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Elon Bought Twitter. So What?
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Elon Bought Twitter. So What?

Nothing will change. Well, not much.

(Muhammed Selim Korkutata/Anadolu Agency)

Seldom do we feel the full historical weight of events as we’re living through them, but from time to time things happen that are so plainly momentous that the world reels. We remember those events in the form of “Where were you?” questions. For the older generation, the question was “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?” For my generation, it’s “Where were you when the Challenger exploded?” or “Where were you on 9/11?”

For the next generation, it’ll be “Where were you when a rich edgelord bought a second-tier social-media platform?”

Sheesh. When Barack Obama blathered that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” at least he was referring to something as consequential as a presidential nomination.

He was wrong about that, incidentally. Shapiro will be wrong, too, although he’s correct at least about the unlikely origins of Elon Musk’s interest in buying Twitter having to do with the Babylon Bee.

In fairness to him, the embarrassing overreaction among the Very Online right to Musk’s takeover has been matched, if not exceeded, by the garment-rending among the Very Online left. Both sides have greeted Musk’s arrival as tantamount to a victorious emperor riding into conquered land to proclaim the laws that’ll govern his new subjects. For the right, that conquest means liberation, for the left, enslavement. As I write this on Friday, progressives on Twitter are debating among themselves whether to flee into exile or to stay and fight the occupier.

And if you think I’m exaggerating by reaching for that metaphor, buddy, you should hear these people.

Not even Luke Skywalker was immune from paranoia about Musk’s dastardly anti-liberal schemes.

We should be fair to liberals too, though. One can understand why they’re spooked, seeing as how Musk’s acquisition is being cheered by some of the worst people in America.

The new boss’s priorities on his first full day as owner aren’t encouraging either.

“Catturd” has nearly 875,000 followers and has reportedly gained more than 25,000 within the last 30 days alone, yet his alleged “shadowbanning” at the hands of the now-deposed liberal junta is top of the agenda for the world’s richest man.

So, apparently, is reinstating Kanye West’s account, which was suspended after he vowed to go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE” a few weeks ago. Musk claimed on October 10 to have phoned West to express his “concerns” about the tweet, criticism that he believed West had taken to heart. A few days later West went on a podcast and started grousing about the “Jewish media.” Musk is now stuck having to decide what to do when West inevitably uses his renewed Twitter access to rant about the 12 Jews who rule the world or whatever. Should he silence West again, complicating his “free speech” ethos, or should he keep intervening personally with him behind the scenes to try to get him to tone it down? Neither option is good. The head of Tesla and SpaceX surely has more urgent business to attend to than spending hours on the phone with Kanye patiently debunking the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Maybe you don’t care about Twitter because you’re a well-adjusted human with better things to do than watch attention-starved dorks dunk on each other all day for partisan clout. If so, I admire you and aspire to your degree of wellness; I’m one such dork myself but have managed to (mostly) quit posting on the site, hallelujah.

Still, you should care—a little. “Twitter isn’t real life,” it’s often said, and that’s true. If you care a lot about what’s going on there, there’s something wrong with you. But even if you don’t use the platform, most of the people with influence over the news you consume each day use it religiously. As a conduit for rapidly conveying information about developing events, it has no equal. Changes to Twitter could, in theory, affect media coverage and elite opinion in all sorts of ways.

You should also care because the ridiculous hype about Musk’s takeover mirrors the way populists practice politics now.

There are things Elon Musk could do to significantly improve the Twitter experience. But they have to do with functionality more so than with content moderation.

For instance, the site is notorious for the speed with which virtual “lynch mobs” form when some unfortunate user tweets something that offends a large constituency. “Each day on [T]witter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it,” said one user a few years ago, summarizing the dynamic. The “main character’s” offending comment is typically quote-tweeted with angry commentary by offended users, drawing the attention of like-minded followers who will quote-tweet it into their own feeds, igniting a viral feeding frenzy of indignation. The pile-on may grow to the point that it shows up as a “trending topic” in Twitter’s sidebar, which will call even more attention to the offending tweet and expand the pile-on.

Eliminate the quote-tweet feature and the “trending topic” column and you’d go a long way toward blunting Twitter’s rotten culture. Destroy the tools of negative amplification and you destroy (or at least contain) the mob.

