If you had told me several months ago, right after Elon Musk bought Twitter and Ron DeSantis celebrated a landslide re-election victory, that DeSantis would launch his presidential campaign in conversation with Musk, I would have thought, intriguing: The right-wing billionaire whose rockets and cars stand out in an economy dominated by apps and financial instruments meets the Republican politician whose real-world victories contrast with the virtual populism of Donald Trump.
The actual launch of DeSantiss’s presidential campaign, in a Twitter Spaces event that repeatedly crashed and played to a smaller audience than he would have claimed just by showing up on Fox, instead offered the political version of the lesson we are been taught repeatedly by the management of Musks. from Twitter: The internet can be a trap.
For the Tesla and SpaceX mogul, the trap was sprung because Musk wanted to attack the groupthink of liberal institutions, and seeing that groupthink play out on his favorite social media site, he figured owning Twitter was the key to transforming the public speech.
But for all its influence, social media is still downstream from other institutions, universities, newspapers, TV channels, movie studios, other internet platforms. Chirping AND real life, but only through its relationship with other realities; it doesn’t have the capacity to be a discussion center, newsgatherer, or entertainment on its own. And many of Musk’s struggles as CEO of Twitter have reflected a simple overestimation of the inherent authority and influence of social media.
So he tried to sell the privilege of verification, the famous blue checks, without acknowledging that they were valued because of their connection to real-world institutions and lose value if they only reflect a Twitter hierarchy. Or she’s encouraged her favorite journalists to post their scoops and essays on her site when it’s not yet created for that type of publication. Or she has encouraged media figures like Tucker Carlson and now politicians like DeSantis to run shows or do interviews on her platform, without having the infrastructure in place to make it work.
It’s entirely possible that Musk could eventually build that infrastructure and make Twitter more capacious than it is today. But there’s no immediate social media shortcut to the influence he’s seeking. If you want Twitter to be the world’s news hub, you probably need a Twitter newsroom. If you want Twitter to host presidential candidates, you probably need a Twitter channel that looks like a professional news show. And while you’re trying to build these things, you have to be careful that the nature of social media doesn’t reduce you to the kind of caricature role-playing troll instead of mogul tempting everyone on Twitter.
That kind of diminution is what the Twitter event delivered to DeSantis, whose shaky launch might be forgotten but who would be wise to learn from what went wrong. There is an emerging criticism of the Florida governor that suggests his entire persona is too online for his talk of wokeness, wokeness, wokeness to be aimed at a narrow, internet-based faction within the GOP, which is setting in to be like Elizabeth Warren in 2020, whose promise of plans, plans, plans thrilled the vicious faction but failed with ordinary Democratic voters.
I think this criticism is exaggerated. If you look polling of Republican primary voters, the culture war appears to be a general concern rather than an elite fixation, and there is a plausible argument that conflict with the new progressivism is the main thing uniting the GOP coalition.
But it seems true that the conflict with progressivism in the context of social media it’s more of a boutique taste, and that many anti-wake-up conservatives aren’t particularly concerned that Twitter’s former regime was limiting this or that right-wing influencer or taking orders from this or that disinformation specialist. And it’s also true that DeSantis is running against a candidate who, at any time, can come back to Twitter and ride his feed like a behemoth, whatever Republican alternative the idiot boss might prefer.
So showing up in that online space made DeSantis seem unnecessarily smaller than Musk’s presence and Trump’s absence, reduced to the scope of shadow ban debates and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Florida in a primary should be his promise to be more active reality of Trump, with his claim to be better at effective governance made manifest by his edge in flesh-crushing energy and hitting the campaign trail.
The good news for DeSantis is that he doesn’t have billions invested in a social media company, so after enduring a dwindling introduction, he can evade the trap and drift away to the crowds, klieg lights, and weed.
For Musk, however, escape requires either an admission of defeat in this particular arena or a long campaign of innovation that will ultimately make Twitter as big as he mistakenly imagined it to be.
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