Where is the Canada of the Internet?
Elon Musk seals the deal on Twitter, and the exodus from Big Tech begins (again).
It’s one week until election day, friends. So instead of pounding you with more anxiety-provoking speculation about whether Democratic voters will save the Republic, I decided to distract you with the latest social media explosion.
If you know someone who is trying to figure out how to maintain their social networks as Twitter enters a new period of uncertainty and chaos, please:
At 11:49 p.m. on October 27, under pressure from a lawsuit, Elon Musk finally consummated the deal to purchase Twitter. He celebrated the deal with a short post: “the bird is freed.”
Musk, who calls himself the Chief Twit and displays the deportment of a 13-year-old, followed up with jabs at those who fear the retraction of content moderation to the extent that it exists on Twitter. Subsequent tweets included: “let the good times roll,” “Comedy is now legal on Twitter,” and “Finally, the truth that carbs are amazing can be said on this platform!”
Musk also kicked out a policy statement amid these little jokes. “Twitter will be forming a content moderation council with widely diverse viewpoints,” he wrote. “No major content decisions or account reinstatements will happen before that council convenes.” He followed up later in the day: “To be super clear, we have not yet made any changes to Twitter’s content moderation policies.”
That may be so, and as an added bonus, Donald J. Trump has not yet reappeared on the platform. But the barbarians are definitely at the gate. Since Musk announced the completed deal, Twitter spam bots and trolls have celebrated with a torrent of tweets using derogatory terms for Black and gay people, which are still visible on the platform. And let’s be honest: Twitter moderation was never that good in the first place, so even if the principles for reviewing content have not changed, it is likely that the people assigned to this ugly task have been overwhelmed by incoming slurs.
What is as worrisome as racial and sexual insults, or even the return of the Former Guy, is that Twitter’s role in distributing disinformation, propaganda, and conspiracy theories is likely to be enhanced under a Musk regime, particularly since the new boss seems unable to tell good information from bad himself. On October 29, when the news broke about the vicious assault on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 82-year-old husband, Paul, Musk replied to a Hillary Clinton tweet condemning political violence by tweeting a right-wing conspiracy theory.
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The tweet has now been removed, but others mocking Paul Pelosi—including a gross retweet by Donald J. Trump, Jr. featuring tighty whiteys and a hammer—have not. It’s probably not realistic to imagine that the CEO of three companies has his eye on the sparrow, yet we can definitively say that the Musk regime has failed to meet its first challenge.
It’s no wonder that the prospect of trolls and spambots fully unleashed in the name of “free speech” has, in turn, caused many Twitterati, particularly women, LGBTQ, and people of color, to announce that they will not remain on a Musk-owned platform. But there is more at stake than increased microaggressions and hurt feelings: as recent history has shown, an unmoderated Twitter is an existential threat to a peaceful society. “In modern times,” writes Brynn Tannehill at The New Republic, citing numerous mass murders provoked and promoted by online hate speech, “lack of moderation on social media sites has repeatedly contributed to mass murder.”
Moreover, many liberals and leftists are not interested in participating in a libertarian project, particularly given libertarian tech billionaire Peter Thiel’s support for authoritarian candidates in the 2022 election cycle; while others do not wish to be vulnerable to the torrent of sludge that an unmoderated, or lightly moderated platform can be expected to host.
While some observers insist that the cash-starved and now debt-ridden Twitter may be particularly vulnerable to pressure from advertisers, many people in my networks claim they are not waiting for someone else to save them. They are voting with their feet. If you could visualize the exodus from Twitter over the weekend, it would look and have the vibe of that scene from the TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale where throngs of Bostonians are trying to get to Canada through Logan Airport after the Gilead takeover.
But where, on the Internet, is Canada? While some people told me that they were withdrawing to established platforms. There is Reid Hoffman’s Linkedin, a professional network that appears to have its own identity verification issues. And there is Goodreads, a book-oriented social network that has long had a reputation for toxicity and trolling. Yet, neither one of these platforms does what either Twitter or Facebook does: provide simple tools for non-stop chatter and news about everything.
We have been here before, but with Facebook. After the 2016 election and every time we learned something new and awful about the family of social media tools now known as Meta, there has been talk about a mass exodus from Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. And while people do occasionally delete their Facebook accounts or use them less (I fall into this category), the number of Meta users, both worldwide and in the United States, continues to grow.
I suspect Twitter, barring an implosion caused by its fragile finances and insufficient income stream, will have a similar trajectory. Why? Because social media products have been designed to replace other forms of communication like talking (in person or on the telephone), writing letters, and even email. And they have succeeded in doing that.
