The mania over Musk
Myth-busting around the battle for control over the information ecosystem.
While I was away, the world’s richest person bought a fat piece of the digital town square. Elon Musk now owns Twitter: the place where activist citizens debate, refine their positions, build their contacts, and reach their audiences.
Musk has many detractors, and much of the commentary on this is just the regulars playing to type. But there are two, let's say, passionate refrains I hear on this from activists in my circles, which are worth considering and responding to.
The story is moving fast and I'm constantly updating my views. Here's where I'm at currently on each of these takes.
“But he’s an oligarch!”
I’m not thrilled with centralised oligarchic control of a key plank of our information ecosystem. I’d rather Twitter was a public utility. Or at least, decentralised and disconnected from the rapacious need to make money.
But for now, there's zero chance of that happening. So we have a troll-billionaire as tweeter-in-chief.
And yet... apart from the trolling part, this is nothing new. The media landscape today belongs to billionaires: Murdoch, Bezos, the widow of Steve Jobs, and many more. The only difference is that now there's a less censorious one in their ranks (see below).
Yes, this media ownership structure sucks and should change. But today it's how things are. Choose your battles; focus on what you can influence. Roll with it.
“Under Musk, Twitter will become a hellhole of misinformation and dangerous conspiracy theories”
Musk bought Twitter with the line that 'the bird is freed'. A free-speech crusader, he promised to take a hands-off approach to content moderation. In sharp contrast to how the previous team had run it.
But around the same time, another piece of news came out that didn't get much attention.
For years, heterodox commentators have been charging that social media platforms are an arm of the Establishment, influenced by government entities. The platforms have been caught with their pants down on this before. But thanks to a new investigation by The Intercept, there's now evidence of how they plot with the government, before the fact.
Through leaks and official documents, the piece shows collusion between US intelligence agencies and Big Tech companies – including Twitter – to censor and shape online discourse.
Here's how it works. The agencies target so-called 'inaccurate information' on topics where the government wants to push its narrative. For example, on:
the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine
Social media platforms then label these topics 'disinformation', 'misinformation', 'fake news', or an equivalent Terrible Thing. And then they downplay or outright censor discussion of them on their networks. Pretty simple.
The effect of this, though, is devastating. It's an authoritarian's wet dream, narrowing the discourse, corrupting the search for truth and polarising us all. Whether over the lab leak theory, COVID vaccinations, or support to Ukraine, the Establishment can quickly, quietly deem topics out of bounds and outlaw them, locking them away in the sphere of deviance.1
Even if we take the Establishment's argument – that content moderation is a fight against bad actors – at face value, it still reveals their profound disdain for regular people. In this line of thinking, their idea is that if you're left unchecked and unmoderated, you'll either spread malicious lies or believe them like an idiot. Or both.
This, then, is the great, unspoken challenge of our time: the Establishment's bid for control over what the public says and thinks. It's the strict-father model in practice. And there are few greater threats to activism today. Case in point: the collusion documented by The Intercept has helped ensure that anti-war activism is weak and divided. While the world is on the brink of a nuclear exchange.
Look, there's a lot of real disinformation out there. It's malicious. It's manipulative. It's Bad.
But the sooner you accept that the internet is the Wild West, and protect yourself from it2 instead of leaving it to the platforms, the sooner you can put that straw man to rest.
More importantly: the 'content moderation' regime meant to save you from the horrors of reading lies on the internet is a disaster for our discourse. For every activist and social media user seeking to get value out of the time they spend on the platforms.
Musk might indeed make the Twitter experience worse. It's true that the indications so far are not good.
But for now, in these early days, and in view of all the above, I'd say this. Someone with clout – even a chaotic, trolling oligarch – wants to go against the insidious content moderation regime? Give it your best shot, Elon. Just try not to break too much while doing it.
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1: Collusion with tech platforms is only part of the problem. Subtler and craftier is how establishment journalists – yes, working for those billionaire owned outlets – are also in on the content moderation game. I read Musk's clumsy efforts to overhaul Twitter's identity verification system partly as a way of giving a middle finger to this group, who are particularly precious about their blue checkmarks. Side note: since Musk first floated the idea of buying Twitter, legacy media coverage has been a case study in wishful-thinking-as-analysis. You might not think there were hundreds of ways to write a story on 'why Twitter will fail', but establishment journalists have managed admirably.
2: Suggestions on how to do this here. But most importantly: you can choose to not let the algorithms decide what you see! Get a true chronological timeline, featuring only the people you follow, using a third-party client like Spring. Or use Twitter Lists. It's such an obvious and simple move and I can't understand why more people don't do this.
Update 10/12/22: I hosted a debate on this topic with the DiEM25 team, earlier this week. We covered the story from many different angles, including the censorship one. See below.