By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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Three for Friday

As social-media sharing continues to deteriorate, I am posting more links here for the benefit of Media Nation regulars. Here are three must-reads for your Friday morning:

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Threads may be a better place (for now) than X/Twitter, but let’s not get too excited

These days I do most of my microblogging (now there’s a blast from the past) at Threads, the Meta-owned Twitter alternative that is moving ahead of Bluesky and Mastodon, if not ahead of Twitter itself. Threads is filled with self-congratulatory posts about how nice everyone is along with occasional criticism of people for not walking away completely from Elon Musk, who has transformed X/Twitter from the hellsite it already was into something even worse.

Well, lest we forget, here’s the top to Brian Fung’s CNN story on the latest in a lawsuit brought against Meta by Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell:

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has personally and repeatedly thwarted initiatives meant to improve the well-being of teens on Facebook and Instagram, at times directly overruling some of his most senior lieutenants, according to internal communications made public as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the company.

The newly unsealed communications in the lawsuit — filed originally by Massachusetts last month in a state court — allegedly show how Zuckerberg ignored or shut down top executives, including Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri and President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg, who had asked Zuckerberg to do more to protect the more than 30 million teens who use Instagram in the United States.

Mosseri, in case you don’t know, is the guy who’s in charge of Threads. As for the great Threads versus Twitter debate, well, pick your favorite evil billionaire. At least Zuckerberg and Mosseri seem to want Threads to be a well-run platform that makes money rather than a plaything for a right-wing sociopath — which is what Twitter has devolved into.

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One year later, calculating the damage Elon Musk has done to Twitter

Elon Musk. Photo (cc) 2017 by Steve Jurvetson

This past Friday marked one year since Elon Musk purchased X/Twitter and took a wrecking ball to it. Twitter was far from perfect — we all called it “the hellsite” long before he arrived. But he’s done everything he could to drive it into the ground, empowering trolls, restoring extreme-right and neo-Nazi accounts, and enabling disinformation on a widespread scale.

Musk took specific actions to degrade the experience as well. He ended a modest paid-subscription service that allowed you to edit your tweets. He got rid of the blue checks for verified accounts and replaced them with blue checks for anyone who was willing to pay, thus greatly amplifying hate and falsehoods. He blocked access for anyone who didn’t have a Twitter account, which blew up embedded news feeds. And he proved that he himself was among the most sociopathic users of the service he’d purchased, engaging in such behavior as amplifying an online wilding campaign against a young journalist and putting her life in danger.

The results for Twitter as a business have been devastating. The Washington Post reports (free link):

The number of people actively tweeting has dropped by more than 30 percent, according to previously unreported data obtained by The Washington Post, and the company — which the entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX has renamed X — is hemorrhaging advertisers and revenue, interviews show.

The Post also reports that Musk has succeeded in moving Twitter far to the right. My own experience is that a number of conservatives who I’d like to follow on one of the new platforms that have sprung up or grown in response to Musk’s actions have stayed put, almost as a sign of tribal loyalty. Not everyone — certainly a lot of the Never Trump conservatives have moved elsewhere. But it’s enough that the old sense you had on Twitter that everyone was there has fractured, probably forever.

After Musk bought Twitter, I went all-in at Mastodon, which had already been around for several years. But though I was able to build a decent list of followers and have found engagement to be quite good, most news organizations and prominent people are missing. Bluesky, co-founded by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, seems like the closest thing to a direct Twitter replacement, but it’s falling behind because of its incredibly aggravating invitation-only scheme.

Which leaves us with Threads, part of the Zuckerborg. It’s definitely the fastest-growing of the alternatives, and it’s where I spend most of my social-media time these days. It’s also adding features quickly in an attempt to catch up. Threads got off to a fast start when it was launched during the summer, lagged, and now seems to be taking off again. Mark Zuckerberg said last week that Threads now has 100 million monthly users — no doubt well behind Twitter (Musk took the company private, so he’s free to lie about metrics), but impressive nevertheless.

