis’s campaign launch showed, some candidates are likely to be interested in Twitter because they either don’t trust the media or are trying to appeal to voters who don’t; Allsop noted that DeSantis has long shunned mainstream news organizations, shutting reporters out from press conferences and going after them on social media, two approaches that are straight out of Trump’s playbook. But using Twitter to circumvent the press isn’t itself new. And Elizabeth Lopatto, of The Verge, points out that Trump’s Twitter strategy was different from the one that DeSantis is now pursuing. Trump’s real platform “has always been television,” she argues, and so Twitter and TV worked synergistically for him. “Pretty much every reporter on earth is Too Online, and most of them are (or were) Twitter-addled,” Lopatto writes. “Sending out a weird tweet essentially guaranteed him airtime.” In other words, Twitter was a secondary amplification mechanism for Trump. DeSantis tried to use it as a primary mechanism, and bombed. 

Even if Twitter could become a new right-wing media powerhouse, would that be a worthwhile strategy for the company? Warzel isn’t so sure. Fox News has been able to profit from television advertising revenue and cable carriage fees—avenues that are not open to Twitter (which, under Musk, has actually lost many of its own advertisers). Right-wing platforms may attract investors and even new users, Warzel argues, but “they are, ultimately, bad businesses,” since what fuels far-right discourse is the chance to make fun of the left, and if there are no left-leaning users on Twitter anymore, then it won’t be as appealing. “A culture war is no fun if there’s no actual conflict,” Warzel wrote. Social media platforms that cater solely to a right-wing ideology “become tired and predictable—the result of the same loud people shaking their fist at digital clouds.”

To the extent that Musk tries to make Twitter the standard-bearer for right-wing thought, in other words, he could actually make things worse for the company financially. It’s possible that he doesn’t care about the bottom line—he is, after all, one of the world’s richest men—but the speed with which he got rid of more than 80 percent of Twitter’s employees suggests he does care about it at least a little bit. Even if he wins the battle to become the new Fox—and that’s a big if—he may lose the war along the way.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday was a banner day for big media-jobs news. Gideon Lichfield is stepping down as editor in chief of Wired after two years. Zach Seward is leaving Quartz, where he has worked, most recently as editor in chief, since cofounding the site in 2012. Imtiaz Patel, the CEO of the Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit local news site that launched to much fanfare last year, is leaving to take a senior leadership role at Gannett. The News Media Alliance, an industry trade group, promoted Danielle Coffey to the role of president and CEO. NPR announced that Scott Detrow, its White House correspondent, will host the weekend edition of All Things Considered and cohost the daily podcast Consider This. And Lisa Ling, whose CNN documentary series was canceled last year, is joining CBS.
  • Meanwhile, Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein reports that the New York Times delayed announcing that it had hired John Carreyrou—the investigative reporter who triggered the downfall of Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes—earlier this year because Holmes had agreed to sit down with Amy Chozick, another Times reporter, and an editor didn’t want to spook her. Chozick’s resulting profile of Holmes was criticized for its soft treatment of its subject, including, Klein reports, by Times staffers. (Ellen Pollock, the paper’s business editor, reportedly said that she didn’t “give a fuck” about the criticism.)
  • Insider’s Jacob Shamsian reports that Jeffrey Epstein was invited to attend editorial meetings at Scientific American in 2014, according to scheduling emails that Insider obtained. Mariette DiChristina, who was then the top editor of Scientific American, said that it was not unusual for the magazine to host visitors interested in its editorial processes, but that Epstein did not end up attending any meetings at the publication.
  • In 2018, three newspapers in Australia—The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Canberra Times—reported that Ben Roberts-Smith, the country’s most decorated living soldier, committed war crimes in Afghanistan. Roberts-Smith sued the papers for defamation—but earlier today, following a lengthy trial, a judge sided with the papers, finding that their reporting met the civil standard of truth on “the balance of probabilities.”
  • And last week, the Washington Post profiled Morgan Murphy, a former Vanity Fair staffer and food critic turned national security adviser to Republican senator Tommy Tuberville, who has mounted a one-man blockade of nominations to the Pentagon in protest of its abortion policies. This week, Murphy resigned from his role with Tuberville and cited the Post profile as the reason why, claiming that it “overstated” his centrality to the blockade.

ICYMI: Defector in pursuit of a journalists’ utopia

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.

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