Twelve quick thoughts on the ongoing Musk / Twitter saga. In short: plus ca change, plus ca meme.
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- At the most basic level, I don’t really mind if Musk ends up destroying Twitter. As a platform, I believe it has a net negative impact on our public discourse and politics and it would be better if it didn’t exist. As an individual, I feel I need to use it for work, but when I wasn’t working over the summer deleted it from my phone, unlike, for example, Facebook. So my inherent bias here is fully declared.
- That being said, I don’t think he will destroy it. Admittedly, some of the shenanigans around blue ticks are currently chaotic and hilarious, but I don’t see any mass exodus either from my own anecdotal experience or from what we know of overall statistics. The several hundred thousand new users that Mastodon is reporting is less than 1% of Twitter’s c. 250 million users. Major politicians, journalists, opinion formers and celebrities seem to be staying put.
- We should remember that Musk is an incredibly successful businessman. He’s built multiple companies, notably Tesla and SpaceX, from nothing into hugely valuable giants. These have suffered setbacks, including rockets blowing up on launch and big (temporary) drops in share prices which are probably worse than whatever is happening with blue ticks and advertising right now. Sacking half the staff is dramatic, but not atypical for venture-capital and similar take-overs (and the fact that Meta is laying off over 1 in 8 staff does suggest that some of the social media companies may have over-staffed). His whole strategy is about experimentation, moving quickly, breaking things and innovating in ways which often look chaotic. That doesn’t mean he’ll succeed – not all his ventures have – but it does mean that ‘this looks chaotic’ does not imply ‘this will fail’.
- It is fascinating and slightly amusing watching various outraged progressives announcing that they will leave because someone whose politics they disagree with has bought the platform. It’s fascinating to imagine living in a world which conforms to your politics and cultural sensitivities so strongly that boycotting a company which has an owner with which you disagree seems like a reasonable option. If Leave voters had taken this view, they’d barely have been able to buy anything after 2016! Wetherspoons for food, clothes from Next and large yellow earth-moving equipment from JCB, I guess.
- More broadly, I think this whenever there are calls to boycott a certain author, or TV programme, because they’ve said or done something that outrages the progressive consensus. Again, for anyone with remotely cultural / social conservative views, this simply isn’t an option, unless you want to drastically curtail your reading and media options. To co-opt progressive language, the ability to avoid authors, firms and programmes with whom you politically disagree is a massive example of progressive cultural privilege.
- What about the slightly more sophisticated worry, that Musk will turn Twitter into a racist, sexist and abusive hellhole? The flippant answer is that Twitter already is a hellhole, so what would be new? As even a casual user, I find liberal use of mute and block is essential to avoid people being horrible.
- I might also observe that there seems a strong overlap between people who are now saying this is a public utility / public square that needs to be protected, and the people who said it was no problem at all when it was censoring right-wing views, as free speech only meant that the Government couldn’t silence you and it didn’t matter if a company did.
- Interestingly, my own view is probably the diametric opposite of this. I don’t think Twitter (or any individual social media platform) deserves to be protected (see point 1), but that while they do exist, they are – above a certain scale – de facto public squares, and need to therefore not be able to deny passage to legal political (in the broadest sense) speech, in the same way roads/railways can’t deny passage to people.
- Taking the question more seriously, it’s notable that while some banned people are back (e.g. Maya Forstater), Musk has not yet altered the platform’s official terms and conditions.
- I think that even the most ardent anti-Muskites would have to admit that Twitter’s rules were slightly arbitrary before: while I have no real problem with them banning Trump after the January 6 incident, but it is hard to defend why Ayatollah Khamanei of Iran is allowed on, but Trump isn’t. To me, it’s clear that members or speech that formed part of the blue tribe (i.e. US progressive) outgroup was hit far more often than things associated with their ingroup or far group – though again, this was often quite random and intermittent (there was by no means a blanket ban on expressing gender critical views, for example).
- I strongly suspect that where we will end up – assuming the platform survives – is that speech which there is a strong bipartisan consensus against will remain banned (for example, use of the n-word, racism or antisemitism in its traditional sense, incitement to violence) – though probably still, as now, quite poorly enforced; but that things that are currently a matter of much more political debate in the US – transgender rights, BLM and ‘defund the police’, lockdowns and COVID, and probably lots of other things I’m less familiar with – will be treated more even-handedly, with less random censorship of those on the right.
- Overall then, plus ca change, plus ca meme. There will undoubtedly be a period of chaos and disruption. There will probably be a slight broadening of political expression. For individuals, muting and blocking will remain essential. But I strongly suspect that in a year’s time, we’ll be looking at a Twitter that is similarly dominant within the space that it operates, and that looks very much the way it does now.