But let’s assume you are determined to explore alternatives to Twitter. The Washington Post's Heather Kelly has a few suggestions for reproducing its essential functions—delivering news and providing space for conversation—with other social media and even (gasp!) personal interactions. And it is probably worth picking another platform to be your Canada, just in case. I have grabbed a handle on Tribel "(We are the kinder, smarter social network.”) Still, most historians and journalists seem to be heading towards Mastodon, where I have also begun to post.
But I am not betting the house on this new network: remember, we have done this before. Remember the exodus to Ello, which finally seems to have found its footing as a platform for artists? Or the Facebook alternative, MeWe (“No Ads, No Spyware”)? I joined both platforms but remained unmotivated to check my accounts because my Twitter and Facebook networks never followed me.
The failed migration scenario is what Cory Doctorow, OG blogger and editor of Boing Boing, calls “a collective action problem:”
Online, a lot of us have been unhappy with our social media platforms for a long time, but we hang in there, year after year, scandal after scandal, because as much as we hate the platform, we love the people who use the platform.
We don’t leave because we don’t want to lose them. They don’t leave because they don’t want to lose us. It’s a hostage situation, and we’re all holding each other hostage.
Rebuilding your network on a new platform is a time-consuming and painful task. The other problem (I remember this from the Ello exodus) is capacity. These smaller, often volunteer-run platforms and their servers are quickly overwhelmed when they get noticed by disgruntled Twitter and Facebook clients, and they can’t deliver the service we are used to. For example, verification emails on major platforms arrive in less than a minute, and when we don’t get one from a new social network after five minutes, we think something is wrong. Currently, when one refreshes Mastodon, one can practically hear it groan.
That said: if what worries you about Twitter is being overwhelmed by MAGA trolls, Twitter already has tools that you may not be maximizing. Historian Paula R. Curtis’s “Guide to Twitter and Social Media Safety for Academics (and Everyone Else)” offers common sense advice about how to do that. For example, go to your Twitter profile, and at the bottom, you will see a widget named “More.” Click on that, and go to “Settings and Support,” then “Settings and Privacy,” and then “Privacy and Safety.” Here you will find a menu of options for customizing your Twitter experience, including limiting your data and location sharing.
Also, consider using your “Block” and “Mute” functions, which you can find in the three little dots at the top right corner of any tweet. Blocking and muting don’t solve the problem of Donald Trump inciting insurrectionist mobs on Twitter, but you don’t have to watch while he does it. And as a final piece of advice, install Twitter Block Chain, an open-source extension that allows you to block not just one person who is tormenting you but all of their followers. It’s like a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser—but for trolls.
Finally, think about how we all ended up in this position in the first place. Leaving an internet platform shouldn’t feel like social and professional death, and the truth is: for most people whose last name isn’t Kardashian or Trump, it isn’t.
And maybe—just maybe—you could do without social media.
Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley is in his most brutal re-election fight ever, and The Atlantic's Elaine Godfrey imagines what the Senate could look like if he is defeated. Grassley’s age (89) is a factor, but there are other issues too: “For the first time in the history of this particular poll, more Iowan respondents disapprove of Grassley’s job performance than approve of it,” Godfrey writes. “Pair that dissatisfaction with the fact that [his opponent Mike] Franken is a strong candidate. A retired Navy vice admiral from deep-red northwest Iowa, the Democrat, could provide a non-threatening alternative for the independents and Republicans who are reluctant to give Grassley another term.” (October 31, 2022)
At The New Republic, Liza Featherstone examines attacks on art by climate activists and asks: shouldn’t we be beyond the “raising awareness” stage of things? Yes, direct action works, but other activists are going big. “While the food-throwing activists get more attention, an army of climate campaigners is making demands on the system,” Featherstone writes. “The Sunrise Movement, Communities for Change, and other groups blocked traffic in New York this week to demand Governor Kathy Hochul follow through on New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, passed three years ago, which committed the state to zero-emission electricity by 2040.” (October 31, 2022)
Ken Klippenstein and Lee Fang at The Intercept report on efforts by the Department of Homeland Security, beginning in 2016 and accelerating after 2020, to monitor and suppress bad actors on social media. But should we trust the federal government to monitor speech on the Internet? No, say Klippenstein and Fang, because “the laudable goal of protecting Americans from danger has often been used to conceal political maneuvering” and “U.S. officials have routinely lied about an array of issues, from the causes of its wars in Vietnam and Iraq to their more recent obfuscation around the role of the National Institutes of Health in funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s coronavirus research.” (October 31, 2022)