That said, not every problem with the site is a problem of poor functionality. Conservatives do have legitimate grievances about how pre-Musk Twitter moderated content.

The most notorious episode occurred just before the 2020 election, when Twitter management concluded that the New York Post’s scoop on Hunter Biden’s laptop was so “potentially harmful” that it had to be suppressed. Links to the story posted by users were disabled; even sharing the photos that accompanied it was off-limits. Twitter claimed that “the origins of the materials” described by the Post rendered the scoop suspect, a hint that it might be Russian disinformation designed to influence another American election.

But users share other types of dubious information on Twitter all the time without management intervening. It’s practically the platform’s raison d’etre. And as it turns out, the emails described in the Post’s story were later verified as authentic by the New York Times. Twitter had successfully suppressed accurate information that voters might have found relevant. Jack Dorsey, the company’s former CEO, later called the episode a “total mistake,” but too late. Conservatives believed, understandably, that Twitter’s left-leaning executives had blacked out the Post scoop only because it was “potentially harmful” to Joe Biden’s campaign.

Conservatives are also right that Twitter’s rules for restricting offensive or “hateful” content are capricious, notoriously so in the case of criticizing leftist orthodoxy about transgenderism. Musk appears to have gotten serious about buying the company only after it suspended the account of the Babylon Bee, a right-wing satirical site, for jokingly naming a transgender Biden official its “Man of the Year.” Users could be punished for “deadnaming” a trans person (e.g., referring to Caitlyn Jenner as “Bruce”), but then again they might not be if they happened to be public officials. It was all quite murky.

I’ve used the site for more than a decade and couldn’t tell you precisely where the line is with respect to anti-trans rhetoric. I think it’s okay to say “there are only two genders” or “if you have a penis you’re a man” but I suspect it’s not okay to tweet “you’re a man” at a trans woman. The only clear takeaway is that it’s best to steer clear of the topic altogether if you have something discouraging to say, as the Twitter gods work in mysterious ways and might smite you if you incur their wrath. That’s the proverbial “chilling effect” on speech in action.

Or was, before Elon.

So, yes, some things will change on Twitter thanks to Musk. There’ll be no more Hunter-style blackouts, although if you believe Dorsey there would have been no more of those under previous management either. Presumably you can also virtually scream “BRUCE!” now at Caitlyn Jenner to your heart’s content. If you’re part of the tiny fraction of Twitter users with thoughtful criticism of transgenderism to share and were afraid to do so before, the Elon era is a meaningful change for the better.

As for the other 99.9 percent of us, I expect the Elon era will mostly mean having to scroll past higher quantities of dreck like this.

… as well as considerably worse dreck.

“Elon now controls twitter. Unleash the racial slurs. K—S AND N—–S,” said one account, using slurs for Jews and Black people. “I can freely express how much I hate n—–s … now, thank you elon,” another said…

Racial slurs were posted rampantly overnight. One single-word tweet, showing a single racial slur in all capital letters, was retweeted more than 500 times and liked more than 4,000 times. It was tweeted at 9 p.m. Thursday night and remained online nearly 12 hours later.

Some of the Twitter influx was organized on other platforms, including the pro-Trump forum TheDonald, where its top posts Friday morning showed tweets celebrating lies about Trump’s 2020 election loss and memes criticizing transgender people under the headline “When you can’t get banned on Twitter anymore.”

Some watchdogs are attempting to quantify the vibe shift after news of Musk’s purchase of the company broke.

We shouldn’t read too much into the fact that trolls in the first flush of excitement are gleefully abusing their new freedom, as that’s a “dog bites man” story. Instead, let’s ask this: What are the mainstream, non-racist conservatives who are greeting Musk’s arrival like they’re Ukrainian prisoners who’ve just been liberated from a Russian dungeon celebrating, exactly? What sea change in the platform’s culture and discourse do they foresee Elon engineering to warrant the hysterical jubilation exemplified by Shapiro’s tweet?

There’s endless chatter on Twitter this afternoon about free speech but, per Cortes and others, the speech with which cheering righties are mostly concerned has to do with only a few select topics. One of those is transgenderism, as noted above. The others that keep popping up are the 2020 election and COVID vaccines. Is that what Muskmania boils down to?

