Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s glitch-filled campaign rollout is raising new questions about Twitter CEO Elon Musk’s ambitions — and his ability to carry them out.
DeSantis granted Musk exclusive access to his campaign launch via Twitter Spaces — which yielded disastrous results for the Republican candidate for president and for Twitter itself.
A slew of technical difficulties interrupted the online event, leading to embarrassment for DeSantis and jabs by his rivals in both parties. Once people were able to tune in, the event had a relatively small audience that never topped more than 600,000 listeners at once.
“I think he had a rough opening,” former President Trump said Thursday of the event.
“This link works,” mocked a tweet from President Biden, who included a link to a form for donations to his reelection campaign.
DeSantis’s decision to go to Twitter Spaces for his initial rollout was widely viewed as an unprecedented deviation from political norms — and a major snub of Fox News, the preeminent player in a conservative media ecosystem that has been boosting Republican candidates for decades.
Musk beating out Fox on the DeSantis announcement sparked a tidal wave of buzz in media and political circles that the eccentric tech billionaire was angling to replace media mogul Rupert Murdoch as the unofficial kingmaker in conservative politics.
Looming over the dynamic is the future of former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who said earlier this month he plans to bring a new version of his show to Twitter, a move that certainly suggests a new level of competition between Fox and the social networking platform. Carlson remains under contract with Fox, and it remains unclear if producing content exclusively for Twitter would violate his deal with the network.
As a result, there are reasons to think many at Fox News took delight in the embarrassing night for Musk.
“Amateur hour,” the banner headline on FoxNews.com read Wednesday evening. “Much hyped Ron DeSantis presidential announcement a disaster on Twitter.”
The Florida governor did pop in for an interview with Fox News and host Trey Gowdy after the Twitter Spaces event. Gowdy promised that Fox News would not “crash” in hyping the interview — which netted an average of 2 million viewers, a much larger audience than the Twitter Spaces event had an hour earlier.
Allies of DeSantis and Musk in the hours that followed Wednesday night’s event sought to cast the episode as a wild success, suggesting the two leading figures “broke the internet,” with the untraditional campaign launch.
There are reasons to think Musk is making some kind of move on Fox that goes beyond DeSantis and Carlson.
The Daily Wire, a popular conservative media website, this week announced it would bring all its shows to Twitter, citing Musk’s stated commitment to free speech.
Musk also recently hired Linda Yaccarino, a veteran marketing and advertising executive at NBC Universal, to serve as Twitter’s new CEO, a move signaling the tech entrepreneur is looking to build a stronger advertising apparatus amid a whirlwind of changes to its content moderation policies and business strategy.
Yet the Wednesday technical problems highlight how far away Twitter is from being a more meaningful player in the media landscape that could seriously take on Fox and other heavyweight news outlets.
“While Musk certainly wants to present himself as a threat to Fox, Twitter’s not truly a formidable opponent,” said Cindy Vincent, an associate professor of media and communication at Salem State University.
Musk has said his vision is for Twitter to be a “public town square” of sorts and made sure to mention at the end of Wednesday’s conversation with DeSantis that “Twitter Spaces” would be a forum that is “open to all candidates” in the 2024 cycle.
That suggests Musk is keen on the idea of his company serving as a platform for liberal and conservative voices alike, though since his takeover liberals have been suspicious of actions he has taken on content moderation and user guidelines.
The Twitter Spaces event with DeSantis did not, however, suggest Musk is interested in asking tough questions of the politicians who show up on his platform for an interview.
Virtually none of the governor’s assertions during the more than hourlong conversation were challenged by Musk, tech entrepreneur David Sacks, who moderated the spaces event, or other speakers who were sympathetic to the governor’s ideology.
Musk’s bid into the right-wing media ecosystem could prove risky for a company that has undergone tremendous upheaval in recent months, said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.
“I don’t see evidence that Elon Musk has any coherent strategy for Twitter — and I certainly don’t see a path for Twitter to become a rival to Fox,” Barrett said.
“If Musk goes even further to make his social media platform a haven for right wingers, that will drive away millions of centrist and liberal users. Twitter seems to be deteriorating in a way that can’t be disguised by a stunt like the DeSantis fiasco.”
Yet Twitter is just one example in a trend of tech companies reaching into traditional media, so the effort could make business sense.
“There is for sure a potential for growth there,” Adam Weiss, a political and media consultant who has worked with a number of leading conservative figures, said of Musk’s efforts to build out Twitter’s media reach.
Seth Lewis, the director of Journalism at the University of Oregon, noted Musk’s troubles in creating a more powerful role for Twitter are of the eccentric billionaire’s own making.
“On the one hand, he wants to create this as a media platform that will challenge the old legacy media and cable television and so on, but he’s having to rebuild this platform,” Lewis said.
“It’s hard to see how you build a massive media company out of the ashes of what has happened to Twitter. It may be an opportunity to create some kind of media company that competes with the stalwarts like Fox News, but we’re so far away from that at this point that it’s hard to see how he gets there.”