Elon Musk is cribbing from Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media playbook

Elon Musk Rupert Murdoch Super Bowl

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Like Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes leading his team to a fourth-quarter Super Bowl comeback, this is a show we've seen before.

Billionaire Twitter owner Elon Musk offered a scornful dismissal of the news media on Saturday, tweeting, “Some of the smartest people I know actively believe the press … amazing.” But the following night, TV cameras captured him hanging out in a Super Bowl box with Rupert Murdoch, perhaps the single most powerful media mogul on the planet. The latter’s empire includes a slew of major newspapers and TV news networks on three continents; his U.S. assets include the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal, Fox News — the nation’s most-watched cable news network — numerous Fox-owned and -operated broadcast stations, and the Fox broadcast network that aired Sunday’s game.

Musk’s actions may seem like hypocrisy or oversight, but they actually fit into a consistent strategy — one Murdoch himself knows well. 

Musk regularly undermines and delegitimizes the mainstream press, along with his predecessors at Twitter, by accusing them of putting a liberal thumb on the scale. While he promises to instead favor free speech at the platform, he actually uses his power to promote right-wing propaganda. Musk’s high-profile meeting with Murdoch, who has relied on a similar playbook for decades, serves as a neon flashing sign that points to what he’s doing.

When Murdoch and Roger Ailes launched Fox News in 1996 with the slogan “Fair and Balanced,” they were implicitly castigating the rest of the press as unfair and promising that their network would be a corrective to the purported liberal bias of their competitors. Under Ailes, a former Republican political consultant, Nixon operative, and racist sexual predator, Fox made right-wing attacks on the press a central focus of its coverage, alongside hagiographic promotion of GOP leaders and vicious denunciations of Democrats. 

The Ailes-Murdoch strategy expanded the ranks of conservative viewers while concentrating them as the audience of a single network. This had three effects: It made Fox wildly profitable, helped Republican politicians win elections, and spawned a wide array of competitors and imitators who together created the right’s echo chamber. The network ultimately became a powerful force within the GOP, with Murdoch and the network’s stars serving as party advisers and kingmakers who generate its communications strategy and policy agenda. In turn, Murdoch cashed in during the Trump administration thanks to a string of suspiciously favorable regulatory decisions.

There are clear echoes of Fox’s grand design in what Musk is doing today at Twitter. Since he began making moves toward buying Twitter in early 2022, he’s regularly claimed to be acting to promote “free speech.” He declared a month after taking control of the company, “This is a battle for the future of civilization. If free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead.” He subsequently turned over internal documents generated under the company’s previous leadership to friendly writers and championed their work as proof that Twitter had been “acting by itself to suppress free speech” in potential violation of the First Amendment.

But while Musk portrayed himself as a nonpartisan “free speech absolutist,” his record shows him to be anything but. Since taking over Twitter, he has urged “independent-minded voters” to vote for Republicans in the 2022 midterms and endorsed Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president in 2024. And he’s put the company’s muscle behind his personal views, reinstating right-wing accounts that had previously been banned for spreading bigotry or conspiracy theories, including former President Donald Trump; taking advice from the site’s worst far-right trolls; pushing right-wing conspiracy theories on his own account; and presenting himself and his site as promoting “citizen journalism” as a foil to the mainstream journalists the right despises. 

Musk’s unhinged antics have driven away the site’s top advertisers, leading to a drop in revenue that he has blamed on critics who are “trying to destroy free speech in America.”

Republican officials and right-wing propagandists know they have a lot to gain from Musk’s control of Twitter, which is a key communications hub for journalists, and are responding accordingly. Their relentless praise for his stewardship of Twitter is interrupted only by occasional complaints about how much engagement their posts get. GOP leaders threatened Twitter’s board last spring with the prospect of repercussions if the company did not accept Musk’s initial bid; they issued more threats at major companies that dropped their Twitter ads in the fall.

Like Murdoch, Musk is lashing out at the press. Like Murdoch, Musk is presenting himself as engaged in producing trustworthy journalism. Like Murdoch, Musk is actually promoting right-wing propaganda. And like Murdoch, Musk is now reaping the benefits of his disingenuous media strategy from the Republican Party.