Sticking Twitter in the freezer

Photo (cc) 2014 by Monteregina

When making ethical decisions, we all have to decide where we’re going to draw the line. I’ve been watching Elon Musk’s behavior closely since he purchased Twitter in late October and thinking about where I ought to draw my own line.

It’s different for everyone, and I’m not going to criticize anyone else’s judgment. For Jelani Cobb, it came when Musk restored Donald Trump’s Twitter account, which had been locked because he incited violence during the Jan. 6 insurrection. I semi-shrugged my shoulders. No, I wasn’t thrilled that Musk had brought back Trump and his merry band of Q-adjacent loons, including the loathsome Marjorie Taylor Greene. But my goodness, have you seen the internet? Twitter’s a big place, and I didn’t see any particular reason why we couldn’t all co-exist in our own spaces.

Then there are the deeply stupid “Twitter Files,” promoted by house journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss, internal documents given to them by Musk that show evidence of some mistakes in moderation but that mainly demonstrate Twitter was attempting to enforce its publicly stated policies about hate speech, incitement and misinformation. There’s some big-time hyperventilating going on about one of those mistakes — the decision to suppress the New York Post’s story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. But that decision was reversed within 24 hours, and it’s worth noting that it was based on an actual policy not to share hacked information. This is a scandal? (Brian Fung of CNN has more.)

What has brought me to this moment, though, is Musk’s own behavior. In late November, Twitter announced that it would no longer take action against misinformation about COVID-19, in accordance with the Chief Twit’s wishes. And then, within the past few days, came the end of the line, at least for me. First Musk attacked Yoel Roth, his former head of trust and safety. Musk tweeted out a short section of Roth’s Ph.D. dissertation to make it appear, falsely, that Roth supports the sexualization of children. “Looks like Yoel is arguing in favor of children being able to access adult Internet services in his PhD thesis,” Musk tweeted. (If you’re interested in the particulars, see this piece at Business Insider by Sawdah Bhaimiya.)

Then, on Sunday, Musk tweeted, “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” and followed that up with a meme from some fantasy movie (“Lord of the Rings”?) of Fauci whispering in President Biden’s ear, “Just one more lockdown my king.” (Details from Jesse O’Neill in the New York Post.)

At what point does indifference morph into complicity? What we have now is the head of Twitter, with 121 million followers, tweeting out messages that are putting actual people and their families at risk. In what should have been a surprise to no one, Roth has had to flee his home and go into hiding, according to Donie Sullivan of CNN. Fauci, as you no doubt know, has been facing death threats throughout the pandemic, and Musk’s amplifying a bogus call to arrest and prosecute him could make matters worse. I realized that was my line, and Musk had crossed it.

I’ve downloaded my Twitter archive and will no longer be posting there except to help those who contact me and are looking for an alternative. I’ll set my account to private as soon as I’ve tweeted this out. I considered deleting my account altogether, but who knows what’s going to happen? Maybe next week Musk will enter a monastery and donate Twitter to the Wikimedia Foundation. Yes, that’s pretty unlikely — as unlikely as one of Musk’s SpaceX rocket ships safely taking you to Mars and back. For the moment, though, I don’t want to do anything that I can’t reverse if conditions change.

This was not an easy decision. I’ve been a heavy Twitter user since I joined in 2008. I’ve got more than 19,000 followers, and I know that not all of them are going to move to other platforms. But here are some alternatives below. You might also want to check out this roundup from Laurel Wamsley at NPR.

  • If you’re not doing so already, you can sign up to receive new posts to Media Nation by email. It’s free. Just scroll down the right-hand rail on the homepage, enter your email address and click on “Follow.”
  • The most promising Twitter alternative is Mastodon, which is a decentralized network of networks that — once you get past the clumsiness of figuring out how to sign up — works very much like Twitter. I joined in early November, and more than 1,300 people are following me there already. I’m at @dankennedy_nu@journa.host. There are various guides on how to get started. Here’s one from CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis.
  • If Mastodon is the earthy-crunchy alternative to Twitter, then Post News is the corporate version. Like Mastodon, Post News is promoting itself as a civil environment free of abuse and trolling. I know that some Mastodon folks are criticizing Post News for being just another venture-capital play that may eventually come to as bad an end as Twitter. They’re not wrong. For now, though, I’m looking at Mastodon as a place where I can connect mainly with journalists, academics and the extremely online, and then mosey over to Post News to engage with normal people. The interface is simple and attractive; the site is still in beta and will continue to improve. You can follow me at dankennedy_nu.
  • Let’s not forget that Facebook isn’t going anywhere. If we don’t know each other, please don’t send me a friend request; follow my public feed instead. Here’s where you can find me.
  • I’m also on LinkedIn and Instagram, but I prefer not to use those to engage the way I do on the other platforms.

There are a million takes on what has happened to Twitter that I could point you to, and believe me, there are very few that are worth reading. But this one is worthwhile. It’s by Ezra Klein, and he questions whether any of these platforms, even the nice new ones, are doing us any good.

Finally, what we need more than anything on Mastodon and Post News is some diversity, which, at its pre-Musk best, is what was great about Twitter. Black Twitter needs a home, and I really miss my non-Trumpy conservative followers and the less politically engaged. I invite you all to take the plunge. Join one of the alternatives. Cut down or eliminate your Twitter activity. And discover the joys of de-Muskifying your life.

