Elon Musk completed his acquisition of Twitter last week. This process was accompanied by a fascinating public process, which reveals how politicized and polarized American social media have become. We have two factions competing for power; one has captured the Democratic party, the other has captured the Republican Party. The big question animating this competition right now is whether Musk’s acquisition will help one side or the other. Content moderation policy, in the U.S., is just a proxy war between the Red team and the Blue team.
The Musk acquisition of Twitter is an important move in this game. What makes it interesting is that it doesn’t look as if there will be a partisan winner. Instead, Musk seems to be trying to find a center that works for both while isolating the extremists in either faction – a good thing. He has promised to liberalize Twitter’s content moderation policies but also to maintain standards in place to keep it from becoming dominated by ugly, conflict-promoting confrontations. He is a private businessman, a tech innovator of the type that is often associated with the Republican right, yet he’s stepping into an environment that has been dominated by the left – the California-based social media policy mavens. The biggest decision Musk as controller must make is whether Donald Trump is allowed back into this public space. That will be fun.
It’s clear that control of Twitter has become a matter of politics as well as business. We have foreign governments wagging their fingers about it. We have rumors of CFIUS reviews being conducted about it (Blue team really playing dirty here). We even have professional political consultants manipulating the media to shape the debate. A widely shared tweet announces a made-to-order study from a consulting firm masquerading as a research institute, which associates a (500%-!!?!) surge in the use of the N-word because of Musk’s one day-old ownership. One is tempted to ask whether the N-words detected came from white racists or black Hip Hop artists. Either way, it’s great to see how fast they produced that study – one day! – as commercialized social science takes on commercial media.
There’s no business like show business. The circus-like spectacle of the struggle for Twitter spontaneously generated its own clown act. Two random guys got their 15 minutes of fame by hanging out in front of the Twitter building with cardboard boxes, pretending to be laid off Twitter employees. One’s name was Ligma – get it?. The entire American media system went to work in the service of their joke: cybernetic pranksters of the highest order. (But can they monetize that?)
Why is Twitter-control so political? Because (some believe) it’s like gaining control of a global newspaper, only instead of managing the voices of a small professional staff and reaching millions, you are managing the voices of hundreds of millions of people and reaching billions. You are the editor of the voice of the people. And to some, this content management capacity also comes with the power to manage the behavior of the people as well.
Truth be told, people are vastly over-estimating the importance of Twitter-control. It is one source of news and information in a very broad digital and media ecosystem. Its user base is fairly narrow, mainly the academic and professional chattering classes, the kind of people who used to read newspapers. Its conversations in the US are dominated by one faction, though that kind of dominance varies from country to country. But on the whole Twitter maintains a robust, many-sided public discourse. It is sensitive to abuse of its platform but hasn’t been overly restrictive. It’s doing fine, assuming Musk’s crazy debt load and overpayment doesn’t get it into financial trouble.
In principle. Musk could disrupt this content mod equilibrium unilaterally. He shouldn’t, and he probably won’t. Ham-handed intervention might make things better but would be more likely to make things worse. No one wants any more partisan meddling with the public dialogue, from either the right or the left.
Musk immediately made a Zuckerberg-style concession to his critics. He said he would appoint a Council for content moderation. Twitter will have its own version of the Facebook Oversight Board. In one day, he destroys the scare story circulated by his opponents that he was going to abolish all content moderation. He then undermined this promise by shooting out some breezy tweets promising absolutions to people who sinned under the previous regime. Which is nice for his popularity on Twitter, but if he keeps this up (as some astute observers noticed) it puts him personally in everyone’s target for pressure about content moderation. In the short term, the real test of this new ownership will come when Musk – or the nice, sheltering Council he will set up – has to make a decision about Donald Trump. That is the topic for another blog. I just hope Musk is slow and deliberate in how he handles this, because a wrong move there can bring down the whole house.
If he gets through that milestone, Musk needs to usher in a period of tolerance and de-escalation in content moderation policy. People on both sides of the divide are freighting social media editorial policy with the weight of the world. Calm down. There are other places to look. People can read, watch and decide for themselves. If you don’t think they can, don’t call yourself a democrat or a defender of democracy. Go right ahead and join the autocrats.