Angelo Carusone discusses Musk and X on MSNBC: “The pen is supposed to be mightier than the sword – and this is an area where they're trying to take away the pen from any critics”

“We're identified as the enemy, but we're not going to be the only ones”

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Citation From the December 2, 2023, edition of MSNBC's American Voices with Alicia Menendez

ALICIA MENENDEZ (HOST): By now, you have likely seen Elon Musk's very public meltdown over advertisers fleeing his social media company, X, formerly known as Twitter. At this week's DealBook Summit in New York, Musk insinuated that these companies were committing blackmail. Most of his ire was directed at Disney CEO Bob Iger, who was at the conference. Disney is among the corporations that pulled advertising from X after Musk amplified an antisemitic conspiracy.


MENENDEZ: His public exchange, of course, very revealing. And here's the thing. This is bigger than Musk, bigger than X, bigger than Twitter. It's part of the national debate over whether free speech means speech without consequences. Washington Post national correspondent Philip Bump writes: "This was the core of the backlash against pre-Musk Twitter’s efforts to police abuse and misinformation: that they had a right to say those things and Twitter had no right to keep them from doing so." Philip joins us now. He is also the author of the book The Aftermath. Also with us, Angelo Carusone, the president and CEO of Media Matters. Philip, expand on that idea for us.

PHILIP BUMP (WASHINGTON POST): Yeah, I think it's really important to recognize that when Elon makes these comments about the importance of Twitter and how it's this bastion of free speech, really what he's doing is he is being the most obvious manifestation of this very prevalent idea on the right that you are not allowed to face any consequences for the things that you say. We see this in a lot of different formats. We see, you know, any time there is any sort of attempt to moderate social media conversations, the response is, I have free speech. You can't tell me what I can and cannot say. You know, this whole idea about cancel culture, that people are facing consequences for things that they say. All of this is about having people who in a broad sense, often feel as though they are – they have status anxiety. They're worried about their position in American culture. This is a way in which that manifests, that people feel as though now even Twitter is keeping me from being the real man that I want to be and saying the things that I want to say. When the reality, of course, is that Twitter as a private company, pre-Elon Musk in particular, was allowed to do that, was allowed to say, hey, look, you can't be abusive on our platform; you can't say antisemitic things on our platform. Those are not okay. It was an example of consequences being applied to speech. But now this idea that consequences are being applied to speech is framed in this broad argument on the right where this status anxiety exists that people feel like, oh, you can't tell me what I can and cannot do because that's an imposition on me.

MENENDEZ: Well, Angelo, I have to imagine there's a corollary there with Musk trying to sort of say that he's being blackmailed or referencing this idea of being blackmailed. I'm like, this is just how a free market works; companies get to choose how they spend their dollars.

ANGELO CARUSONE (MEDIA MATTERS CEO): That's exactly right. I mean, it is obviously – it's a total conflation, right, of the idea of blackmail and which is the standard, as you point out, what a marketplace is. The whole point is for a company like this and for most commercial media, right,  to produce a product so that you get an audience and then advertisers want to reach that audience. And, you know, his response, I think reinforces that. And to try to invert that, to say you must support these ideas, otherwise, you're the bad guy. And beyond that, and Philip sort of alluded to this, is like you're then going to start to activate your audiences to not just express outrage and indignation, but from my perspective, increasingly then gin them up to take more extreme means because they feel like they're on the margins. It's sort of this ends justify the means, might-makes-right style of approach wrapped in this idea that you're advocating for some sort of big value. And Linda Yaccarino reinforced that the next day when she talked about the fact that advertising partners need to really align with the values of what X is trying to do here, even going one step further to say those that are suggesting that those that are remaining are really buying into this larger worldview. And that's never been the idea behind advertising. It's never been to endorse the program. It's been to align with the – or try to get to that audience but to also avoid, you know, basic controversies or extremes.

MENENDEZ: Philip, I want to sort of zoom out and I want to think about the conversation that we're having because, listen, we have viewers that don't use X, They may not be thinking about Elon Musk. This is all happening in the broader environment, as you said, where the conservative movement is trying to say that – trying to make the First Amendment something that it is not. It's also happening against the backdrop of the very real possibility of a second Trump term, where Trump is telling us exactly what it is he will do. And part of his effort is to undermine the institutions that would be there to hold him to account.

BUMP: Yeah. Yeah, that's exactly right. Yeah. I mean, if you showed the piece that I wrote this week that looked at all of the, you know, the warnings we get about him setting the DOJ against his enemies or, you know, taking over the military. He already tried to do those things. He already had this entire investigation spurred by William Barr, the Durham investigation, that was trying to get dirt on the people who launched the Russia investigation. Right? You know, I really think it's important to contextualize that when we talk about this Elon Musk thing. His arguments are incredibly stupid. They're very stupid arguments. But what they depend on is that you're on team Musk, you're on team right side, you're on team, you know, we are the conservatives. It depends on this fostering of a sense of where we are, the opponents of the bad guys on the left, which is exactly what Donald Trump has done. Elon Musk is Donald Trump, except in the business world, right? Instead of politics. That is what Donald Trump has done. You are on my team or you are the enemy. And that's what Musk is doing with his Twitter fight. That's how Donald Trump frames his politics increasingly obvious ways. And so when we think about the prospect of him becoming president again in January 2025 and implementing those things, he is now more prepared than he was even in 2020 to deploy federal power against his enemies, which is what his base has been inculcated to want.

MENENDEZ: And so I've got less than a minute left. But you find yourself in these crosshairs.

CARUSONE: Yeah, without a doubt. And I think that one of the things that's so sort of, you know, that has been clarifying at this moment is that we've always sort of had this impression that, you know, when you – and this started with the birth of Fox News, this idea of fair and balanced is that everything else is the left and increasingly the enemy. And we're going to sort of balance that out. So it's okay if we fib a little bit because that's how you sort of balance the scales from their perspective, its ends justify the means. And now that's taken to extremes. Now their way of advocating or claiming they advocate for free speech is to go one step further and to use the actual institutions of government power to punish all of those that they identify as the enemy so that then they can sort of purify and have clarity. So we're identified as the enemy, but we're not going to be the only ones. Anyone that tells you that is engaged in sort of any kind of reporting or criticism will be I mean, it's a cliche for a reason, but it's true. The pen is supposed to be mightier than the sword – and this is an area where they're trying to take away the pen from any critics, especially as you noted in your previous segment, we increasingly start to slide into authoritarianism. It's a real dangerous time.

MENENDEZ: Indeed. Thank you for this context. Angelo and Philip, as always.