Friday neatly encapsulated what I still like about Twitter and what I’ve increasingly grown to hate at the service under its new and erratic management. I know which slice of the service I want to see prevail, but I increasingly doubt that will happen.
First, let’s cover the good side of Twitter. Friday afternoon, I tweeted out my confusion at seeing Twitter owner/overlord Elon Musk declare his intention to liberate 1.5 billion usernames that had been abandoned for years. Could there be that many abandoned accounts when Twitter reported only 237.8 million monetizable daily active users in its second quarter?
Seven minutes later, tech journalist Tom Maxwell replied that he’d heard former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo say on a podcast that 80 percent of new users abandoned it after a day. I asked if he happened to remember the name of the podcast, and about half an hour later he replied with a link to the podcast episode in which former exec Ryan Sarver (see, memory can lead any of us astray) said the service had already hit a billion abandoned accounts when he left in 2013.
Unexpected and fast enlightenment on a subject is always a delight, and Twitter remains remarkably effective at that.
Then came Friday’s night edition of Twitter Files, Musk’s attempt to smear the previous management’s content-moderation practices as an in-kind contribution to the Democratic Party. Matt Taibbi, one of a few writers to whom Musk has given vast access to internal documents and records, uncorked an overwrought, 67-tweet thread about the booting of President Trump from the platform after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that portrayed Trump as the real victim.
Taibbi’s unwillingness to note the essential context–that by repeatedly lying about election procedures, Trump was violating published rules in a way that would have gotten a less high-profile account booted a long time ago–makes this thread and all its screengrabs of Slack threads an infuriating read. Especially if you, like me, served as a poll worker in the 2020 election.
But Taibbi, like his Twitter Files collaborator Bari Weiss and his recent Twitter cheerleader Glenn Greenwald, seems to have made rejecting the Establishment Narrative part of a personal #brand. Even if that requires him to call a Trump tweet demanding that every mail-in ballot uncounted by the end of Election Day remain uncounted–thereby disenfranchising millions of Americans–“fairly anodyne.”
This thread and two earlier threads in this series–one Dec. 8 from Weiss, one Dec. 2 from Taibbi–have also revealed some interesting details about how content moderation decisions happen quickly behind the scenes, often on the basis of incomplete and fast-moving information, and how undocumented much of this corporate gear-grinding has been.
But as many others have noted, they don’t show a conspiracy afoot unless you think content moderation should parcel out equal pain on both parties. And that is an absurd expectation when so much of the GOP under Trump has bought into lies about elections, vaccines, climate change, trans people, all non-straight people, and so much else that have no comparable counterparts among Dems.
(I remain anxious to see party politics ease down to conversations about which problems actually require the government’s intervention and how to do that in the most efficient and effective manner.)
But because Twitter is also a context-destroying machine, and because Musk has been amplifying these alleged exposés to his nearly 121 million followers, I expect that many more people now believe this fraudulent depiction of how Twitter struggled to apply its published rules to an increasingly deranged president. And to keep its spaces palatable to the advertisers that keep it in business.
What must those advertisers now think about Musk ransacking Twitter and letting neo-Nazis, QAnon kooks, and Charlottesville and January 6 rioters back on the platform? And how do they feel about Musk’s most recent meltdowns, in which he’s lashed out at past Twitter employees for allegedly ignoring child sex abuse on the platform and then called Twitter “both a social media company and a crime scene”?
Musk may yet realize that he has a business to run, and that business is not providing “fan service for aggrieved conservatives who exist in the Fox News Extended Universe,” as George Washington University professor Dave Karpf tweeted Friday.
But Musk has a lot of money, even if the bank loans he took on to complete the Twitter purchase he spent months trying to wriggle out of leave his new property owing more than $1 billion a year in interest. He can probably afford to stew in his rapidly-curdling delusions for a while.