02 Elon Musk Mark Zuckerberg SPLIT

Editor’s Note: David Zurawik is a professor of practice in media studies at Goucher College. For three decades, he was a media critic at the Baltimore Sun. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Stop it.

David Zurawik

Let’s just stop all the media chatter about cage fights, jiu-jitsu and whether Twitter owner Elon Musk has run it into the ground and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is now going to swoop in for a social media kill with his launch of a new app called Threads.

There is nothing inherently wrong with highlighting the conflict and drama of two major figures of popular culture competing over the same piece of tech and media turf.

But we can cover media better than this. And we can start that process by going beyond the personalities of players like Zuckerberg and Musk to focus on how the platforms they control influence everything from our body images and politics to how we see the world and how we talk and even think about our places in it.

Both men are good at placing shiny objects before our eyes. Like politicians, they are skilled in the arts of distraction and misdirection. Take the idea of a cage fight.

As we direct our gaze toward that ridiculous and exhibitionist proposition, we largely ignore the much larger societal questions, like how is it that Musk — who re-tweets conspiracy theories and posts antisemitic tropes — now controls such an important cultural space, a channel that once served as a platform for foreign meddling in the 2016 election.

Zuckerberg’s Facebook also had a shameful role in the 2016 election, publishing disinformation produced by what we now know was a Russian troll farm.

Remember Zuckerberg saying the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the 2016 election was a “pretty crazy idea,” a statement he says he has since come to regret?

While we think and write about the possibility of a cage fight by these billionaires, what we are not thinking or writing about so much are far more important questions, such as whether their social media properties should be regulated by some force bigger than them, like the government.

The Communications Act of 1934, which regulates radio and broadcast television, mandated that stations had to operate “in the public interest.” One former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which enforced the standard, said he thought of public interest as the “common good.”

That concept of social responsibility seems totally lost on these two. Until forced to do so, as Zuckerberg was with studies and hearings done after the 2016 election, they seem to take no responsibility for what is published on their platforms. And we as a society are poorer for it. Not that the government and consumers are blameless. Congress does not seem to have the will to challenge these tech giants with regulation, and consumers don’t demand better from them.

(Musk recently said that Twitter “is hell bent on being the least untrue source of information,” while Zuckerberg said in 2020 that the company has more work to do to fight misinformation.)

I wrote a CNN piece last year expressing hope that social media analysts would focus more on policy and less on personality. But with Musk’s Twitter takeover and advance coverage of Meta’s Threads launch, the balance has only gotten worse. The cage match coverage is a new empty-headed, journalistic low.

Here’s a headline this week from Insider: “Mark Zuckerberg is sassing Elon Musk non-stop on Meta’s Threads, throwing out punch after punch about Twitter’s fails.”

Zuckerberg is “sassing” Musk. Wow. Whither goest media coverage?

There are plenty of useful lenses through which the launch of Threads can and should be examined. How about money, always a safe bet with Zuckerberg?

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Given that the 2024 presidential election is heating up and hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on social media advertising, it seems reasonable to explore whether that is the driving factor in Zuckerberg’s decision to launch now and position his platform as a “friendly” forum in opposition to Musk’s. “The vision for Threads is to create an open and friendly public space for conversation,” Zuckerberg said in a Threads post. “We hope to take what Instagram does best and create a new experience around text, ideas, and discussing what’s on your mind.”

Mainstream advertisers are often reluctant to be associated with the kind of rancor and hate speech that have found a more welcoming place on Twitter since Musk took over.

But if the launch of Threads is mainly about the money, will Zuckerberg behave as irresponsibly as he did in 2016 when Facebook took advertising from almost anywhere seemingly without asking too many questions, even when paid for in rubles?

And how do Twitter and Meta police such matters more effectively when both have slashed staff?

There are many other questions that we should be asking about privacy, hate speech, the use of artificial intelligence and highly skilled political and media operatives shaping and further inflaming the national political conversation in hopes of advancing their candidates.

Let’s try and make some media time and space for those — beyond chronicling who is “sassing” whom in the land of ego-driven media titans.