Thursday, December 1, 2022

Commentary on the Train Wreck That is Twitter and Musk: Rich White Men and the Thrill of Breaking Good Things

David Ljungdahl illustration in 1910 Swedish edition of Jules Verne's "Captain Grant's Children," from Wikimedia Commons

I've deliberately held off sharing commentary on the train wreck that is Twitter — and Elon Musk — because 1) rich white men like him are allowed to suck too much air out of the room of public discourse as it is; 2) I refuse to let myself become obsessed with Musk's nonsense and the endless psychoanalyzing of him by commentators trying to figure out why a developmentally stunted narcissist with a hugely inflated ego seems to enjoy destroying a promising if flawed institution permitting valuable public discusssions and information sharing.

I miss Twitter. I have no Schadenfreude at watching what Musk is doing to it — and doing so quite deliberately. I see what's happening as tragic. I find Mastodon opaque and my several attempts even to sign up at one of its servers have all come to mysterious dead ends. Maybe this is a sign that I'm just too old to be fussing around trying to talk to people about politics, culture, and religion online. It's not as though my feeble voice counts for that much anyway.

But since I do read news daily, I've been keeping track of some commentary about Twitter and Musk that seems important to me, and want to share that commentary now: a number of commentators including Alejandro Caraballo of Harvard Law's cyberlaw clinic (cited by Taylor Lorenz, "‘Opening the gates of hell’: Musk says he will revive banned accounts") are noting the price to be paid by all of us, but especially vulnerable communities, by Musk's decision to throw the Twitter gates wide open to trolls, haters, and liars. Caraballo states,

What Musk is doing is existentially dangerous for various marginalized communities. It’s like opening the gates of hell in terms of the havoc it will cause. People who engaged in direct targeted harassment can come back and engage in doxing, targeted harassment, vicious bullying, calls for violence, celebration of violence. I can’t even begin to state how dangerous this will be.  

Lucian K. Truscott, "This is all you need to know about the odious Elon Musk,"  points to the dangers those relying on Twitter for information now face after Musk chose to stop enforcing its COVID misinformation policy:

Twitter has stopped saving lives and is now actively engaged in helping to kill people.  It took one year and nine months and the insane ego of one man:  Elon Musk.  He’s the difference between these two headlines from the Associated Press. 

Dateline March 1, 2021:  Twitter cracks down on COVID vaccine misinformation.

Dateline November 29, 2022:  Twitter ends enforcement of COVID misinformation policy.

Lies are loose on Twitter about COVID, folks.  Stuff like vaccines will kill you, the disease is a conspiracy against white people, wearing a mask is fascism.  It was out there before, and it’s out there again, and people will die because of it.

As Deion Scott Hawkins notes ("Black Twitter’s expected demise would make it harder to publicize police brutality and discuss racism") Black Twitter is an important information source for African Americans, one in five of whom are on Black Twitter — 28% of Twitter's users are African American — and Musk's destruction of this information network and of regulations that prevent sharing of disinformation and incitement of violence will have direct effects for the African-American community:

A world without Black Twitter is a world void of robust, rapid and authentic information sharing on police brutality within the Black community. As a result, it is my belief that the community will be systemically silenced and exposed to increased levels of police-related violence.

This is why Karen Attiah says she's not leaving Twitter: for Black women, there are already far too few safe spaces around, too few public spaces to have important conversations with each other. She's staying to fight for the safe if very fragile space Black women have constructed on Twitter to talk together and share information important to the Black community and Black women in particular.

On the other hand, Jelani Cobb (also African American) of Columbia Journalism School has left Twitter: in "Why I Quit Elon Musk’s Twitter," he explains:

Participating in Twitter—with its world-spanning reach, its potential to radically democratize our discourse along with its virtue mobs and trolls—always required a cost-benefit analysis. That analysis began to change, at least for me, immediately after Musk took over. His reinstatement of Donald Trump’s account made remaining completely untenable. Following an absurd Twitter poll about whether Trump should be allowed to return, Musk reinstated the former President. The implication was clear: if promoting the January 6, 2021, insurrection—which left at least seven people dead and more than a hundred police officers injured—doesn’t warrant suspension to Musk, then nothing else on the platform likely could.

Musk’s ownership is markedly different from the one that preceded it. He took the company private, and Twitter is no longer a publicly traded entity. In a sense, the users whose tweets drive what remains of its shrinking ad revenue are his most important employees. My sepia-tinted memories of what Twitter was—or could possibly have become—dissolved at the prospect of stuffing money in the pocket of the richest man on the planet. 

Marcy Wheeler wrote several days ago ("Flipping the Bird: Social Media Update") about why she had locked her Twitter account, possibly temporarily and perhaps permanently, and was now focusing on Mastodon:

As a number of people have noticed, I locked up my Tweets the other day. That was a response to my inclusion on a list that fascists are attempting to deplatform on Twitter. I’ve heard from a number of people who don’t have an account and who only check Twitter for my Tweets. At least until the fascist campaign ends, and possibly for good, I plan to primarily post my journalistic tweets at Mastodon. 

Keep in mind that Musk is doing all of this — driving people from the platform, tearing up safeguards against hate speech and dissemination of toxic lies — despite serious obstacles from significant institutions like the EU: as Laura Kayali and Mark Scott write, "Europe warns Musk he’s top of their watch list," 

Twitter’s decision to stop enforcing its COVID-19 misinformation policy has put another bullseye on Elon Musk's back. ...

Since Musk’s takeover of the social media platform in October, almost all of the company’s content moderation and public policy teams have either been fired or left the company. EU and national regulators have fretted Musk no longer has enough staff to enforce the bloc’s current and future content rules.

And, as Musk has to know, advertisers are fleeing the platform, too, because Musk's decision to flood the zone with s—t, to cite Steve Bannon, is quite simply bad for business: as Hannah Murphy, Alex Barker, and Arjun Neil Alim, "Twitter’s $5bn-a-year business hit as Elon Musk clashes with advertisers," report,

Multiple top advertising agencies and media buyers told the Financial Times that nearly all of the big brands they represent have paused spending on the social media platform, citing alarm at Musk’s ad hoc approach to policing content and decision to axe many of its ad sales team.

Why is Musk doing all this, tearing up an important if admittedly imperfect public space for safe exchange of information and ideas, cutting off his own economic nose to spite his economic face? In my view, he's doing so because he can. For super-rich men who vastly overrate their importance to the world and their intellect, while remaining stuck in adolescence, there's simply the thrill of breaking things and making people who have been mean to those men wince and cry. 

And he's doing so because, like many of his tech-bro peers, he's been tracking rightward politically for quite some time now, and we haven't paid attention until he got his hands on the Twitter toy: as Zachary Basu, "The Republicanization of Elon Musk," writes,

Musk revealed last week that he would vote for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis if he runs for president in 2024, calling the GOP rising star a "sensible and centrist" option.

• The day before the midterms, Musk urged "independent-minded voters" to vote for Republicans, citing the need to "balance" a Democratic presidency.

• The billionaire insists he is "neither conventionally right nor left" — but he also says the threat to free speech allegedly posed by Democrats has triggered a "battle for the future of civilization" that trumps all other policy issues.

• COVID restrictions, high taxes and regulations in California also spurred an ideological shift right, and a physical move to Texas, now the home of Tesla's headquarters.

• Musk's disillusionment with the Democratic Party has only accelerated — or at least, it has become more public — since his acquisition of Twitter.

As long as our society gives such power and reverence to men — notably white ones, especially heterosexual ones — who happen to own a lot of stuff, we'll continue seeing and suffering from behavior like Musk's. And Trump's.

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