I Have Mixed Feelings
Having decided to burn billions of dollars of his own money (not to mention additional billions invested by others) on a hobbyist’s fancy (the hobbies being the promiscuous renderings of one’s opinions and the public mocking of others), Elon Musk has managed to place himself squarely in the center of media and pop culture, which as it turns out, seems to have been his desire from the beginning.
Let’s face it. Elon Musk is considerably smarter than I, considerably richer than I, and a far better businessman than I. There may be some long-game here in his purchase of Twitter that I cannot see, mainly because I do not have the sensors to detect it. So for the time being, I will remain unconvinced of the investment value of the deal, and attribute it to ego and entertainment, which are of course, the playgrounds of the super-rich.
It appears that one of his objectives in purchasing Twitter was to create a forum more in keeping with his own opinions on free exchange. I am careful not to use the phrase “free speech”, as it conjures up Constitutional matters, and Mr. Musk is under no obligation to provide or protect First Amendment rights. This fundamental fact must be understood before an intelligent conversation can be had on what Twitter has been, is, and will be. The First Amendment (among other things) constrains government from limiting speech—not individuals and their property. That Twitter has come to be used by myriad scolds who treat it like a government service is not only unfortunate but immature. If Musk wanted no content moderation, he could have it. If Musk wanted to eliminate the views of liberals altogether, he could. If he wished to suppress all Tweets but dog videos, that would be his prerogative. I am completely comfortable with this.
After two weeks of emails, tweets, and Slacks that prove conclusively that the previous Twitter management was actively controlling content, we now have incontrovertible evidence that they were doing exactly what they said they were doing. Sort of. Twitter never made any bones about the fact that they manipulated their algorithms to suppress Tweets that did not comport with their corporate ethos. That their corporate ethos amounted to the amalgamation of thousands of left of center viewpoints was obvious and beyond question.
Musk and his band of Merry Pranksters have been publishing previously behind the curtain internal Twitter communications in the service of exposing Twitter’s corporate bias against right of center views, or views expressed by those accounts generally associated with the right. Conservatives have complained FOR YEARS about perceived calumnies, from the loss of followers to considerably fewer “likes” and “retweets”. My place in the pantheon of right of center miscreants is so insignificant as to have escaped Twitter’s speech police, but I know others who have been caught up in it. The private Twitter communications reveal that there was absolutely a practice of using platform algorithms to limit the exposure of certain views. The problem—as far as its new owner is concerned—is that the views being limited were largely right of center. Worse still, Twitter management publicly stated—and appeared to testify in court and before Congress—that this was not the case.
I think a lot of this does in fact stem from the biases of management, in that whatever the algorithms were identifying and tagging for action started as human decisions about what was acceptable discourse. Once that decision was made, the coding was a snap. And since there appears to have been runaway group-think at the top at Twitter as to what “acceptable” was and wasn’t, the ones and zeroes impacted one set of views more often than another. In other words, Twitter’s content management was doing a fine job all the way from B to Z….it’s just that first step—what is to be managed—that drove the perception (that is reality) that the right was harmed more.
Part of the problem is that whatever standards there were for content moderation were not effectively communicated, and were certainly not well-understood. Add to this the perception of arbitrary enforcement, and you create the market for a billionaire with time on his hands (Lord KNOWS how this can be) to muck about with his new toy.
Bottom line: Twitter’s previous program of actively suppressing right of center activity was absolutely, positively, incontrovertibly NOT a violation of the First Amendment. Publicly preening about calling balls and strikes in a disinterested and neutral fashion—was an outright lie. It remains to be seen whether those lies were made by responsible parties under oath, but that is for another day. Twitter was a platform for the left used by people across the political spectrum. They should have owned up to their biases and let the chips fall where they may. Or, they should have tried to be more even-handed in their content moderation—which strikes me as wishful thinking.
What Will Musk Do?
Musk has clearly signaled that there will be limits to what is acceptable discourse on Twitter. He is concerned about child safety. He banned Kanye West for anti-Semitic/Pro-Hitler tweets. Presumably, what is deemed acceptable will grow, as Musk does appear to be generally in favor of more rather than less. What then, will he do to moderate content that he finds worthy of it (Nazism, child pornography, pro-Blue Origin)? Why, he will do exactly what the last team did. To wit:
In other words, Musk and his team will manipulate their algorithms in order to maintain the standards that Musk and his team deem appropriate. JUST AS BEFORE. What Musk wishes to change (and wishes for Twitter users to understand) is that what is considered appropriate will be neutrally arbitrated and transparent to users. I remain skeptical as to the prospects for this approach, as the complexity of setting a LIST OF RULES comprehensive enough to pass general acceptance and then be coded…seems immense.
Why Is This Important?
That’s a good question. Twitter plays far too large a role in my life. I spend less time on it than in the past (getting it off my phone helped), but the post-COVID world has me in front of my desk work-station MORE—so it is still sucking up a lot of time. I write and think, and that writing and thinking is directly connected to current and potential clients considering me worth their money. In my mind…when I someday stop working, there will be less of a draw for me to be clever and involved. I’m probably kidding myself about the importance of the economic tie and not attributing enough for the little ego hits I get from approval of my tweets.
But even though an overwhelming majority of Americans are not on Twitter, and an overwhelming majority of the activity on Twitter is generated by a fraction of those who do use it—downplaying its importance as a medium of exchange of ideas and the delivery of information is inappropriate. I don’t watch the news anymore. I don’t really read newspapers. I have a Tweetdeck feed set up where many of the world’s most prominent news sources provide me with a staggering amount of news through links to their sites. I peruse that feed JUST as I perused newspapers in the past, reading completely those items that caught my interest, and skipping over the others.
I think this whole Musk/Twitter thing is probably less important than more. I am glad that I own no stock in any enterprise Mr. Musk is helming at this point, but my admiration for him as a titan of industrial achievement is unimpacted by his immaturity and poor judgement in buying Twitter. But he used his own money, so knock yourself out, Elon.
Catherine has been very busy.
We need to write a Hallmark Movie based on that staircase alone.