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Tuesday, October 10th at 9pm on WGVU Public Television, FRONTLINE presents "Elon Musk’s Twitter Takeover"


The two-hour documentary investigates Musk’s journey from one of the platform’s most provocative users to its owner – and probes the far-reaching impact his decisions have already had on post-COVID American politics, speech, and culture. WGVU spoke with director, producer, and correspondent James Jacoby.

James Jacoby: What's interesting about Musk is that he's become a major influence on sort of American political conversation. Buying Twitter is buying one of the most important platforms for news and political debate in the United States and abroad. And I found that really fascinating for a guy who'd been into hardware, you know, into whether it's satellites or space rockets or Tesla’s, here's somebody buying a very important information platform and a very important political platform and really that's what drew me to it.

Patrick Center: So having that as a backdrop, the whole idea that he purchases Twitter, renames it X, which I find odd because you have this great brand, it's, it's a name that people know and can associate with. And then also we see SpaceX and the satellite system that's put in place. Why does he feel the need to get involved in the social media platform? Why is his voice so important today?

James Jacoby: I think he felt the need because he had evolved over the past few years to become much more concerned with the political conversation. He was sort of activated during the pandemic and the film really delves into this kind of evolution of his over the, since basically 2020, where he didn't like the lockdowns. He didn't like that the government was forcing people to stay home. He didn't like that his factories, his Tesla factories were forcibly closed, and people couldn't go to work. And he became sort of politically activated in a way he hadn't been before. And that then kind of cascaded over the course of a couple of years into sort of weighing in on some of the really major you know, cultural debates going on and, uh, whether it be about, you know, free speech or transgender politics and all sorts of kind of hot button issues in America and his wanting to express his opinion and his voice. And he had loved Twitter always, but this also became about the fact that he felt like Twitter and some of the other social media companies have been part of a problem of starting to suppress voices. And so, he wanted to buy it. And in some ways, it was on an impulse and, uh, but in some ways, it makes a lot of sense given the direction he was going. And given the fact that at the time he was the richest person in the world, I think he's second now and had plenty of money to do it.

Patrick Center: Does he understand news media, journalism? Does he understand the news media and how it operates?

James Jacoby: Um, well, from what I know, there's a steep learning curve there for him, right? I mean, this is not his expertise. He has tremendous acumen in other areas. And I think that there's been a learning curve here in terms of not just kind of traditional media or journalism, but also just what social media is about. I mean, he proclaimed himself a sort of free speech absolutist in saying that Twitter should get back to its roots. This was before he rebranded it and before he bought it, but Twitter sort of get back to its roots and be the sort of free speech platform. And that it should stop doing as much content moderation and stop trying to police misinformation and all sorts of other things and just let people express their opinions freely. And then once, once he buys it, he realizes very quickly that that's a lot more complicated than it seems. What is going viral on a platform? Who do you allow to speak and say what? And so, there's been a tremendous learning curve. I don't know where he is on that learning curve personally, but I do think that people around him and people that have worked with him feel as though it's a steep learning curve and he may be near the lower end of it.

Patrick Center: Who do you talk with in this documentary to get a real sense for who Elon Musk is behind the scenes?

James Jacoby: A variety of people, you know Musk wouldn't grant us an interview which was, you know unfortunate I thought that you know, he does he does kind of do interviews on occasion, but he's very picky about who gets to interview him. He, over the years, has done a lot of interviews with Kara Swisher. He's done a lot of interviews in the past couple of years with Walter Isaacson, who is now his biographer, who wrote a big biography that came out recently. So, we speak to both Kara Swisher and Walter Isaacson to get a sense for Musk. And yet, and we also speak to people that have worked with him during the Twitter transition, once he bought it. Yoel Roth comes to mind, who had been sort of the head of. Trust and safety and content moderation at Twitter. And he tells us some interesting anecdotes from the inside about, about Musk and Twitter under Musk.

Patrick Center: The documentary also takes a closer look at Twitter and its relationship with the U S government. I know there have been some investigations and how the platform has been treated, and in particular conservative voices. What do you find there?

James Jacoby: Well, it's such an important part of the film because it's also a big part of why Musk bought it and what he wanted to expose about how it'd been run and how he's running it, which is this contention that Twitter was biased against conservatives and had been biased against conservatives and that it was sort of a bastion of lefties that were trying to silence conservative voices. And also, that a lot of that was under pressure from the government. And it's a very thorny issue. So, one of the things that we discover in the course of the film is that the government, whether it be the FBI or Department of Homeland Security or the Biden White House, they routinely ask the social media platforms, including Twitter, to take a look at certain content and see whether it's violative of their policies. For instance, during the pandemic, things that the Biden administration flagged as you know, potential misinformation about vaccines. And they say to Twitter, they send an email or make a phone call and they say, you know, you should take a look at this. We think it's misinformation. See what you think. And the implicit idea there is that if Twitter finds it to be misinformation that they then either label it or remove it or de-amplify it. And so, what's interesting is that when Musk buys Twitter, he invites all these journalists and these writers and opens up the files, we call them the Twitter files, how the company had been running content moderation before he bought it. And there was an effort to really expose what I think that he hoped might be sort of a conspiracy. He certainly thinks was a conspiracy to sort of censor conservatives and censor certain viewpoints. And we interrogate that. We speak to the people that actually did that work. And we find that it's a lot messier than just saying that it was a conspiracy. It's really that it's a private company trying to make decisions, are well within its rights to moderate content there. But this is sort of spiraled into this interesting congressional investigation that's led by the Weaponization Subcommittee by Jim Jordan from Ohio, and that is investigating sort of the pressure that government has been putting on the tech platforms to censor certain views and viewpoints. We get pretty deep into it in the film, and it's a really interesting and very impactful thing that Musk has chosen to do. Sort of open up the Twitter files and then spark this conversation.

Patrick Center: How does that then play into the 2024 U.S. Presidential election that is fast approaching?

James Jacoby: That's a great question. Well, what we do know is that companies like Twitter and now Facebook and others have cut back on their trust and safety departments. There used to be, you know, at Twitter, several hundreds of people in these departments kind of trying to determine what is election misinformation and things like that could affect voting, you know, lies about where to vote, when to vote, things that question the legitimacy of the elections without any proof. And Twitter had been in the business, as were the other social media companies during the 2020 election, of flagging a lot of those things. Well, there's far fewer people at these companies to do so. So, the big concern is that there will be a lot more viral lies and rumors during 2024 about the elections without some of these kind of moderators, you know, flagging this content for people or offering context to people on these platforms about, well, there's conflicting information about this or this claim may or may not be true, but here's some more reading you could do. There are just far fewer people at these companies doing that and they're definitely taking a lighter touch because in part, there is the heat of these congressional investigations right now.

Patrick Center: Frontline's Elon Musk's Twitter takeover airs right here on WGVU Public Television Tuesday, October 10th. That's at nine o'clock. Director, producer and correspondent James Jacoby, as always, a pleasure.

James Jacoby: Thank you so much.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.