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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Kanye West’s free speech buy is not something to celebrate
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Kanye West’s free speech buy is not something to celebrate

The rapper’s interest in social media resembles that of Elon Musk

Kanye West is a musician with a successful apparel venture (Photo: AFP)Premium
Kanye West is a musician with a successful apparel venture (Photo: AFP)

It used to be that newspapers were the must-have baubles for wealthy ideologues. Now, social media platforms are becoming the trophy asset of choice for powerful individuals who want to push an anything-goes view on free speech, especially if they’re been burnt by the rules on more established sites. Rapper, American celebrity and businessman Kanye West is the latest to throw his hat in the ring to become a platform proprietor, pushing for the “right to freely express ourselves."

The musician and apparel tycoon also known as Ye has agreed to buy Parler, a relatively small forum that calls itself a free-speech alternative to the ‘microblog’ platform Twitter, according to an announcement made by the firm on Monday. Parler is recognized as a right-wing network that Apple and Google temporarily kicked off their app stores following reports that it was used to plan the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021.

“In a world where conservative opinions are considered to be controversial, we have to make sure we have the right to freely express ourselves," Ye said in a press release announcing the deal.

About a week ago, the American rapper was suspended from Twitter and Instagram for anti-semitic posts, including a tweet that [made unacceptable collective references to “Jewish people"].

He joins a motley crew of volatile plutocrats who want to host their own free speech playgrounds, where users can post extremist viewpoints, conspiracy theories and more. Elon Musk is currently on course to wrangle Twitter Inc, and former US president Donald Trump—who was also banned from Twitter and Facebook last year for inciting violence—has built his own platform, Truth Social.

Nothing is straightforward about any of these deals.

For a start, we don’t know how much Ye agreed to pay for Parler, or if he has managed to pull together adequate funding for an acquisition. Parlement Technologies, which owns Parler, said on Monday that it had “entered into an agreement in principle," with Ye and didn’t disclose financial terms. Neither the company nor Ye responded to questions about the deal.

Musk’s Twitter acquisition is hardly a done deal either. And the funding of Trump’s vehicle Truth Social via a blank-cheque company, which was created to take it public for about $1 billion, has also been beset by delays.

If all three deals get completed, the internet might just enter uncharted territory with a trio of platforms controlled by capricious billionaires and a seemingly unhinged celebrity. But maybe not. This evolution isn’t quite so unusual when you consider that for more than a century, traditional media has been steered by powerful proprietors, from Rupert Murdoch to Ted Turner, with a vast range of crackpot owners in between.

Henry Ford, for instance, owned the notorious Dearborn Independent weekly newspaper from 1919 to 1927, which he used to promote shockingly anti-semitic views, with articles claiming that a vast Jewish conspiracy was infecting the US and that Jews were bent on corrupting the world through wars and the stock market. The newspaper had a circulation of about 500,000 and was distributed throughout the US through Ford’s large network of car dealerships.

In the UK, aristocratic brothers Alfred and Harold Harmsworth started the Daily Mail newspaper in 1896, to publicly cheer for British imperialism as well as the rise of fascism in Europe—in Germany, for example—during the 1930s.

Though today’s social media proprietors are focusing on free speech, they may eventually come to echo their predecessors by pushing a particular agenda with their platforms. It won’t be as simple as a punchy editorial in a newspaper, but there are still levers these owners can pull to amplify a message directly from their profiles or from their supporters.

For Trump, that goal is likely to try and get himself elected again, while for Musk that might mean promoting his own companies via Twitter. Kanye’s crude and bizarre statements about race have been all over the place, so it’s unclear what ideas he may try to promote through Parler. The site has about 16 million registered users, a spokesman for Parler tells me. On Truth Social, Donald Trump has just over 4 million followers.

These figures are tiny next to Twitter, which has more than 230 million active users worldwide, and Facebook, which has almost 3 billion. But wealthy proprietors who dabble at the fringes of media could still cause trouble, particularly if they allow conspiracy theories as crazy as QAnon to flourish. That would do tremendous damage. 

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.

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Published: 18 Oct 2022, 10:43 PM IST
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