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Do we need more words on this?
As you no doubt know, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, and other companies, decided he should own his favorite megaphone, Twitter. And in a week - for 43 Billion dollars and a bunch of lawyers and bankers pulling all-nighters - it was done. There has been much already written about this, so it is probably doubtful I can add any insight. But social media has such an impact on our students, it is important that we understand as much as we can about it.
Musk’s expressed reason for doing this was that he wants Twitter to be more open, less moderated, more welcoming of “free speech.” He believes a democracy thrives on unfettered speech, and so he wants to change some things about the content moderation at Twitter. But he has not been especially clear - besides the free speech thing - about what those changes might be.
Here’s my take. It is probably unfair, but here goes: I think car manufacturers are catching up to Tesla, Bezos already caught up to him on flinging themselves into space for no apparent reason, so… what could he do that would return him to the center of the conversation again? Buy Twitter.
He did not buy Twitter to destroy it. Some people think he’s the smartest guy in the room. I am not convinced of that, but he is not insane. Putting up a huge amount of his Tesla stock was not taken lightly. 43B is a lot of money - even to a billionaire. So he must believe it is a good investment, and that he can make money on it. He probably believes there is an opportunity for Twitter to make more money than it currently does. More advertising, perhaps. That sounds like an improvement. Sure.
Here is the thing about free speech. It has to have limits. Unfettered speech leads to chaos. There is the famous case of yelling “Fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. The law says you can’t do that, because it will cause a panic, and people will get hurt. That is a limit that makes sense. It preserves society to have guardrails. It is just really hard to reach consensus on those guardrails, and - guess what? - it always has been. Social media has shown, yet again, what a struggle this is, and has so far fallen short in myriad ways.
So to say “Twitter needs more free speech” is either a threat (some employees are scared for their jobs), a marketing ploy (“See, I’m going to free Twitter!”), or a political move (“Bring back people who’ve been banned!”). It is not something that can be expressed with precision. When pressed, Musk said, essentially, he wants Twitter to be an open forum “within the bounds of the law.”
So, as the law says you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, there have to be some guardrails. So Musk only wants guardrails that are codified in laws? Not set by a committee inside of Twitter, unanswerable to the public. I see the point. But he has more faith in the legislative process, and how insulated it is from monied influence, than much evidence suggests.
And let us never forget that for many people - particularly women and people of color - Twitter has been used in horrific and offensive ways. Perhaps a well-protected white male billionaire isn’t aware that Twitter has made some strides (but still not enough) in reducing hate speech on its platform? Or would he say that such speech still needs to be moderated because it is outside the bounds of law? Or does he think we should do something that would allow more of it??
So to me, this all sounds pretty messy. A billionaire wanting to be the center of attention again, with vague ideas about moderation, a misplaced faith in the legislative process, and an unclear idea of the law of free speech.
On the other hand, like Facebook (which I have never been on - I know, what an admission!) Twitter is, for many of its users, a self-selected small group of like minded people who say many of the same things to each other day after day. Sorry - that’s what it looks like to me. Mostly, I don’t play - it is such a massive time suck. (Although, I have to admit, I do love Bodega Cats).
But I know Twitter is also much bigger than those small communities, and many people look to it for news, and it can be distorted and full of non-sensical memes, threatening to minorities, and this is all genuinely and seriously troubling. But here is where I offer my life-long faith about technology of all kinds, drawn from history: we eventually figure it out. The long view is that while technology initially brings bad things to the fore-front, it eventually - sometimes with the help of legislation - gets it figured out, sort of. It takes a long time, and there is much gnashing of teeth that has to go on. But we eventually figure out how to preserve the good parts, and limit the bad parts, and both end up being done imperfectly. We won’t necessarily be better for it, and plenty of people will be unhappy, but eventually, it will become the accepted way we do things.
Whether Elon Musk will help that process along with Twitter, or slow it down, remains to be seen.
Letters of Recommendation
Travel shows have helped many of us through the pandemic of limited travel. I recommended one to you last week - Barack Obama’s Our Great National Parks. This week, a much sillier one: Somebody Feed Phil, on Netflix. Taped in pre-pandemic times, he finds great guides and eats great food. And the part near the end of each show where he brings in his elderly father (who is back in New York) over FaceTime, and tells him what he has been seeing - well, it’s adorable.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from the poet Mary Oliver:
That's the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”