I was disappointed to see Elon Musk purchase Twitter. On most of the big questions and conflicts in the world today, he’s on the wrong side. It would probably be better for me if Twitter did not exist. But it does. I have what can only fairly be described as an addiction to it. In any case, it would remain a professional obligation to use Twitter even if I didn’t — it’s how I help distribute what we publish at TPM. The best prediction I’ve seen about what is likely Twitter’s future is neither the optimistic nor the extreme pessimistic views but rather that it will be mostly the same but go back to the less governed model of half a dozen years ago in which there was more harassment, neo-Nazis and government-backed disinformation campaigns. The simple truth is that content moderation is much, much less about “free speech” or unpopular opinions than some random guy DMing pictures of his penis every day for a year to a woman he’s harassing, or hoaxes about people dying, or copyright infringement. Of course, as Musk knows as well as anyone, Twitter is also a great tool for market manipulation and securities fraud. In other words, it’s less about “speech” than the digital amplification of the predatory dimensions of people’s personality disorders.
Here is what caught my eye this morning.
On it’s face this is your typical reply guy interaction. So it requires a bit of unpacking.
Mike Cernovich is one of the original “alt right” white nationalist online personalities who made his name propagating conspiracy theories like PizzaGate, essentially the origin myth of the QAnon subculture. Here he is goading Musk to fire a Twitter employee over charges which — I’ll try to keep this simple — are tied to the the cosmology of “the Russia hoax.” Baker was FBI General Counsel during key points in the Russia investigation. So in that world he’s part of the “deep state” pro-pedophile conspiracy against Donald Trump. Still with me here?
So basically what you have here is a guy who is the worst of the worst (yet who, it is worth noting, continued to operate on Twitter even in the pre-Musk days of repression) pushing Musk to punish enemies over yet more conspiracy theories and predatory lies and Musk’s response is basically a digital high-five or perhaps in the dialect, “booyah!”
That’s what this is and where we are: an extremely powerful and wealthy jackass on an ego trip. You can take the bro out of the frat house but you can’t take the frat house out of the bro. In fact when you’re worth hundreds of billions of dollars (for now…) you don’t even have to leave the frat house. You can bring it with you. This is a guy whose ideas about speech and also the construction of syllogisms apparently culminated two joints in at a dorm room bull session in sophomore year, a determination I think we can make based on this tweet from yesterday.
My own sense is that the guy will likely rue the day he purchased Twitter.
Governing Twitter is a thankless pain in the ass and as a business it’s never made money and (I think) never will. And for that Musk just paid $44 billion.
Why did the Board agree to the sale? Probably because they know that despite the stock price essentially holding steady since its IPO a decade ago that the stock is still substantially overpriced.
Twitter has always been the most libertarian of the social platforms. The guy who ran it for most of the last decade (Jack Dorsey) is a friend and fan of Musk’s and is actually cheering on his purchase. Some suspect he might even be reinstalled as CEO. What I think that tells us is that managing Twitter in practice is more complicated than it looks, even from a frothy techno-libertarian worldview. It’s got so many stakeholders, some many national governments within whose jurisdictions it operates, so many dependencies on other corporate entities, public opinion and the views of its users. Musk will be learning that every day for the foreseeable future.
But here’s my perhaps-a-bit-bleak optimistic take on all this. People are worried because they believe Musk has purchased what amounts to the digital town square and plans to make it safe again (Make It Great Again?) for those who want to menace trans people, run ivermectin scams, propagate Trump’s Big Lie or “just ask questions” about the racial heritability of intelligence. I suspect it will be more mixed than people fear. But at least the exchange I noted above would suggest it will be that bad and worse. But here’s the thing. In the long running conversation about the platforms and free speech and the town square there’s been a viewpoint that Facebook or Twitter really is the public square and our goal must be to manage them so there is a corporatized version of “free speech” but also restrictions about what a public corporation has a responsibility not to propagate. The platforms themselves, Facebook especially, have really embraced this idea. And not surprisingly. It’s great to literally own the town square, have unassailable control over its Board of Directors and have government and all societal stakeholders buy into that belief.
But it’s not true.
This whole move to faux-civic-ize the platforms is wrongheaded. They’re not the public square. The actual digital public square is the open Internet. Facebook is a private company that makes untold billions of dollars by selling ads against digitally manipulated “engagement.” Twitter is the same. They just manage not to make money. That’s why it’s never really about “free speech” because the whole thing is really about algorithms that make certain kinds of speech more visible than others and do it for profit. So Facebook makes money by doing that. That’s what it is. Twitter somehow manages not to make money by doing that. But same difference.
Anything that bloodies up the idea that these company spaces are the public square is thus a good thing. If Musk really is the Lex Luthor comic book villain people make him out to be (and which he really may be) I’m ready to see him treat Twitter like his own maniacal toy because he bought it and therefore he can. That’s good because it will be more clear that Twitter is not the public square. It’s a company impersonating the public square that a nasty person can buy. If people flee to other sites or find ways to operate around his malevolence I’m ready for that. That’s why my reaction to this is just as much “let it burn” as “oh no.” Probably a bit more so.
I don’t think it’s good at all that Musk has purchased Twitter. But the real threats to civic life aren’t content moderation. It’s private companies impersonating the public square in our civic life. Things that break down that deception are not a bad thing.