It's been an eventful weekend in Muskland, and as usual every act boils down to Elon Musk making some new attempt to make Twitter worse. Say what you want about Musk, but the creativity of his approach is impressive; the man keeps inventing new ways to make Twitter worth less than it was the day before. Could you do that? No, probably not. Even more impressive is Musk's creativity in inventing new disasters for Twitter that don't involve white supremacists or Nazi sympathizers.
The big news, or what was supposed to be big news until it flopped, was Musk's release of internal Twitter communications that showed employees agonizing over the company's October 2020 decision to block a New York Post story in which the Post claimed it had obtained access to—insert drumroll here—"Hunter Biden's laptop." In a fairly interminable Twitter thread, former big-name journalist turned Substacker Matt Taibbi shared snippets of the internal debate that were provided to him by Musk.Campaign Action
The big news, as Taibbi would have it, was that this internal debate existed; we already know, however, that Twitter would soon reverse its decision and that the company saw this particular episode as an unforced error on its part. What Taibbi (who is not a credible voice on these matters) glosses over are the reasons why Twitter, along with nearly every other major non-Rupert Murdoch-owned news outlet, was so wary of the Post's October "surprise." The news that the contents of a laptop belonging to "Hunter Biden" had somehow been delivered to Rudy Giuliani and other pro-Trump provocateurs was enough to cause skepticism of itself, given that Giuliani was embroiled in a years-long effort to manufacture a new pro-Russia hoax that would claim that it was Russia's enemy Ukraine and U.S. Democratic figures who were the true villains behind the Russian government's interventions on Trump's behalf in the 2016 presidential elections. The FBI had even warned Twitter beforehand that there was reason to believe a Russia-backed disinformation campaign targeting Hunter Biden, specifically, was in the works. The Post refused to provide evidence of its claims to more reputable media outlets, and many observers inside and outside Twitter indeed saw all the makings of a Giuliani-backed, possibly Russian-backed election eve hoax.
If it wasn't a hoax, new factors came into play: Was the laptop's data stolen, and would publishing information from a stolen device constitute a crime? What evidence could the Post provide that even if the data was genuine, it hadn't been altered between the time it left Hunter Biden's possession and, through a series of suspect events, landed in the Post's possession? (And, it turns out, the data had indeed been altered.)
We still don't have solid answers to any of it, but the internal Twitter debate was initially premised on suspicions that the Post's "laptop" story stood good chance of either being a Giuliani-tied hoax or the product of a criminal data hack. Twitter later reevaluated those odds and reversed itself, but if you were to ask anyone not on the Trump campaign's personal go-to lists whether or not they could vouch for a story that seemed to be pulled quite directly from the same Giuliani-promoted anti-Ukraine propaganda efforts that led to Donald Trump's first impeachment trial, you can begin to understand why Twitter's trust and safety teams were falling over themselves to determine whether the notoriously sensationalist Post had just willingly fallen for a hoax or, worse from Twitter's standpoint, were abetting a crime.
All of this is fairly interesting from a content moderation standpoint ... and that's about it. For a thread exploring just what it does and doesn't mean, however, you can try here.
It also can't be overlooked that a very great deal of the controversy revolves around conservatives wanting to expose pornographic images of Hunter Biden found on the "laptop," in the name of constitutional free speech or somesuch. Revenge porn is not, however, generally considered free speech. Nor do we have any concrete explanation for why the crowd currently beside themselves with theories about "groomers" continues to be so fired up in their demands that they be able to post images of penises, though the Jordan-Gaetz wing of the party could probably shed some light on that for us and will no doubt make it their mission to do so whether we want them to or not.
Alternatively you can do what Donald Trump Jr. did: Snort a hell of a lot of something and melt the absolute bejeebers down because being able to expose private information and images of a politician's grown-ass adult son is the most important issue of our modern era:
It's not clear Uday here is really thinking through the consequences of his assertions that probing the private life of a prominent American politician's drug-fueled failson is absolutely something that must be done, but if that clip is any indication he won't be able to think through such things until he gets three full days of sleep and at least a few bags of IV fluid.
The biggest takeaway from the story, however, might be its impact on Twitter itself. In a wide-ranging Twitter Spaces Q&A session featuring a vaudevillian cast of supporting characters, Elon Musk claimed he has given full access to internal Twitter emails and documents to Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and to at least one other person.