Yet I find that there are three buckets of Twitter users that I need to connect with who aren’t going anywhere: friends who are not extremely online; Massachusetts politics folks; and people and organizations involved in the future of local news. For some reason, they’re still firmly planted on Twitter.

Twitter was far from perfect — very far indeed. It had become a frequently ugly place, and a lot of us were already using it differently compared to, say, 10 years ago. But Musk has made it much worse.

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Mainstream media, elected officials feed misinformation in Israel-Hamas war

The war between Israel and Hamas has given rise to a cornucopia of misinformation and disinformation on social media — especially with Elon Musk’s mean, shrunken version of X/Twitter doing little to screen out the worst stuff. But we should keep in mind that several dangerously wrong stories have been reported or amplified by mainstream news sources and political figures.

The most significant is the explosion at Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday, a disaster that has reportedly claimed hundreds of  lives. Palestinian officials immediately blamed the blast on an Israeli rocket attack and, in the absence of any independent verification, news outlets were quick to report that claim as though it were fact. I’ll use The New York Times as an example, but it was hardly alone. According to the Internet Archive, the Times homepage published a headline on Tuesday at 2:25 p.m. that said, “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say.” Over the next hour or so, a subhead appeared saying that Israel was urging “caution.” Then, finally, at 3:46 p.m., came a subhead that stated, “Israelis Say Misfired Palestinian Rocket Was Cause of Explosion.” (I’m using the time stamps from the Times’ live blog rather than the Internet Archive’s.)

The Times’ evolution played out on Threads as well. Threads posts are not time-stamped, and at the moment this says only “one day ago,” though it was clearly posted sometime in the afternoon on Tuesday: “Breaking News: An Israeli airstrike hit a Gaza hospital on Tuesday, killing at least 200 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, which said the number of casualties was expected to rise.” A short time later: “Update: At least 500 people were killed by an Israeli airstrike at a Gaza hospital, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.” Then, finally: “Update: The Israeli military said its intelligence indicated that a rocket that malfunctioned after it was launched by a Palestinian armed group was responsible for the explosion that killed hundreds of people at a Gaza City hospital.”

Screen image from Threads

Now, we still don’t know exactly what happened. But the weight of the evidence suggests that Israeli officials are correct in asserting that the missile was actually fired by Islamic Jihad, an ally of Hamas, and that it accidentally damaged the hospital. BBC News reported Wednesday that the evidence is “inconclusive” but added: “Three experts we spoke to say it is not consistent with what you would expect from a typical Israeli air strike with a large munition.” The independent investigative project Bellingcat cited a tweet by Marc Garlasco, a war-crimes investigator, who said, “Whatever hit the hospital in #Gaza it wasn’t an airstrike.”

The problem is that the initial incautious reports by the Times and other mainstream media, quoting Palestinian statements as though they were fact, clearly created a public narrative that Israel had committed a horrific war crime by bombing a hospital and killing hundreds of people. Indeed, two Muslim members of Congress, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilan Omar, tweeted out the original unverified report.

Two other examples:

• The claim that Hamas terrorists beheaded Israeli babies has become so widespread that President Biden repeated it several days ago, and even appeared to say that he had seen photographic evidence. The White House had to walk that back. But though Hamas acted brutally in slaughtering civilians and taking hostages, no evidence has emerged for that particular incendiary assertion. The fact-checking website Snopes reports: “As we looked into the claim, we found contradictory reports from journalists, Israeli army officials, and almost no independent corroborations of the alleged war crime, leading to concerns among fact-checkers that such a claim may be premature or unsubstantiated.”

• There remains no evidence beyond an initial report by The Wall Street Journal that Iran was directly involved in planning and approving Hamas’ attack on Israel. This was an especially dangerous assertion since it could have led to a wider war — and still could if the Journal’s story ends up being true. At the moment, though, it appears that the Journal’s reliance on Hamas and Hezbollah sources were spreading misinformation, perhaps deliberately. Indeed, Max Tani of Semafor reported earlier this week that the Journal’s own Washington bureau had raised “concerns about the story” before it was published.

