The battle of Twitter

Tim Nerenz:

Most have now heard of Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter, and a lot of people in the liberal media are freaking out that he would (gasp) restore free speech on the platform, which confirms that its current purpose is to suppress and censor information it does not want you to know.

It is worth knowing who owns Twitter and who it is that determines who and what can be heard, who it is that determines what is “disinformation” that dare not be uttered in the public square.

Twitter is not a bunch of tech hippies in Silicon Valley serving your best interests – it is the richest and most powerful Wall Street oligarchs deciding what you can know.

To wit:

Twitter is how the mainstream media, corporations, politicians, and governments communicate with the general public – less than one million tune in to CNN, but tens of millions see their tweets on smartphones

It seems odd that our most important national conversations are limited to 280 characters, but that is why I don’t tweet.

In 2020, Twitter cancelled thousands of voices that its owners did not want us to hear – it suppressed information that contradicted media narratives on covid, the riots in our cities, political campaigns, and the elections themselves.

Twitter’s most blatant act of partisan activism occurred in October, when it shut down the New York Post account and prohibited any discussions of the Hunter Biden laptop unless they concurred it was Russian disinformation.

When the media later admitted the authenticity of the laptop and its contents, a survey of Biden voters (half of whom had not heard of it) showed that 15% of them would have voted differently had they known it was real. Mission accomplished.

Its stock price rose from $25 in February of 2020 to $75 in February of 2021– censorship was very profitable for Twitter’s Wall Street owners, and they lobbied the administration they installed to make their truth-arbiter status a permanent fixture of the regulatory state.

Since then, facts have escaped its firewall through alternative media and its central narrative themes of 2020 were discredited; Twitter stock fell to $34 in February of 2022. Free speech is bad for business on Wall Street.

Facebook followed Twitter’s censorship lead (or vice versa, who knows?) in 2020, and its stock price surged from $156 to $376 and it too lobbied its new administration for regulations that would secure its truth-arbiter status.

Zuckerberg took things a step farther – in addition to silencing undesirable (to him) views, he invested half a billion dollars into the private management of 2020 voting itself through his 503c foundation the Center for Tech and Civic Life.

The distribution of CTCL funds was finally disclosed in 2021 in its IRS Form 900 filing, and its allocations to states and cities debunks its claim of noble neutrality.

Georgia and North Carolina are two southern states of similar population and demographic make-up. Zuckerberg “invested” $7 million in NC and $45 million in Georgia – $9 per vote cast. Mission accomplished.

As 18 states began looking into the propriety and legality of Zuckerberg’s drop-boxes and ballot harvesting operations, alienated subscribers left FB and the stock price tumbled to under $200 in February of this year. Transparency is also bad for business on Wall Street.

Elon Musk is not known to be a partisan one way or another; his only statement on the matter in recent years is, “I am not a conservative” and he is registered as an independent. Presidential job approval among independents has dropped 49 pts in the last year and is currently 26% and leaking oil.

The blue-check media’s talking points this week are quite remarkable – free speech and transparency are existential threats to democracy, they tell us. Musk must be stopped, they feverishly plead.

We should be mindful of who “they” are – the six giant corporations who own 90% of the media outlets, the Wall Street oligarchs who own Twitter and Facebook, and the office holders who dutifully read their scripts

If that is what democracy has come to, then bring on the free speech and transparency that threaten it – that would be a good thing. The owners of Twitter will probably not sell it to Musk, but major acquisitions take all sorts of twists and turns so time will tell.

Matt Taibbi, who like Musk is not a conservative:

Elon Musk has reportedly attempted to purchase Twitter, and I have no idea whether his influence on the company would be positive or not.

I do know, however, what other media figures think Musk’s influence on Twitter will be. They think it will be bad — very bad, bad! How none of them see what a self-own this is is beyond me. After spending the last six years practically turgid with joy as other unaccountable billionaires tweaked the speech landscape in their favor, they’re suddenly howling over the mere rumor that a less censorious fat cat might get to sit in one of the big chairs. O the inhumanity!

A few of the more prominent Musk critics are claiming merely to be upset at the prospect of wealthy individuals controlling speech. As more than one person has pointed out, this is a bizarre thing to be worrying about all of the sudden, since it’s been the absolute reality in America for a while. …

Probably the funniest effort along those lines was this passage:

We need regulation… to prevent rich people from controlling our channels of communication.

That was Ellen Pao, former CEO of Reddit, railing against Musk in the pages of… the Washington Post! A newspaper owned by Jeff Bezos complaining about rich people controlling “channels of communication” just might be the never-released punchline of Monty Python’s classic “Funniest Joke in the World” skit.

Many detractors went the Pao route, suddenly getting religion about concentrated wealth having control over the public discourse. In a world that had not yet gone completely nuts, that is probably where the outrage campaign would have ended, since the oligarchical control issue could at least be a legitimate one, if printed in a newspaper not owned by Jeff Bezos.

However, they didn’t stop there. Media figures everywhere are openly complaining that they dislike the Musk move because they’re terrified he will censor people less. Bullet-headed neoconservative fussbudget Max Boot was among the most emphatic in expressing his fear of a less-censored world:

I am frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter. He seems to believe that on social media anything goes. For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.

In every newsroom I’ve ever been around, there’s always one sad hack who’s hated by other reporters but hangs on to a job because he whispers things to management and is good at writing pro-war editorials or fawning profiles of Ari Fleischer or Idi Amin or other such distasteful media tasks. Even that person would never have been willing to publicly say something as gross as, “For democracy to survive, it needs more censorship”! A professional journalist who opposed free speech was not long ago considered a logical impossibility, because the whole idea of a free press depended upon the absolute right to be an unpopular pain in the ass.

