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With DeSantis event, Twitter solidifies its place in the conservative media world

Elon Musk suggested that all candidates would be welcome to follow DeSantis’ lead, but some Democratic operatives say the platform is no longer neutral ground.
(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on May 24, 2023 shows Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, on March 9, 2020, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis during a "Unite and Win" event at Hialeah Park Clubhouse, in Hialeah, Florida, on November 7, 2022. DeSantis, the leading Republican rival to Donald Trump, will announce his 2024 US presidential bid on May 24, 2023, during a live Twitter event with Musk, a source familiar with his plans told AFP. "I will be interviewing Ron DeSantis and he has quite an announcement to make," Musk confirmed at a conference on Tuesday.
Elon Musk, Ron DeSantis.AFP via Getty Images file

Elon Musk’s claims that he'd bring political balance to Twitter were already under heavy scrutiny given his ongoing embrace of Republican politicians and far-right politics. Now, after joining Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as he announced his presidential bid, the idea has taken hold among the left that Twitter is just another part of the conservative media apparatus. 

Democratic strategists said the joint Musk-DeSantis event was only the latest example of the tech billionaire aligning himself and Twitter with increasingly conservative politics in a rightward shift from the San Francisco company’s previous identity. 

Technical problems marred the start of Wednesday’s event, delaying DeSantis’ introduction by about 20 minutes, but the candidate seemed satisfied by the end. The roughly hour-long event featured a series of people tapped to ask questions, all of whom were well-known conservative pundits and operatives who almost universally fawned over DeSantis.

And those questions almost entirely centered on GOP culture war politics: Covid lockdowns, government overreach, the mainstream media, immigration, critical race theory and even bitcoin regulation.

“We should do it again,” DeSantis said after taking questions for an hour. “This is a great platform. I would like to see other platforms going in the same direction.” 

Musk said he’d be open to similar events with Democrats, including President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and reiterated his call after the DeSantis event.

That idea landed with a thud among some political consultants. 

“I can’t fathom we’ll be seeing a Democrat doing a Twitter event any time soon,” said Teddy Goff, the digital director for former President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. 

“Not only is the brand increasingly toxic, but there are fewer people there — and fewer of our people there,” Goff said. 

The event was lauded on Twitter by some conservatives, as chronicled by Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ rapid response director. Even the technical glitches were embraced as a sign of the candidate’s strength.

“DeSantis broke the Internet!” tweeted conspiracy theorist and right-wing commentator Mike Cernovich.

Faiz Shakir, a political adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Twitter is still valuable for reaching certain audiences, including journalists and hyper-engaged voters, but he said candidates are better off trying to create authentic moments with regular people — not chitchat with billionaires. 

“The things that are going well — that get across — is when people feel like they aren’t getting information that’s canned,” he said. 

The DeSantis-Musk event was by far the furthest that a major tech platform had gone to identify itself with one particular political party or candidate, shattering what had been a mostly uniform effort within Big Tech to keep their companies neutral at least in perception if not practice. 

Musk has not endorsed DeSantis or anyone else for president. He has, though, offered some early views on the 2024 race. In June 2022, Musk said he was leaning toward DeSantis for president. And a month later, he said that former President Donald Trump ought to “hang up his hat & sail into the sunset.” 

Tech platforms, including Meta and Google, have employed various strategies to maintain an image of bipartisanship, including donating to both major political parties from their corporate political action committees as well as hiring both Democratic and Republican former congressional staffers as lobbyists in Washington, D.C. 

And although many tech barons have personally backed individual politicians, Musk has been steering Twitter’s business in a steadily more partisan direction, academic researchers said. 

“Because he’s the owner of Twitter, it’s Twitter not Elon Musk that is staging this event,” said Michael Santoro, a business professor at Santa Clara University. 

“He’s undermining the supposed neutrality of the way Twitter operates,” Santoro said. 

Before Musk bought Twitter, the tech company, like its competitors, walked a thin line with politicians. Democrats pushed for tougher enforcement of Twitter’s rules, leading to situations like Twitter’s decision in 2017 to bar Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., from buying ads to promote an abortion-related campaign launch video that Twitter said was inflammatory. In 2018, then-CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged the liberal personal leanings of many Twitter employees and intensified his courtship of Republicans with a private dinner in Georgetown, The Washington Post reported

The tightroping rarely satisfied either side. 

The DeSantis event signals for Twitter and Musk a “pivot to being identified with the Republican Party,” Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver and director of its Center on American Politics, said in a Substack post

Masket said in an interview that previous Twitter management appeared to struggle with how best to respond to complaints from conservatives, but he said Musk’s overall vision isn’t entirely clear either. 

“I don’t get the impression that he’s quite aiming to be an alternative to Fox,” Masket said. “I think he has a particular vision of free speech — that I’ve never gotten the impression is very well thought through, but is the freedom to state controversial viewpoints without a lot of criticism.” 

Musk’s presence on the audio-only Twitter Spaces event all but ensured a much larger megaphone for DeSantis than the governor would otherwise have had for an announcement on social media. It also was a sign to Musk’s rabid fanbase that the tech billionaire was at least curious to hear DeSantis’ pitch. 

The event follows other moves by Musk to embrace right-wing politics. He has personally applauded former Fox News host Tucker Carlson for planning a show on the platform and reinstated the accounts of Trump and others banished by Twitter’s previous management. 

The DeSantis event fits a pattern, progressives said. 

“This is one of several ways that Musk is trying to reposition Twitter as a new media platform for Republicans,” said Matthew Sheffield, a formerly conservative online writer who now edits a progressive site, Flux

And in posts from Musk’s own account, Musk has attacked liberals such as George Soros in ways widely seen as antisemitic and spread memes associated with white supremacy — all while ensuring that his posts and those of people willing to pay a monthly fee get priority in people’s Twitter feeds. 

“What we’re seeing is Twitter becoming Elon Musk’s blog. He’s the editor in chief,” Shakir said. 

“That’s the way that we should look at Twitter. The problem is that Twitter has become too powerful and too large,” he said. 

Musk bought Twitter in November for $44 billion and quickly moved to remake both the company and its service, laying off most Twitter employees and loosening rules on objectionable content such as hate symbols. 

Katie Harbath, a former director of public policy at Facebook who previously worked on Republican campaigns, wrote in a Substack post that there was no precedent for Musk playing such a prominent role in the DeSantis kickoff, though she wrote it did remind her of Democrat John Edwards announcing his presidential run on YouTube in 2007

But she wrote that Republicans should generally be wary of Musk. 

“Musk is not necessarily the Republican’s friend,” she wrote. “Musk is opportunistic and aligns somewhat with the Republicans, but that is advantageous to him right now. The minute it no longer is, Republicans shouldn’t expect any kind of loyalty.” 

Goff, the former Obama campaign staffer, said Musk doesn’t seem to value long-term relationships with Democrats, either. 

“Digging himself into an even bigger ditch with a political party that is going to be in power for some period of his lifetime is not a great strategy,” he said. 

Musk’s businesses are heavily regulated by the federal government. SpaceX enjoys vast revenue from federal contracts, Tesla is under Justice Department investigation, and Twitter’s future depends on Congress not repealing its immunity from many lawsuits. 

Shakir said that Democrats and progressives can’t exactly ignore or boycott Twitter the way they sometimes do Fox News. Twitter still has a core of politically aware users, including many journalists who have no similar platform to turn to, reflecting what Shakir said is a troubling concentration of economic and political power by tech companies more generally. 

“It’s become a utility resource for so many consumers of information that his ability to alter the algorithms has incredible power and reach,” Shakir said.