Correction: This post originally said that the hospital had been “obliterated,” but the evidence suggests that the damage fell well short of that.

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X/Twitter may be terrible, but it’s still the go-to place for certain types of conversations

Walt Mossberg, right, has had it with Elon Musk, but he apparently has no problem with Mark Zuckerberg, left. That’s Kara Swisher in the middle. Photo (cc) 2012 by Joe Hall.

On Thursday, I posted an opinion about the newly enacted Massachusetts tax cut on X/Twitter and its three main competitors — Mastodon, Threads and Bluesky. I did it in part simply because I wanted to make a comment, but I also was experimenting. Here’s the post on Threads:

Why are our local media united in referring to the Mass. tax cuts as “tax relief”? It’s an unnecessary package, mainly skewed toward the rich, that will offset the ballot question we just passed to try to meet some real needs in schools, transportation and social services.

Twitter and Mastodon support hashtags, so on those platforms I changed Massachusetts to #MaPoli in the hopes that it would get picked up in those communities. And here’s what I found: As of this morning, I’ve gotten 11 likes and three replies on Threads; 10 likes, four reposts and one reply on Bluesky; eight likes, six reposts and one reply on Mastodon; and 213 likes, 60 reposts and 20 replies on Twitter, including a worthwhile back-and-forth with Matt Szafranski, a lawyer who’s the editor-in-chief of Western Mass Politics & Insight, on whether state officials will be able to grab revenues from the new millionaire’s tax to fund needs other than education and transportation, as the law specifies.

Now, you might say, what’s the big deal? Aren’t we past worrying about engagement on social media? Well, yes and no. Performative tweeting has gotten many people in trouble, including me. But in this case I wanted to express an opinion that would be seen by people in the Massachusetts media and political community, and I knew Twitter would be the best outlet.

Ever since Elon Musk bought Twitter a year ago and took a wrecking ball to it, there’s been a lot of what you might call Twitter-shaming — castigating anyone who continues to use Twitter on the grounds that by doing so you’re enabling Musk and his sociopathic attacks on transgender people and anyone else with the misfortune to cross his radar. For instance, he recently amplified hateful attacks on a reporter for the Las Vegas because he literally had no idea what had really happened, as Angela Fu recently reported for Poynter Online.

I went completely silent on Twitter for several months after Musk bought it and invested quite a bit of time in Mastodon, which is a lovely little community whose members include few of the political, media and local news accounts I need to follow for my professional and academic work. I find more of a political and media presence on Threads and Bluesky but very little of the #MaPoli crowd and virtually none of the people and organizations that are tracking the future of community journalism.

The Twitter-shaming, though, continues. Retired Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt Mossberg, who only left Twitter a month ago, posted this on Threads Friday:

The reason to quit Twitter (X) isn’t that it’s apparently collapsing financially, or killing important features. It’s a moral and ethical issue. Not only are Nazis, racists, antisemites, misogynists, liars and conspiracy theorists being welcomed back, but the owner seems to be actively supporting this. I gave up a 16-year account with over 800,000 followers because I couldn’t associate myself with this haven for hate and lies. You should too.

Well, good for you, Walt. By the way, you posted that on a platform controlled by Mark Zuckerberg, who has not exactly covered himself in glory with regard to clamping down on election disinformation and enabling genocide. There are also those who criticize anyone who publishes on Substack because that platform has become a home to some sleazy right-wingers (let’s not forget that the great Heather Cox Richardson writes her newsletter on Substack) or who uses Bluesky because Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who has his own issues, is a member of the board.

I’m actively rooting for Musk to drive Twitter into the ground and kill it off once and for all. Until he does, though, I’m going to use it — not as much as I used to, and more carefully than I did in the past. But though Musk is the worst of the worst, the reality is that most of our tech platforms are controlled by dubious characters, and there’s not much we can do about it.