It’s Juneteenth for election cranks and anti-vaxxers?

It’s worth remembering since many of his fans seem to have forgotten that, for all his high-minded rhetoric on the subject, Musk doesn’t always walk the walk on free speech. The populists who are ready to build statues of him for restoring their right to tweet “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” will conveniently overlook the fact that he’s always been a bit of a China simp, as he proved again a few weeks ago. The new second-largest shareholder of Musk-owned Twitter is Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a member of the royal family of one of the most repressive regimes on Earth. Bin Talal’s ownership stake may or may not end up influencing what sort of free speech about the Saudi government is allowed on the platform.

Meanwhile, one of Musk’s first acts yesterday as new owner was to fire Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s top lawyer. Gadde is a notorious figure in conservative circles for her influence over the company’s moderation policies, particularly its decision to ban Donald Trump. But tech writer Mike Masnick makes a compelling case that, thanks to Gadde, Twitter distinguished itself as an ardent defender of free speech relative to other tech companies, here and abroad.

Twitter was among the most vocal companies pushing back on foreign governments and their demands for information or their demands to censor people. Just as one example, in India, the government demanded that Twitter remove users critical of the government, and Twitter fought back, even as the government threatened to jail Twitter employees. And when India passed a law to give the government more control over internet censorship, Twitter sued the Indian government. In fact, this lawsuit was something that Elon Musk complained about, suggesting that he’s way more willing to go along with government demands. Indeed, Musk also praised the EU’s new Digital Services Act, which is a highly censorial bill that demands all sorts of content takedowns and other censorial actions. Twitter, under Gadde’s leadership, was one of the most vocal companies in calling out how the Digital Services Act could harm speech online.

“Gadde did more for free speech on the internet than almost anyone else I can think of,” Masnick writes, yet she was out on day one. Do you suppose Elon Musk, with his many lucrative business interests in places like China and India, will be more or less aggressive in standing up to the governments of those countries than Gadde was when they demand his cooperation in curbing the speech of their critics on Twitter?

If the answer is “less,” do you think his populist fan base in the U.S. will care so long as their own parochial speech priorities are met? Here, for instance, is how Ron DeSantis’ campaign mouthpiece is celebrating free-speech Juneteenth for conservative tweeters.

As I say, the pre-Musk Twitter gods worked in mysterious ways, but I’m reasonably sure calling the Associated Press “American Pravda” was okay before Elon took over. (If it wasn’t then it must have run afoul of a rule banning cliches.) And it’s a curious concept of “free speech” that would grant the state power to tell a news organization that it “should not be allowed” to say something of which the American right disapproves.

None of the Musk hysteria is really about free speech, I think. Few of the people burbling about free speech this afternoon would object if Emperor Elon declared that all left-wingers posting about trans issues shall have the words “there are only two genders” automatically appended to all of their tweets.

Muskmania is about dominant speech. It’s borne of a hope, probably naive, that Musk will elevate conservative viewpoints to a position of dominance on Twitter over liberal ones. That’s of a piece with how the populist “new right” approaches politics generally. Classical liberalism, in which the rules are supposed to apply equally to both sides, is for suckers. Populism, in which left-dominated cultural institutions are coopted and turned against liberals by a merciless right, is for fighters.

And even if Musk doesn’t turn Twitter against the left, the mere fact of cooptation may suffice. In social media as in populist politics, it doesn’t matter much whether the policies that govern us do or don’t change. What matters is that the libs are well and truly owned, that they fume in anguish upon realizing that a hero of the right has gotten the better of them. Liberal tears are flowing today! They’re flowing over Musk’s takeover just like they flowed over Trump’s victory in 2016. Whether Trump ended up building the wall or whether Musk ends up overhauling Twitter moderation policies is an interesting detail, but ultimately a detail.
The important thing is that we won. That’s why, I assume, Shapiro felt obliged to stoop to ridiculous hyperbole in heralding Musk’s purchase. It’s not that he thinks this is an inflection point for civilization, it’s that he owns one of the most influential sites in populist media and can’t get away with a sober take during the victory parade that this just isn’t that big of a deal. It’d be tantamount to peeing in the punchbowl. Either you’re on the team or you aren’t. If you are, you’d better show it by popping the champagne.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.