Musk's goal appears to be to hunt for justification for his claims that Twitter has acted to "give preference to left wing candidates" here and abroad; in order to find such evidence, Musk is relying on at least two would-be investigators who have focused their current careers on making such claims.
Whether you work for Twitter or simply use the platform, Musk has now demonstrated that he's willing to publicly release your work for the purposes of backing his own conservative agenda.
That's going to be an existential problem—literally—for protesters in other countries who have used Twitter to organize and to evade government speech restrictions. If Musk is willing to open up private employee communications in order to target, by name, employees and groups who he believes favor the "left," will the Musk-led company be similarly eager to expose the direct messages of those who have run afoul of conservative Saudi and Iranian regimes? And what of Ukraine, where Twitter is a dominant means of tracking—often anonymously—both military movements and likely war crimes?
Can U.S. journalists themselves trust that Musk will not personally take an interest in their own direct messages on the social network, or release those private messages if he believes they show "bias" against his own friends and allies?
Musk's apparent move to provide anti-left "investigators" with years of internal employee records goes beyond making Twitter a more dodgy place for advertisers and for attention-grabbing celebrities and journalists. It demonstrates Twitter to be a now inherently unsafe place for anyone who might someday run afoul of Musk and his personal agenda. It wipes out Twitter as an organizing tool—unless, of course, you're a white supremacist, neo-Nazi sympathizer, crypto scammer, conservative propagandist, or other Musk ally.
Yes, that brings us to the final story of the weekend: Musk's order to reinstate celebrity train wreck Kanye West, even though West had been suspended from Twitter for antisemitic statements, ended precisely how everyone but Musk thought it would after Musk was again forced to suspend West after West tweeted, in the immediate aftermath of an Alex Jones appearance in which he praised Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, an image that merged the Star of David with the Nazi swastika.
Because Musk continues to know absolutely nothing about anything when it comes to running a social media network, First Amendment-thumping conman Musk falsely claimed he was obliged to suspend West because showing the image was a violation of American law. This is an outrageously false statement, and one that proves Musk to be an absolute buffoon when it comes to interpreting "free speech" rights or anything else.
It does, however, hint at yet another way Musk may be getting Twitter into very hot regulatory waters. Displaying Nazi symbols is not illegal in the United States, but it can be illegal in Germany. As an international company, Twitter must navigate an ever-bubbling stew of international regulations, and must now do so despite Musk's removal of most of the staff responsible for knowing those regulations and abiding by them.
There's no question that West tweeted the symbol as an intentional nod to Nazis, but whether that specific image would run afoul of German law is unclear. What's considerably more dangerous to Musk is his own order that previously banned hate accounts, including neo-Nazi figures, be unbanned. There appear to be around 12,000 suspended accounts so far reactivated, including QAnon hoaxers, spam accounts, "adult content" distributors, and the heads of several notorious white supremacist groups.
At the same time, Twitter moderation is grappling, poorly, with far-right and fascist attempts to get anti-fascist watchdog accounts banned en masse by flooding Twitter with false reports targeting those users. The far-right may not need help, however, given that Musk himself has been publicly asking far-right figures to provide him with lists of accounts they believe should be suspended.
Oh—and in the meantime, the re-launch of "Twitter Blue" remains stymied by rampant identity theft concerns and now, a Musk-led attempt to dodge Apple App Store fees.
So there's where things stand now. Twitter is suspending watchdog accounts that report on the doings of extremist far-right groups, a far-right campaign that is successful in large part because Twitter now doesn't have enough moderators to police against the gaming of their systems. Musk himself is publicly appealing to extremist figures to report their enemies. And Musk is releasing internal Twitter communications to a handpicked list of right-leaning investigators in a move that is already resulting in the far-right targeting of Twitter employees who made (or didn't make) decisions that Musk personally suspects to have been motivated by hostility towards the right.
Whether it's time to leave Twitter, at least for the moment, is up to you. But know the platform is now inherently "unsafe" in that Musk has proven willing to use his ownership to selectively leak whatever he personally believes might provide him with an advantage. In the meantime the question of Twitter's short-term viability is entirely out of our hands; Musk is on a collision course with European regulators, with the Federal Trade Commission, and with the site's own teetering stability.
With the reinstatement of high-profile hate accounts and new warnings from federal officials predicting that new Twitter-published hate speech will lead to extremist violence, it's now impossible to name any Musk action that hasn't had the immediate result of making Twitter less profitable, less reliable, and far more dangerous.
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