What Elon Musk Should Know About Twitter
It isn't moderators who pose the most intransigent barrier to free speech--it's the users
Today’s story comes right out of the HBO series Billions: crazy-ass billionaire drops a chunk of his fortune on a culturally important object that seldom turns a profit so that he can weigh in on the culture. Also, htere’s lots of good stuff below the story today, so, please
Elon Musk thinks Twitter has a free speech problem. But what he wants to do—purchase the company, take it private, and lift barriers to moderation—doesn’t address social media’s actual speech problem: when it comes to public regulation, the internet is a desert.
Let’s review what has happened so far.
After quietly buying a 9 percent stake in the 16-year-old microblogging platform, enough to win him a seat on the board, last week, the eccentric billionaire offered $43 billion, or $54 a share, for the whole thing. But, of course, Musk is worth somewhere north of $250 billion, so this price significantly overvalues the company’s stock but is within his comfort zone.
However, if it were that easy, the tech media would not have spent last week obsessing about Musk’s plans. First, what a billionaire is worth is not the same as cash he can lay his mitts on, so he has to raise it from somewhere, probably by borrowing against Tesla. Second, this is not formally a hostile takeover, as some in the press have reported—at least, not yet. In that scenario, an investor takes over a company by becoming a majority stockholder against a company’s will. When Musk announced his plans, he was far from an ownership stake, allowing Twitter to trigger a “poison pill” defense. The company floods the market with new, cheap stock to dilute an aggressor’s stake and expand the number of shares necessary to win.
A poison pill doesn’t necessarily stop a takeover. Still, even at a diluted price, the aggressor is looking at a far longer and more expensive route to ownership, or an ownership share, of the company. Moreover, the takeover can still be worth it if the company is rich in assets: in media, these might be bricks and mortar, subsidiary companies, or a large stash of cash (as when Robert M. Bass tried to take over South Florida’s independent St. Petersburg Times in 1990.)
But Twitter is a different animal. The company, founded in 2006, went public in 2013 and only had its first profitable year in 2019. Although it continued to make a gross profit, it suffered another net loss in 2020. Twitter bounced back in 2021 but continues to struggle: it has a lower user base than other platforms, isn’t particularly attractive to younger users, and is constantly embroiled in free speech controversies.
It is this last that seems to have piqued Musk’s interest. Some observers say this whole episode is just a troll. They claim Musk has no serious plans to either buy or run a company that would require a serious overhaul to either be profitable or promote free speech in a way that most users and all advertisers would not flee. Others say Musk, a libertarian, is serious about eliminating terms of service that, in his view, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act make legally unnecessary. Late last week, Musk framed his takeover almost as a civic project, saying that he hoped to unlock Twitter’s “potential to be the `platform for free speech around the globe.’” Free speech, he explained to the rest of us dummies, “is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.”
That is true: but speech unhindered by fact, sincerity, human empathy, or a commitment to debate has made the internet a troubled, dangerous place that has fueled anti-democratic sentiment and personal abuse. And Twitter, particularly in its capacity to mobilize mobs, has played a particularly dangerous role in posing challenges to the truthful narratives real democracy requires and elevating minority views that coalesce to silence and punish speech.
The phenomenon of the Twitter mob, or “dogpile,” has been well documented, and it is one of the major ways that free speech is suppressed on the internet. In 2015, corporate communications executive Justine Sacco hit send on a tweet as she stepped on a plane to South Africa: it turned into an unrepairable calamity that ended her life as she knew it. Initially identified as a new form of public shaming, this phenomenon morphed into what we now call cancel culture. Sometimes, mobs elevate essential issues and push them onto the front pages. But they also promote minor problems as if they were important: for example, this hullabaloo over a Tweet in which a university press director was bombarded with abuse for suggesting that saying thank you after an interview was polite.
Currently, I would say that there are four kinds of Twitter mobs:
Intentional mobs are usually driven by bots and bad actors who have a specific goal: defeating or promoting a political campaign, making money off ads, and spreading disinformation for political or commercial profit.
Lulz mobs are usually driven by gamers and others who note high activity around something local and jump in because the enjoy creating dogpiles and bullying strangers. Unfortunately, some of these eventually draw bots and professional bad actors.
Political mobs that follow the lead of charismatic figures like Trump, Glenn Greenwald, and high-profile social activists. These mobs are sometimes driven by professional bad actors, but they activate and are often amplified by networks of fans linked to each other.