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Isaacson comes out fighting (politely) in his second Musk podcast with Kara Swisher

Kara Swisher. Photo (cc) 2019 by nrkbeta.

Give Walter Isaacson credit. He let Kara Swisher steamroll him earlier this year when she interviewed him on her podcast about his Elon Musk book-in-progress. He came off as a Musk lackey, afraid of offending his source for fear of losing access.

Now Isaacson’s book is out, and he was much better in his most recent podcast with Swisher. He conceded some criticisms, was contrite about screwing up the Starlink-Ukraine story (but properly pointed out that it still added up to Musk’s deciding entirely on his own misplaced authority to hamper Ukraine’s war effort), and pushed back hard on Swisher’s claim that Isaacson used Musk’s abusive childhood as a way of making excuses for his horrendous behavior as an adult.

It’s an hour and a half well spent, especially if you’re not planning on reading Isaacson’s doorstop of a book.

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Isaacson’s screw-up over Crimea will hurt his book — and limit the damage to Musk

Walter Isaacson. Photo (cc) 2012 by Ed Uthman.

How big a deal is it that we now know Elon Musk did not cut off Starlink internet access to the Ukrainian military but, rather, refused to activate it so that Ukraine could stage an attack on ships in the Black Sea off Russian-held Crimea? I don’t know that it amounts to all that much; by Saturday, when I wrote about it, we already knew that either was a possibility. Regardless, Musk was freelancing his own foreign policy in contradiction of U.S. interests.

On the other hand, it’s a very big deal for Walter Isaacson, who wrote in his new biography of Musk that Musk did indeed order that existing access be cut off. Isaacson has been backpedaling every since. Isaacson was very clear in the book, writing that Musk “secretly told his engineers to turn off coverage within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast.” Isaacson now says that he misunderstood what Musk told him.

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy published a tough piece on Isaacson in his daily newsletter, noting that Simon & Schuster, Isaacson’s publisher, will correct future editions of the book. The Washington Post, which ran the relevant excerpt, has updated and corrected it as well. Darcy writes:

The correction has cast a pall over the biography from Isaacson, a highly respected author who has written acclaimed biographies on historic visionaries, including Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein. Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane University and former head of CNN, has for years enjoyed such a sterling reputation in the media industry that newsrooms have often taken his reporting to be fact.

In fairness to Isaacson, Musk is a slippery character who often changes his story. Isaacson reported, for instance, that Musk told him he made his decision after speaking to the Russian ambassador, but added that Musk has apparently hinted to others that he spoke with Vladimir Putin himself. Still, this is pretty damaging. Musk and his allies will use it to discredit all of Isaacson’s book, which will end up having far less impact than it otherwise would have.

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Walter Isaacson, Elon Musk and the author’s dilemma

Elon Musk may have finally flown too close to the sun. The Washington Post on Thursday published an excerpt from Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Musk (free link) that includes important new details about the erratic billionaire’s decision to cut off (or refuse to activate) internet access in 2022 to prevent Ukrainian military forces from staging an operation in Crimea, a part of Ukraine on the Black Sea that Russia seized in 2014. Ukrainian forces have internet access through Starlink, a Musk-owned company satellite company.

We’ve known about this before; indeed, Ronan Farrow wrote about it in his recent New Yorker profile. What we didn’t know was that Musk made his decision after speaking with the Russian ambassador — or possibly even Vladimir Putin himself. Musk told Isaacson that he feared the offensive Ukraine was planning could lead to nuclear war, and that Starlink would be held responsible.

As Josh Marshall points out at Talking Points Memo, Musk was using his privately held company, richly funded with U.S. government contracts, to play geopolitics at odds with official U.S. policy. At the very least, there needs to be a congressional investigation, and you’d like to think that Democrats and the majority of Republicans who support Ukraine could get together and make that happen. They should consider nationalizing Starlink and putting it under direct federal control. As Farrow’s reporting revealed, it has become untenable for one billionaire to control so much crucial infrastructure — not just Starlink but also SpaceX, currently NASA’s only means for launching satellites, and even the Platform Formerly Known as Twitter, though that’s a more complicated issue.

