The Perverse Incentives of Elon Musk's Version of "Citizen Journalism"
.Citizen journalism can be great, but it's not what Musk is referring to when he says those words.
Hello, dear readers.
But today, let’s talk a little bit about citizen journalism. It’s a term that’s been thrown around quite a bit lately… and by one man in particular.
So let’s do this. Let’s talk about citizen journalism: what it is, what it isn’t, what it’s good for, and whether it can replace traditional news media.
Most people understand the term "citizen journalism" to refer to the practice of reporting and disseminating news by individuals who are not journalists by trade. Since citizen journalists are not typically employees of news organizations, they are not subject to any particular standards. While the general concept has been around for centuries, social media and the ubiquity of smartphones have enabled it on a never-before-seen scale.
The Present Age is 100% reader-supported. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Think of the protests following Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election, Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and the Black Lives Matter movement between 2015 and 2020 (but especially in 2015). Those were all big moments for citizen journalism. In each of those cases, activists or observers would livestream what they saw, and, as a result, bring more attention to the event they were covering. That’s citizen journalism: first-hand reports from places where news is happening. As the aforementioned examples show, this can be a very good thing!
However, it’s important to remember that citizen journalism, by definition, is not intended to be “objective” in any real sense. This doesn’t mean it’s (necessarily) misleading; it just means that you should understand that the person doing the citizen-journalisminginginging may have an agenda that goes beyond simply showing people what’s happening. The citizen journalists at Occupy tended to be Occupy supporters. The citizen journalists at the 2015 BLM protests tended to be BLM supporters. The citizen journalists covering the 2020 BLM protests tended to be either BLM supporters or opponents. What you get is an individual’s curated experience. And, again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that this type of journalism is best understood as a supplement to corporate and public media, not a replacement.
Elon Musk doesn’t love citizen journalism; he just doesn’t like it when people say things he disagrees with.
In May, Mario Nawfal tweeted a lengthy piece calling out the “hypocrisy of the mainstream media.” Here’s how it starts:
Three days ago, Instagram, owned by Meta, experienced a worldwide server outage, but it didn't face any criticism for it and almost went unnoticed!
However when @elonmusk made history by hosting Ron DeSantis on a Twitter Space to announce his presidential run, technical issues arose, and within minutes, we witnessed mainstream media articles aggressively targeting Twitter.
Nawfal then lists a handful of headlines from the day of the DeSantis announcement (“Elon Musk fails to launch Ron DeSantis in disastrous Twitter Space”, “Twitter Spaces meltdown during DeSantis announcement sparks scorched earth reaction from Trump supporters”, etc.), and then wraps with this:
This clearly demonstrates the media's apprehension towards Twitter, as citizen journalism gains prominence while they decline.
Despite Instagram's worldwide server outage facing little to none negative coverage, the moment a single Twitter Space crashes, multiple hit pieces were swiftly released by many media outlets.
Citizen journalism is perceived as a threat by the media, and that is EXACTLY why we must fight to defend it!
To that, Musk responded, “Citizen journalism breaks the monopoly held by a handful of editors - they naturally don’t like that.”
For a very long time, Musk has been the beneficiary of some overly credulous coverage in the mainstream press. I’ve covered that before here:
Still, it hasn’t been enough for him. See, journalists have this pesky habit of occasionally reporting on the number of traffic deaths linked to Tesla’s Autopilot program, the grisly details of what Musk’s Neuralink monkey test subjects went through before being euthanized, or the time Musk allegedly exposed himself to a flight attendant, tried to pay her off with a horse, and eventually paid her $250,000 to keep quiet. Things of that nature.
To Musk, journalism is when you take his claims at face value, don’t check them, and write like a teenager with a crush about how dreamy he is. That other stuff? Psh.
Looking back to Nawfal’s example for a moment, the flaw in the logic is pretty clear. It’s easy to say, “See! Look! The same outlets that published stories about Twitter’s technical issues didn’t write stories about Facebook’s technical issues!” if you ignore the fact that the actual story was about the fact that the technical issues happened during DeSantis’s campaign announcement. They were stories about DeSantis taking a pretty big gamble in announcing his candidacy for president on a notoriously unstable audio-only platform. Websites and platforms have problems all the time. That happens. That’s not super newsworthy in itself.
But no matter. Musk prefers citizen journalism, which, based on his many mentions of it on Twitter, refers to him livestreaming from the U.S.-Mexico border, celebrating a post from one of his superfans who worked with Musk and SpaceX to provide promotion for his rocket launch (this was the ill-fated rocket launch that failed moments after takeoff and caused massive environmental damage to the area — something not mentioned in the “citizen journalism post”), or Musk’s handpicked “Twitter Files” writers.
He likes it when people say good things about him and bad things about his enemies. He doesn’t like it when people say bad things about him and good things about his enemies. It’s really that simple.
Let’s talk about incentives.
If you subscribe to this newsletter, you know that media criticism is kind of my thing. You can scroll through the archives and find posts of me slamming CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, etc. I call it like I see it. I’m hardly what anyone would call a corporate media bootlicker.
That said, corporate and public media organizations do not generally have an incentive to actively and intentionally lie to you. Most of my criticisms of mainstream media organizations have to do with story selection, framing, and other editorial choices. You know — which voices get heard, what stories do and don’t get told, what emphasis gets placed where, etc. It’s extraordinarily rare for mainstream media organizations to flat-out lie or otherwise report something that isn’t true. And when they do, there are usually some pretty steep consequences. Why? Because their reputations hinge on this.
For instance, while they’re both on the far right, there is a massive reputational difference between Fox News and InfoWars. Fox will mislead, spin, pander, and omit1. It won’t, however, report as a fact that “Obama’s having sex with 10 dudes a day,” as Alex Jones did back in 2018. This is because Fox’s owners want people to think of it as a source of news and understand that outright lying hurts their ability to convince people of that. It’s important to them to stay in the relative good graces of advertisers and cable providers. Alex Jones and InfoWars don’t worry about advertisers and cable providers, so they have no real incentive to even try to stick to the truth2. They make their money selling supplements and survival gear to gullible viewers.
The truth about citizen journalism as a career is that the incentive structure lines up more closely with InfoWars than it does with that of cable news channels. There aren’t any specific advertisers to please (which can be a very good thing; don’t get me wrong). The incentive is to get as many eyeballs on your content as possible and play to the biases of the platforms and their algorithms.
Over the weekend, Musk promoted two accounts “for following the [Israel-Palestine] war in real-time.” Neither account was on the ground doing firsthand reporting. They were aggregators of rumors, conspiracy theories, and violent imagery — just like many of the "citizen journalists" that Musk and his friends celebrate. Both recommended accounts had a history of posting AI-generated images as being real; one of them regularly replies to people with wildly antisemitic comments; and one of them was putting violent imagery behind a paywall like an OnlyFans for corpses.
There’s no real concern about reputation. There’s no real concern about accuracy. There’s no real concern about anything other than gaining attention and making money. This sort of “citizen journalism” has taken over the Musk-owned
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Present Age to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.