Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s successful bid to take control of Twitter has inspired a mania among the nation’s most well-educated, highest-earning, left-of-center influencers—the very demographic that is most active on Twitter. The hysterical reaction this event has produced is almost completely divorced from its objective relevance to American public life.

Musk’s takeover of the microblogging website “represents a chilling new threat,” in part, because the world’s richest man has added a media outlet to his portfolio of companies. “One billionaire should not be able to turn the world upside down just because he plays by a different set of rules,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren hyperventilated. Indeed, the list of elected Democrats who view Musk’s purchasing power as more evidence of the need to arbitrarily confiscate wealth just because it exists is disturbingly long.

Beyond Musk’s wealth, his critics are terrified by their assumption that Twitter under new management will do away with content moderation. At the least, Musk can be expected to open up the platform to disreputable and dangerous provocateurs. The Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University, Paul Barrett, told the Associated Press that Musk’s “posturing of free speech—just leave everything up—that would be bad in and of itself.” Already, the AP adds, “women, people of color and LGBTQ users [are] reporting a disproportionate amount of that abuse” online. Musk, University of Notre Dame Professor Kirsten Martin insists, wants to build an “irresponsible social media” platform. We are to assume that Musk would self-destructively abdicate best practices and his fiduciary responsibility to his investors just because.

This reaction—a self-perpetuating freak-out driven not by our shared and observable circumstances, but by an intra-elite competition to out-hyperbole rivals, cut through the noise, and gain relevance—is the problem with Twitter in a microcosm.

To hear Democrats tell it, Musk is the only billionaire to own something approximating a media outlet—an assumption that overlooks almost the entire existing media landscape. There’s little evidence that Musk intends to radically overhaul existing content moderation policies to the point that the product that he just took on mountains of debt to finance would be rendered an unviable “cesspool.” But supposed experts in this field seem to believe this is imminent. All Twitter’s new owner has said is that promoting the free expression of ideas—not the ideas themselves, per se, but the liberty to articulate them—should be the priority for what Musk himself has called “the de facto public town square.” Maybe that’s where the elite confusion lies.

“Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?” Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos pointedly asked of his fellow billionaire rival. “It’s always a concern when an oligarch may be owning the town square,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, displaying profound confusion over the definition of what constitutes both an oligarch and a town square. “It really is the closest thing we have to an online public square—and that’s terrible for democracy,” Wired magazine fretted. The website “may have been a town square of ideas,” New York Times columnist Charles Blow mourned. “It’s not that now.” Blow is half right; the website is not a “town square” today. He’s wrong if he thinks it ever was.

Whether they’re simply borrowing Musk’s construction or applying it ingenuously, promulgating the notion that this social-media network represents a modern town hall is wildly off base. It’s an idea that leads to some fallacious corollaries, the exploration of which helps explain why the nation’s most influential voices consistently misread Twitter’s relevance.

For a number of reasons, Twitter is not the modern-day equivalent of a town square. If it is a town square, it’s one that only 23 percent of the town populates. And only one-quarter of that 23 percent do any talking. In demographic terms, the talkers are wildly unrepresentative of the town for which they presume to speak, and the vast majority of them spend next to no time talking about politics or public affairs. And quite unlike a real town square, a plurality of its residents hate their town.

That is the biggest flaw in the old argument that this social-media forum mimics a community. You invest in your community. You move there, or decide not to move away from there, consciously. You invest in your town by putting down roots, making associations that are not of your choice and cannot be dissolved at will. It takes labor to ambulate your way down to the town square, as it were, and engage with your neighbors. At an average school-board or town-council meeting, the participants are likely to be the most engaged community members, and they probably enjoy outsize influence among their neighbors. Those tuned-in residents deserve and receive special attention from those in positions of local authority. That accessibility is what politically active Twitter users seem to want and often receive from elected officials, even though they’ve demonstrated none of the credentials we expect from real stakeholders.

Twitter involves none of this. You invest nothing by opening an app on your phone. Unless you have a visible public profile, you put little material or social capital at risk by being an insufferable jerk to your supposed neighbors. The support structures that appear to exist for your fellow community members are illusory. They’re liable to disappear at the first sign of genuine stress. Anti-social behaviors thrive in this hothouse environment because it is a simulation—a facsimile of what a real community is.

It would be insane to take your cues from an institution that demands only the most superficial investment from its participants. And yet, so many do. Confusion about what is at best a salon for the whole of Paris is likely how we got ourselves into that state of utter befuddlement.

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