I’ve been thinking about the Twitter saga, as I have a bet with a friend on how it will turn out. As someone who has never had a Twitter account, I’m perfectly suited to opine on the ongoing drama. So here goes.
On one hand, Twitter has become the national platform for commentary on most any issue. For better or worse, it has become our digital commons, and we need such a place. Celebrities, sports stars, “influencers” (gag me), politicians, and regular people all get to interact. And across national boundaries, a great thing. For a while Facebook served that purpose – perhaps still does for some – but these days a mix of Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are where we hold our open conversations. Each of these are international, diverse communities of people who like interacting with each other, and that’s usually a good thing.
On the other hand Twitter followed Facebook into the gutter, where a small but vocal minority of bad actors drive hatespeech, conspiracy, misogyny, and abuse in general. You either allow the bad actors to poison the well for everyone, or you attempt to manage (or moderate) their voice. Someone has to decide what will be allowed and what will not. That’s called content moderation, and that’s the issue at the heart of Musk’s Twitter takeover. Twitter had a very active content moderation team – too active, in Musk’s humble opinion.
Musk got bent out of shape by what he considered to be excessive content moderation that silenced voices he believed should have been left alone. The First Amendment right to free speech, a wildly misunderstood right, was being violated according to Musk and some of his fellow libertarians. So he spent $44 billion and bought the platform from shareholders, and now is in the position to right the perceived wrongs of the previous management.
What has ensued is instructive. Musk has stripped out 75%-ish of the company’s employees in the quest for efficiency and profitability. Whether that alone destroys the platform (big websites require a LOT of engineering talent to keep running), time will tell. The other thing that Musk has done is to appoint himself the sole decider of content moderation. Who gets to have a voice on Twitter, and what then are they allowed to say? Where Twitter previously has dozens (hundreds?) of people working to police the platform in the quest to be a good steward of our digital commons, it now has one – Musk. Who has a couple of other day jobs.
So Donald Trump and many other destructive forces/voices are being re-enabled on Twitter. Predictably, all manner of unfriendly and unhelpful speech is now growing, rapidly. School’s out, no teachers to keep the kids in line, so the bullies are running amok. And corporate sponsors/advertisers, the veryt heart of Twitter’s business model, are running for the exits. Corporations have become *extremely* sensitive to being associated with any non-politically-correct activity, and Twitter has now become a risk.
One inescapable conclusion from Musk’s actions is that there’s no argument about whether there should be a line that can’t be crossed. Musk has a line, albeit a crooked one. For example, he has declined to reinstate Alex Jones to the platform, as Musk has sympathy for anyone who has lost a child. That’s a good reason, and the right decision – Jones is evil. But it proves that the argument is simply where the line should be and who gets to decide its position.
What else can we conclude from this?
Same as it ever was, the wealthy can and will purchase and influence our national means of communication – newspapers, radio stations, TV networks and now digital platforms. Nothing has changed about that.
Digital platforms are, however, two-way communications platforms. Anyone and everyone can have a say. That’s new.
Digital platforms are susceptible to software bots masquerading as humans and flooding the zone with specific messages, information or disinformation. That’s also new.
Republishing (or retweeting) a particular thought is easy, fast, and magnifies a popular or interesting meme by thousands or millions of times – whether it’s true or not. Not possible in traditional media, so that’s new too.
Musk can’t alter any of these basic facts about digital platforms – he can only nibble around the edges of content moderation, performance, and identity management (bot control). Was that worth $44 billion and time away from his more important ventures? I think not, but then I’m not the richest guy in the world with a bad case of something on the spectrum.
The best case scenario is that Musk makes Twitter more efficient and then allows some trusted person(s) to manage it on his behalf. The worst case is that Twitter loses its position as a popular digital commons and the world moves on to other, newer, cooler platforms. Twitter joins Facebook as a has-been. My bet is on the latter outcome.