Justice mobs that specialize in hashtag activism. These are often minority or fringe groups seeking to increase their social and commercial influence. Justice mobs are often at the center of cancel culture events, pushing the trigger event into mainstream news when people increasingly distant from the triggering event weigh in as allies with force and conviction on a situation they know little about. This is what happened last month when essayist Lauren Hough was dropped from the Lambda prize list after, as the New York Times put it, “a social media dust-up in which Hough had defended, at times heatedly, a forthcoming novel by the author Sandra Newman, a friend of hers, from criticism that it was transphobic.” Yes, violence against trans people is important, but yelling at people who are yelling at you is what we call a fight.
Elon Musk’s libertarianism does not address this phenomenon: it only fuels it by imagining that democracy is a free-for-all and if someone gets hurt in the melée (which, arguably, Lauren Hough was)—well, life is tough, right?
Twitter already supports free speech in ways that would be recognizable to any Constitutional lawyer: do a quick search for “#cock” if you don’t know what I mean. But the emergence of uncontrolled mobs (which Twitter also supports by doing nothing about them except banning the occasional bad actor) raises new questions about free speech. Unfortunately, perhaps because Ayn Rand died before the internet, Musk seems either wholly unaware of or indifferent to social media's actual free speech problems and why they are so hard to address.
Does a platform support free speech if disagreeable utterances can be suppressed or punished by a mob facilitated by the platform and its algorithms? I don’t know the answer to this question, but it is probably one that Elon Musk should answer before he Venmos Jack Dorsey a downpayment on that $43 billion.
Last night, I was putting together new furniture and checked in on the latest iteration of the Kardashian reality show on Hulu. I am dogged with the problem I always have: I can’t tell the Kardashians apart, and so, to the extent that there is a plot, I have trouble keeping up with it. I also don’t watch reality TV, so the genre is mysterious to me. In episode one, we followed the Kardashians from meal to meal as they talked about relationship issues, which I did not find entertaining. However, there were two high points, neither linked to what I think is a significant tension in the season, i.e., the possibility that there is another sex tape out there. The first is that the ideal heterosexual relationship on the show seems to be an ex-husband or boyfriend who is now a “best friend” and seems to be entirely emotionally controlled by whatever Kardashian he fathered a child with. The second is a restaurant scene (of course) in which the Kardashians discuss the designer who makes all those catsuits, which (I did not know this) have a slit in them because you can’t take them off to go to the bathroom. Thus, the Kardashians are more or less going commando all the time, but—more importantly, as it turns out—catsuits need to be tailored very precisely in that area. One Kardashian complained that hers was cut wrong for her “big vagina,” which confused me until another Kardashian explained that her sister was talking about her mons and vulva.
The central paradox of cancel culture is that many who defend it also claim it doesn’t exist: when the powerful are held to account, they aren’t harmed—so how can they have been canceled? At The Nation, Katha Pollitt says it is more complicated than that. “[I]n fact, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has documented hundreds of cases across the political spectrum in academia alone—firings, demotions, lengthy investigations, and so on—which is more than enough,” Pollitt says, to intimidate those who have not been targeted. And, she continues, “not everyone sails happily on.” (April 14, 2022)
At The Bulwark, Sarah Longwell has a laundry list of reasons why Donald Trump is still the kingmaker in the GOP. While 40% of Republicans don’t want him to run in 2024, Longwell argues, it’s not because they don’t like him—but because they think he is too old and can’t win. Unlike me, Longwell looks not at Trump endorsements but because every candidate is branding themselves Trump, and those that won’t—well, most of them aren’t running. “What’s remarkable about Trump’s grip on the party,” Longwell writes, “is not only that he has maintained it despite his exit from the presidency and (mainstream) social media—but that by some measures, his standing has actually improved.” (April 14, 2022)
A follow-up on my Monday story about Donald Trump’s endorsement of Mehmet Oz for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat: Fox’s Laura Ingraham widened the rift in MAGA World by characterizing the decision as a “mistake.” The Daily Caller’s Nicole Silverio reports on what millions of her viewers heard on Tuesday: “Ingraham played footage of Oz discussing red flag laws and claiming a fetal heart is not beating at six weeks gestation, then asked former Trump-era senior counsel Kellyanne Conway if the endorsement was a mistake.” Conway suggested that it was.” (April 13, 2022)
You are invited:
A conference in honor of New School for Social Research sociologist Jeffrey Goldfarb: As you can see, I am on the program, and you can register here.
Liberatarian billionaires like Musk (is there anyone really like Musk?) suffer from an apparently willful ignorance about the true nature and nuance of modern democracy, free speech, social media mobs and so on, which is weird because Elon Musk is supposed to be so smart. So if he really is so smart, then we must assume that this gibberish about free speech and his show of innocence about the mob reality that you outline so clearly here is a fake. And that raises a new question: What's Elon Musk's real agenda? Or has he just confused himself with a Marvel super hero?