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Freeing Information From the Billionaires: The Super-Rich Do Not Have To Control the Media

How to find information online without involving billionaires like Elon Musk.

PUBLISHED NOV 8, 2022 12:00 A.M.
Billionaires do not have to control where the public gets its news. There are alternatives.

Billionaires do not have to control where the public gets its news. There are alternatives.

Daniel R. Blume / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 2.0 Share-Alike Generic License

Not only has the world’s richest person, Elon Musk, now taken control of the influential social media platform Twitter, he got help from other billionaires to do it. According to a regulatory filing reported by the Associated Press, Menlo Park-based Sequoia Capital Fund, managed by multi-billionaire Douglas Leone, kicked in $800 million

Larry Ellison—who founded the tech giant Oracle in Santa Clara back in 1977, and who is reportedly worth roughly $102 billion—backed Musk’s bid with a cool $1 billion. Ellison is a major Trump supporter who, in this election cycle, has contributed $20 million to a super PAC that has spent $6.1 million to help four election-denier candidates running in some of the Senate’s closest races. And Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud put in $1.89 billion in Twitter shares, according to the filing, which lists 18 investors involved in Musk’s planned buyout of Twitter. Those investors comprise a  “‘who’s who list of Wall Street and Silicon Valley investment firms,” according to the AP report.

In other words, Twitter will be controlled not by a single billionaire, but by a whole cabal of billionaires, including from Saudi Arabia and Qatar—whose sovereign wealth fund the Qatar Investment Authority also tossed in $375 million

Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are run by repressive authoritarian regimes with records of crushing the very “freedom of speech” that Musk claims to be his reason for buying Twitter. On the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries in order of the information freedoms they allow, Qatar ranks 119th, and Saudi Arabia an even more dismal 166th.

Breaking Free of the Billionaires

As California Local documented in an earlier story, billionaires and the ultra-wealthy have purchased and operated media outlets for more than a century, but the trend has accelerated in recent years, as the number of billionaires worldwide has also inflated. Is there any way to escape the grip of the super-rich over the information sources vital to the functioning of a democratic, free state?

There are, indeed, a few noteworthy examples of media outlets and information sources that remain independent of control by billionaires. Perhaps the most prominent information outlet not tied up by a billionaire or group of rich investors is the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

With about 5 billion unique visitors per month, the massive compendium of information—about 6.5 million separate articles live on the site—ranks as the seventh-most highly trafficked website in the world. Yet unlike every site ahead of it on the list, and most of those behind it in the top 50, Wikipedia is owned by a nonprofit, the San Francisco-based Wikimedia Foundation, founded in 2003 to oversee and operate not only the Wikipedia encyclopedia, but other information sources such as Wikimedia Commons—a repository of freely available images and videos—as well as Wiktionary, an online dictionary, and Wikispecies, which is a public domain listing of more than 800,000 species of plants and animals. 

How Wikipedia Works

Wikipedia has been around longer than Twitter, Facebook or TikTok. Founded as NuPedia in 1999, five years before college sophomore Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his dorm room. Founder Jimmy Wales soon realized that his online encyclopedia, which required a seven-step editing and publishing process for volunteer-written articles “was too hard and too intimidating” for users. 

He switched the site to a “wiki” platform, a type of server technology that allows quick (the word “wiki” means “quick” in the native Hawaiian language) and most importantly, collaborative editing of information. As of 2021, that collaboration involved about 300,000 volunteer editors, of whom 40,000 are highly active and 500 have reached “admin” status, making them the final arbiters of editing decisions and other lordly powers.

The nonprofit site accepts and runs no advertising, but thanks to user donations the foundation that owns Wikipedia is flush with cash. In its 2020 financial report, the Wikimedia Foundation reported assets of more than $191 million, far more than its annual operating expenses.

MeWe: Billionaire-Free But Overrun by Trolls

Though Facebook, founded and still run by centibillionaire CEO Zuckerberg, remains the dominant online social media outlet and a regular source of news for more than one of every three Americans, there are alternative sites that at least attempt to serve the same ostensible purpose, and are not controlled by people with net worths exceeding 10 figures. 

Perhaps the fastest-growing social media alternative is MeWe, a Facebook-style platform founded by self-described Libertarian online entrepreneur Mark Weinstein. The actual owner of MeWe is a Culver City company incorporated by Weinstein in 2011. The company’s board includes Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, as well as Chicken Soup For the Soul authors Jack Canfield and Marci Shimoff. 

While Weinstein’s personal net worth has not been publicized he appears nowhere on the Forbes Billionaires List. MeWe, like Wikipedia, eschews advertising but does make money by charging users for optional services such as cloud storage, video calls and access to some groups. 

In April of 2021, Weinstein stepped aside as CEO to become the company’s “chief evangelist,” and Jeffrey Edell—former chief of Intermix Media, which owned the pre-Facebook social media site MySpace—was hired to take over the company’s top job.

