Back in the day, when Twitter was in its infancy, before Donald Trump had even tweeted his first racist birtherism attack, John Temple — editor at the time of the late, lamented Rocky Mountain News — called the troops to a staff meeting to say that Twitter should now be part of our professional lives.
He wanted each of us to post X number of tweets daily. I can’t remember what X equaled; it was maybe three, maybe more. As I say, it was a long time ago.
What I do recall perfectly, though, as in all the new things journalists were being asked to do in reaction to the Internet, the idea of tweeting — which, at the time, sounded like a distraction from actual news reporting — seemed to be just one more threat to the way we’d always done things. In other words, the reactions from the reporters in the room generally landed somewhere between this is a stupid idea and this is a really stupid idea.
And then I articulated what must be the most wrong-headed opinion of my career — one I was lucky enough to share only with a few people in the newsroom — that Twitter was a fad and would largely disappear from our lives within six months. I mean, since I can write 900 words while holding my breath, what could possibly be the lasting attraction of a tweeted message consisting of no more than 140 characters — now, as you know, pushed up to 280? How could unreported tweets — requiring maybe 10 seconds of thought — threaten reporting done by, well, the professionals?
It didn’t take the $44 billion with which Elon Musk is buying Twitter to convince me I was wrong, badly wrong, absurdly wrong, a complete-misreading-of-the-zeitgeist wrong. And that the possibility of a platform allowing people to work around the so-called “gatekeepers” of the news might even be a good thing.
I know that’s old news, but since I’m about to predict that Musk’s purchase of Twitter is a likely disaster, I thought you should know the context.
No one can deny the power of social media these days — from Facebook to TikTok to YouTube to, well, you know the rest — and the idea that many of these markets are controlled by the richest people in the world seems, at least to me and to Elizabeth Warren, a major problem. Musk’s problem with Twitter is not that it’s a font of misinformation and disinformation, but that it is doing too much self-regulating and not trusting enough in Adam Smith’s so-called invisible hand — which on Twitter is just as often a quite visible, Will Smith-like slap to the face — to do its work in the marketplace.
But a marketplace for whom?
This is a particularly tricky question, especially for those who have a close working relationship with free speech and the First Amendment. Musk, the owner of Tesla and SpaceX and apparently now the richest man in the world, does say he wants to be rid of the scammers and spammers and bots and other fake users, but doesn’t mind tweeting — as he did — that COVID shelter-in-place rules were “fascist” and that they “forcibly imprison” people in their homes. That’s free speech, which no one should even consider banning, but it’s also the kind of toxic speech that can make social media such a cesspool..
When Twitter and Facebook banned, say, Donald Trump after January 6, is that helping to create what Twitter has been calling a more “healthy conversation” online or is it monopolistic corporate censorship? And if it’s both — which is probably the case — what to do about it?
Twitter has been proactive of late — but probably not nearly active enough — moderating comments, which has led to banning people like Trump and labeling some false and/or misleading tweets as false and/or misleading. Which leads to the obvious question: Who is Twitter to make that determination?
Musk hasn’t outlined his plans since the announced purchase, but he has been more than critical of Twitter’s policies. You can take a look at some of Musk’s own tweets to get an idea of where he’s coming from. Or you could trust that when Tucker Carlson and Marjorie Taylor Greene both say Musk’s takeover is a good thing, you might want to think twice about it.
Some of the highlights of Musk’s Twitter history — he has 83 million followers — include calling a man who helped rescue kids from a cave in Thailand a “pedo guy,” tweeting out misinformation about COVID-19, and maybe most infamously comparing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (in a since-deleted tweet) to Hitler.
“Any time somebody says free speech, it always means free speech for the powerful. It does not mean free speech for the less powerful,” Leslie Miley, a former Twitter engineering manager who started its product safety and security team and left the company in 2015, told CNN. “(Musk) says he wants to make it a free speech platform. What he wants is a platform to say what he wants — and wants other people like him to say what they want — without any accountability.”
By most accounts, Twitter is dominated by liberal users over conservatives by something like 2 to 1. But the most famous Twitter account, of course, belonged to one Donald Trump, who, it’s fair to say, rode the Twitter machine and cable TV news to the presidency.
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When asked if he’d go back to Twitter if invited — as expected — Trump has said he’s sticking with his own (not very successful) Twitter alternative called Truth Social, but many of his advisers and many of his non-advisers doubt very much that he’ll be able to resist making a triumphant Twitter return.
There’s a much-discussed piece by NYU social psychology professor Jonathan Haidt in the Atlantic with this headline: Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.”
The unsurprising culprit, Haidt says, is social media. But more than just social media, Haidt specifically cites Facebook’s “share” and Twitter’s “retweet” buttons as a leading cause in the hyper-polarization of American politics, in which magnified online voices can, at least in part, form their own communities. I don’t agree with all of Haidt’s points — I’m certain, just as one example, that polarized America was in evidence long before Twitter’s retweet button — but the article is well worth reading.
It predates by a few weeks Musk’s takeover of Twitter. But it does explain why social media’s role in diminishing faith in American institutions and eroding a common belief in at least some critical points of the America story is such a danger to democracy.
Read the piece and you can’t help but understand how someone like Musk, who plans to take Twitter private, who believes in an unfettered, unmoderated free-speech marketplace, can only make matters worse.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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