Why it matters: Tracking the media’s dismissal of the Wuhan lab theory

Illustration by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Previously published at GBH News.

Howard Kurtz was in high dudgeon. The Fox News media critic opened his Sunday program, “Media Buzz,” this past weekend by blasting the press for dismissing the possibility that COVID-19 had its origins in a leak from a lab in Wuhan, China. That possibility is suddenly very much on the table, and President Joe Biden has ordered an investigation.

“It was a whack-job theory, right? It was Looney Tunes. It was trashy Trump talk, surely not worthy of serious journalistic attention,” Kurtz said. He added: “If President Trump said it, the media dismissed it. If conservatives embraced it, liberal pundits mocked it. This just speaks volumes about our media establishment. Now, nothing’s been proven, but the circumstantial evidence is growing. Will there be any soul-searching about what amounted to media malpractice? Don’t hold your breath.”

Kurtz’s monologue oversimplified what we know, but he was largely correct. In fact, the media sloppily mashed together two different stories about Wuhan — a legitimate line of inquiry that the virus had accidentally escaped from the lab and a conspiracy theory that Chinese scientists at the lab were developing COVID-19 as a bioweapon.

As a result, with just a few lonely exceptions, the mainstream press over the course of the past 15 months has dismissed any suggestion that COVID-19 came from the lab as so ludicrous that it was unworthy of coverage. The media’s credibility is taking yet another hit — this one entirely legitimate — at a moment when it is already at an all-time low. And their “shameful dereliction of duty,” as conservative Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen put it, may make it that much harder to persuade Trump supporters to get over their skepticism about vaccinations.

The media’s dismissive attitude toward the lab-leak theory was grounded in their distrust — often warranted — of anything that came out of President Donald Trump’s mouth. After all, during the course of the pandemic Trump dismissed the seriousness of COVID-19 repeatedly, pushed unproven, potentially dangerous remedies like hydroxychloroquine, and even suggested at one memorable press briefing that injecting bleach might help.

So when Trump would use racist terms like the “China virus” in referring to COVID-19, the media were already primed to accept the consensus view touted by Dr. Anthony Fauci and the World Health Organization that the disease had, in fact, jumped from bats to humans in China and from there spread throughout the world.

Indeed, the possibility that COVID-19 had its origins in a Wuhan lab came to be seen as so thoroughly discredited that Facebook began taking down posts about it on the grounds that it was misinformation. The social-media giant reversed itself recently.

A few journalists, including Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, kept the lab-leak theory alive. Rogin exploded on Saturday with a bitter tweet complaining that most mainstream reporters “actively crapped all over it for over a year while pretending to be objective.”

The tide finally started to turn when a pair of former New York Times reporters, first Nicholas Wade and then Don McNeil, wrote several weeks ago that they had come to regard the possibility of a lab leak as being as plausible as the bats-to-humans theory.

“I now agree with Nick’s central conclusion: We still do not know the source of this awful pandemic. We may never know,” McNeil wrote. “But the argument that it could have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a sister lab in Wuhan has become considerably stronger than it was a year ago, when the screaming was so loud that it drowned out serious discussion.”

Matthew Yglesias, a prominent member of the Substackerati, has offered what I think is the most useful and detailed analysis of what went wrong from a journalistic point of view. He traces much of it to inept reporting about U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, who made some provocative statements early on about the possibility of a lab leak. Cotton is well-known as a China hawk, and pretty soon the media were falsely claiming that Cotton had touted the bioweapons fantasy, starting with a sensationalized account in Business Insider and then spreading from Politico and into the mainstream.

“At this point,” Yglesias wrote, “Cotton had achieved what’s really the greatest achievement possible for a Republican Party politician — he was unfairly maligned by the MSM.”

Also getting at an important part of what went wrong is Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, who points to Twitter as the place where mainstream journalists reinforced their views, making it that much harder to re-examine the lab-leak theory.

“Media coverage of the lab-leak hypothesis was a debacle, and a major source of that failure was groupthink cultivated on Twitter,” Chait said, calling the platform “a petri dish of tribalism and confirmation bias.”

So where does all this leave us? I’ll end where I began — with Howard Kurtz. Yes, he’s a conservative, and yes, he’s on Fox News. But he’s also a serious observer of the media who spent years at The Washington Post and CNN. His analysis can’t be easily dismissed. And I think he’s correct that animus toward Trump played a huge role in the media’s consensus that the lab-leak explanation for COVID was propaganda put out by the Trumpist right to deflect attention away from Trump’s numerous failures.

There’s a context that can’t be ignored, of course. Trump lied constantly. His horrendous mismanagement of the pandemic might go down as the greatest failure of any American president — unless you want to count his failure to abide by the results of a democratic election. It’s not difficult to see why journalists decided to accept Fauci’s word on the origins of the pandemic.

But they were wrong. The reality is that we don’t know where COVID-19 came from. The bats-to-humans explanation might be right. The lab possibility might be right. There’s a good chance that we’ll never know.

The whole point of journalism is to seek truth and report it. We failed to do that in this instance. And it ought to remind us of why we need to go about our jobs with humility and an open mind.