Unlike Facebook, which collects massive amounts of data on its users and deploys that information to target hyper-specific advertisements to those users, MeWe touts its “Privacy Bill of Rights,” in which it informs users, “You own your personal information and content. It is explicitly not ours,” and “You have full control over your newsfeed and the order of how posts appear,” among a list of other pledges. The power of users to govern their own newsfeeds certainly sets MeWe apart from Facebook whose algorithm exercises full and automatic control over which posts users see, and when.

Giving users “full control” has led to a bumpy ride for MeWe, which has dealt with the same content moderation problems that plague the billionaire-run social media platforms. Weinstein’s emphasis on privacy and user control allowed an influx of radical right-wing users who inundated the site with unfounded conspiracy theories and hate speech—something Weinstein says he never intended to happen.

"I don't like sites that are anything goes," Weinstein told National Public Radio. "I think they're disgusting. Good people right and left and middle can't handle 'anything goes.' We don't want to be around hate speech. We don't want to be around violence inciters."

MeWe Fights to Shed Rep as Far-Right Hub

Nonetheless, far-right conspiracy theorists, election deniers, anti-vaxxers and other disruptive extremists have swarmed the site thanks to its privacy guarantees and hands-off content moderation policies. In just the two weeks after the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the United States Capitol, MeWe saw its user base swell by 2.5 million. There are about 20 million now using the social media platform.

Edell told the business magazine Forbes that MeWe had hired more personnel for its content moderation team to curtail hateful or violent content, and that it had put an algorithm in place to automatically root out hate speech and threats of violence. The site now bans accounts that sell guns online, Edell told the magazine.

But when Forbes searched MeWe for the term “gun sales,” it quickly found numerous posts from firearm retailers. The Forbes search also turned up election-denying “Stop the Steal” discussion groups. 

In September, MeWe raised $27 million in new investment capital, bringing the company’s valuation to $200 million as it attempts to leave the stigma of becoming an extremist free-for-all behind and build a reputation as a trustworthy alternative to Facebook and other social media sites.

Mastodon, Where You Don’t Tweet, You Toot

Since Musk took over Twitter, a five-year-old, nonprofit social media site that calls itself Mastodon—yes, named for the elephant-like animal which has been extinct for more than 10,000 years (and a heavy-metal band)—has reported a whopping 55 percent jump in its user base.

That may seem like a lot, but until last week it still left the fledgling platform with just 655,000 users, compared to 238 million for Twitter. In the days since Musk bought Twitter, Mastodon's user base jumped to more than a million users.

The company's founder is also the CEO and founder of Mastodon, a 29-year-old German computer scientist named Eugen Rochko who started developing his concept for an alternative to Twitter while still an undergrad at Friedrich Schiller University Jena. 

Because the site is a nonprofit, Mastodon seems unlikely to make Rochko a billionaire. Another issue is the decentralized design of the site, which superficially bears a strong resemblance to Twitter, and posts are called “toots” which is quite reminiscent of “tweets.” Unlike Twitter, however, Mastodon runs no advertising. The company lists just seven employees.

But the site is distributed over more than 3,000 servers, and new users are faced with the prospect of selecting which server they prefer to use. Different servers host discussions on different topics—as opposed to the algorithmically curated free-for-all that has always been Twitter, long before Musk took charge.

Individual servers may have their own administrators, who are responsible not only for moderating the content of forums hosted on their servers but for paying to keep them online. One administrator told The Guardian newspaper that he pays about $355 per month to keep the server running, a fee which he funds through the crowdfunding site Patreon.

All server administrators are required to adhere to a “covenant,” which requires “active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia." Rochko told The Guardian that he doesn’t consider himself aligned with the political left or right, but simply insists that his social media app reflects his “basic, basic beliefs that I have about social networks, and that is, for example, that hate speech should not be allowed."

Taking Local News Online

Local, community newspapers may seem like a dying species. Between 2004 and 2022, more than 2,100 local newspapers have shut down, according to a New York Times report. From 2008 to 2020, the number of newspaper reporters at work in the United States dropped by 40,000, from 71,000 to 31,000. By 2020, fewer than 10 companies owned 90 percent of all media outlets in the U.S., a drop from 50 in 1983.

The site MakeMyNewspaper has the aspiration of allowing anyone to get into the newspaper business, on the local level. Founded by Tucson, AZ, screenwriter Patrick Carson, the site offers a digital publishing platform that allows users to publish a 32-page electronic newspaper for 19 bucks—or an old fashioned, print edition of a four-page newspaper for various prices. 

Carson calls his site “an eCommerce tech company that bridges the gaping hole left by the newspaper industry over the past 10 years.” Putting in the legwork of gathering and reporting the news remains up to the users, of course—not to mention selling advertising to cover the costs of publication.

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