Things are different now, of course, because the bulk of journalists no longer see themselves as outsiders who challenge official pieties, but rather as people who live inside the rope-lines and defend those pieties. I’m guessing this latest news is arousing special horror because the current version of Twitter is the professional journalist’s idea of Utopia: a place where Donald Trump doesn’t exist, everyone with unorthodox thoughts is warning-labeled (“age-restricted” content seems to be a popular recent scam), and the Current Thing is constantly hyped to the moronic max. The site used to be fun, funny, and a great tool for exchanging information. Now it feels like what the world would be if the eight most vile people in Brooklyn were put in charge of all human life, a giant, hyper-pretentious Thought-Starbucks.

My blue-checked friends in media worked very hard to create this thriving intellectual paradise, so of course they’re devastated to imagine that a single rich person could even try to walk in and upend the project. Couldn’t Musk just leave Twitter in the hands of responsible, speech-protecting shareholders like Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal? …

Even though it hasn’t happened yet, why wait to start comparing Musk’s Twitter takeover to the Fourth Reich? Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis of CUNY certainly thinks it isn’t too soon:

Today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany.

The most incredible reaction in my mind came not from a journalist per se, but former labor secretary Robert Reich. His Guardian piece, “Elon Musk’s vision for the internet is dangerous nonsense,” is a marvel of pretzel-logic, an example of what can happen to a smart person who thinks he’s in Plato’s cave when he’s actually up his own backside. The opening reads:

The Russian people know little about Putin’s war on Ukraine because Putin has blocked their access to the truth, substituting propaganda and lies.

Years ago, pundits assumed the internet would open a new era of democracy, giving everyone access to the truth. But dictators like Putin and demagogues like Trump have demonstrated how naive that assumption was.

Reich goes on to argue… well, he doesn’t actually argue, he just makes a series of statements that don’t logically follow one another, before dismounting into a remarkable conclusion:

Musk says he wants to “free” the internet. But what he really aims to do is make it even less accountable than it is now… dominated by the richest and most powerful people in the world, who wouldn’t be accountable to anyone for facts, truth, science or the common good.

That’s Musk’s dream. And Trump’s. And Putin’s. And the dream of every dictator, strongman, demagogue and modern-day robber baron on Earth. For the rest of us, it would be a brave new nightmare.

Reich starts by talking about how Vladimir Putin is cracking down using overt censorship, progresses to talking about how making the Internet less “accountable” is bad, then ends by saying Musk is like Putin, and Trump, and every evildoer on earth, again before Musk has even done anything at all. He may be trying to say that Musk could use algorithms to silently push reality in the direction he favors, but this is the exact opposite of Vladimir Putin passing laws outlawing certain kinds of speech. Any attempt to argue that dictators are also speech libertarians is automatically ridiculous.

More to the point, where has all this outrage about private control over speech been previously? I don’t remember people like Reich and Jarvis, or Parker Molloy, or Scott Dworkin, or Timothy O’Brien at Bloomberg (“Elon Musk’s Twitter Investment Could Be Bad News for Free Speech”), bemoaning the vast power over speech held by people like Sergei Brin, Larry Page, or even Jack Dorsey once upon a time. That’s because the Bluenoses in media and a handful of hand-wringers on the Hill successfully paper-trained all those other Silicon Valley heavyweights, convincing them to join on with their great speech-squelching project.

It’s become increasingly clear over the last six years that these people want it both ways. They don’t want to break up the surveillance capitalism model, or come up with a transparent, consistent, legalistic, fair framework for dealing with troublesome online speech. No, they actually want tech companies to remain giant black-box monopolies with opaque moderation systems, so they can direct the speech-policing power of those companies to desired political ends.

When someone like Reich says, “Billionaires like Musk have shown time and again they consider themselves above the law. And to a large extent, they are,” he’s talking about an authoritarian framework that already exists in the speech world, just with different billionaires at the helm. What’s got him cheesed off isn’t the concept of privatized civil liberties — we’re already there — but the idea that one particular billionaire might not be on board with the kinds of arbitrary corporate decisions Reich likes, like removing Trump (“necessary to protect American democracy,” he says).

When I first started to cover the content-moderation phenomenon back in 2018, I was repeatedly told by colleagues that I was worrying over trivialities, that there couldn’t possibly be any negative fallout to coordinated backroom deals to de-platform the likes of Alex Jones, or to the Senate demanding Facebook, Twitter, and Google start zapping more “Russian disinformation” accounts. Even when I pointed out that it wasn’t just right-wingers and Russians vanishing, but also Palestinian activists and police brutality sites and a growing number of small independent news outlets, most of my colleagues didn’t care. Because they were so sure they’d never be targeted, the credentialed media were mostly all for the most aggressive possible conception of “content moderation.”

It was beyond obvious that self-described progressives would eventually regret hounding people like Mark Zuckerberg to start getting into the editorial business, and that pushing Silicon Valley to take a bigger interest in controlling speech was flirting with disaster. Of course they would someday wake up to find these companies owned by people less sympathetic to their niche political snobbery, and be horrified, and wish they’d never urged virtually unregulated tech oligopolies to start meddling in the speech soup.

Now, here we are. To all those people who are flipping out and shuddering over the possibilities (CNBC: “If he owns the whole place…? The Orange man is probably going to be back!”), remember that you didn’t mind when other unaccountable tycoons started down this road. You cheered it on, in fact, and backlash from someone with different political opinions and real money was 100% predictable. This is the system you asked for. Buy the ticket, take the ride, you goofs!

I read a Facebook comment (which now I can’t find) that said he didn’t care what Musk’s politics are or how he would run Twitter if his bid is successful; the reaction from lefties was worth it. Collateral damage or creative destruction, if you will. That’s how I feel.

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