Can Elon Make Twitter Great Again? I Have My Doubts.
Before I launch into a detailed and possibly uncomfortable analysis, as someone who loves a good bit of trolling and hypocrite tears, I would like to formally put on record how much I have enjoyed the last 24 hours. Whatever comes of Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, he has managed to piss off all the right people and I’m here for it.
And, given the rather pessimistic title of this piece, I should say off the bat that I have many hopes for Musk’s takeover of Twitter. I am optimistic that:
He will reveal and end any shadowbanning and downranking of accounts
His opening of algorithms for public scrutiny will ensure the platform is more politically neutral
We will learn more about the coordination between Twitter and other Big Tech platforms
He will do his best to ensure the rules are enforced without political bias
He will approach problems that arise in the future from a position that is in favour of openness, transparency and free speech
When news of Elon Musk’s attempts to buy Twitter first broke a couple of weeks ago, I shared a fascinating thread by Yishan Wong, the former CEO of Reddit.
Before I go on, I should say that I disagree with some of the things Wong said, particularly in relation to political neutrality. This part of his argument was that both sides think they’re being censored because Twitter works for the other side, when the “reality” is that Twitter is neutral and is simply preventing bad behaviour (mobbing, spamming, abusive behaviour etc) by both sides. And since we all live in an echo chamber and only tend to see our own side of the censorship, we all think Twitter is biased against “our side”.
As we have seen in the last 24 hours, however, I think it’s clear that one side perceived Twitter as having their back and is now outraged at the idea of Twitter moving in the direction of less censorship, which suggests to me that deep down they always knew the scales were tipped in their favour.
With all that necessary throat-clearing done, the rest of Wong’s thread was extremely interesting. Too long and complex to summarise here, his central assertion was that Elon Musk would fail to make Twitter better and the diversion of his extraordinary problem-solving skills away from Tesla and SpaceX would leave us all worse off as a result.
Wong’s argument, which he reinforced in a private exchange with me, is that while free speech is a desirable, laudable and realistic goal for society, a gigantic social network is incapable of delivering this because of how human beings inevitably behave on social media and the nature of the platforms themselves.
This is an extremely uncomfortable idea for someone like me who thinks the freedom to speak your mind is not only an essential right but the very foundation of everything we value about our societies today: prosperity, scientific progress, democracy and, of course, freedom from Government tyranny (you’ll see why I feel so strongly about this when my book is out in July).
But despite the discomfort, I did find this element of Wong’s thread persuasive, not least because I would be lying if I said I don’t have my own moments of doubt. My TRIGGERnometry co-host, Francis Foster, and I were recently invited to speak to students at Eton about journalism, freedom of speech and the future of communication. During the Q&A, I shared my concern that we’ll never have genuine freedom of speech on the Internet because the social media platforms have become too powerful for the people in power to leave them to their own devices.
Five centuries ago, the invention of the printing press fuelled the Renaissance and powered the Scientific Revolution but it also gave an amplified voice to fringe views, sparked centuries of religious war and made possible the murderous revolutions of the 18th century.
Imagine you were one of the people whose power, wealth and very survival depended on preventing the spread of corrupting “misinformation” via the printing press. And imagine that rather than needing to physically seize and destroy the offending material and the equipment used to produce it, all you had to do instead was to press a few buttons to prevent these marginal voices from wreaking havoc on society.
Better still, what if you, Louis XVI, could stop France from descending into the chaos of the French Revolution and keep your head by simply tweaking the algorithm which controlled the publications the “plebs” had access to? Would it not be the “responsible” thing to do to stop bloodshed, murder and your own demise?
I am not clever enough to know how precisely this awful burden of responsibility will manifest itself with Elon Musk but I am also not stupid enough to pretend it won’t.
None of us can predict the future but all we need for this thought experiment is a single example from our very recent past.
Most people would agree that it is not the job of social media platforms to control the speech of elected officials yet on 8 January 2021, Twitter banned President Trump from their platform. Their argument was that his Tweets were causing real world harm at a time of extreme tensions in the most powerful country in the world. Would it not be the “responsible” thing to do to stop bloodshed, murder and the demise of your own country and your business?
I did not see the capital riot on Jan 6 as an insurrection and while I found much of Trump’s rhetoric during that period extremely uncomfortable, in my view, banning a sitting President set a precedent that must never, ever be repeated. It is likely that Elon Musk’s view of this incident is similar.
But having principles and acting on them is not the same thing.
It’s easy to be a free speech absolutist until serious men walk into your office to tell you speech on your platform is killing people or ushering in a dictatorship. Sam Harris famously demanded and celebrated the banning of Donald Trump from Twitter.
How would you react when people you deeply respect and take guidance from told you that your failure to violate your moral principles is a danger to humanity? How will Elon Musk?
I don’t know who Elon takes advice from and I don’t know what his reaction to that advice will be. Do you?
Even if he did insist on letting the chips fall where they may in a situation like that of January 2021, I don’t know the forces that would be brought to bear on him or what his personal vulnerabilities are (and we all have them). Do you?
I don’t know that the police, the FBI and the army will stand idly by as
what they perceive as a revolution is orchestrated on Elon’s platform with what the media will describe as his “tacit consent”. Do you?
And so, while I am hopeful that Musk can tinker with the algorithms, reorientate the platform towards political neutrality and improve transparency, I await the push-comes-to-shove moments (which are definitely coming) with considerable trepidation.
This ain’t over.