People more knowledgeable than I will hash through those issues. At the moment, I’d like to consider a different issue — the fact that Isaacson sat on his scoop for a year. As he describes it, Musk texted him while Isaacson was at a high school football game in September 2022. Isaacson went behind the bleachers to respond. Isaacson writes:

“This could be a giant disaster,” he texted. I went behind the bleachers to ask him what the problem was. He was in full Muskian crisis-hero-drama mode, this time understandably. A dangerous issue had arisen, and he believed there was “a non-trivial possibility,” as he put it, that it could lead to a nuclear war — with Starlink partly responsible. The Ukrainian military was attempting a sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet based at Sevastopol in Crimea by sending six small drone submarines packed with explosives, and it was using Starlink to guide them to the target.

Although he had readily supported Ukraine, he believed it was reckless for Ukraine to launch an attack on Crimea, which Russia had annexed in 2014. He had just spoken to the Russian ambassador to the United States. (In later conversations with a few other people, he seemed to imply that he had spoken directly to President Vladimir Putin, but to me he said his communications had gone through the ambassador.) The ambassador had explicitly told him that a Ukrainian attack on Crimea would lead to a nuclear response. Musk explained to me in great detail, as I stood behind the bleachers, the Russian laws and doctrines that decreed such a response.

Throughout the evening and into the night, he personally took charge of the situation. Allowing the use of Starlink for the attack, he concluded, could be a disaster for the world. So he secretly told his engineers to turn off coverage within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast. As a result, when the Ukrainian drone subs got near the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, they lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly.

Did Isaacson have an obligation to report what he knew in real time rather than saving it for his book? It’s an issue that has come up over and over in media circles, especially whenever Bob Woodward of the Post publishes a new book, or when Maggie Haberman of The New York Times published her Trump book last year.

As I wrote at the time, I didn’t have a problem with Haberman, who emerged from her book leave on several occasions to report scoops she’d come across. And I don’t really have a problem with Isaacson, either. Unlike Woodward or Haberman, he’s a freelancer and doesn’t have an obvious outlet. Of course, he’s also one of the most prominent journalists in the country and would have had no problem working with a reputable news organization to get the story out. But that would have been the end of his relationship with Musk — bad for Isaacson’s book, obviously, but also bad for whatever other storylines he was able to develop in the months ahead.

In addition, Isaacson’s Starlink scoop was incremental. The news that Musk may have been taking dictation from a high-level Russian official is devastating, but, as I said, we’ve known that Musk cut off Starlink access to harm Ukraine’s war effort for quite some time. Farrow’s story wasn’t the first occasion that had come out, either. Nevertheless, the implications of Isaacson’s account are enormous. Here’s Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, writing on Twitter:

Sometimes a mistake is much more than just a mistake. By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmusk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities. As a result, civilians, children are being killed. This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego. However, the question still remains: why do some people so desperately want to defend war criminals and their desire to commit murder? And do they now realize that they are committing evil and encouraging evil?

Late though Isaacson’s account may be, he, like Farrow, has done a real service by revealing that Musk’s behavior is quite a bit worse — and more damaging — than most of even his harshest critics understood. That’s really saying something given that Musk and his followers this past week launched attacks that fed into antisemitic tropes against the Anti-Defamation League. It is time for this dangerous spoiled brat to face some real consequences.

A devastating portrayal of Elon Musk raises serious questions about capitalism run amok

Musk’s control of satellite communications in Ukraine is a source of worry to both Ukrainian and U.S. officials. Photo (cc) 2016 by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.

Elon Musk gets the Ronan Farrow treatment in the current issue of The New Yorker. Although much of the ground covered in Farrow’s 5,500-word profile is familiar, the cumulative effect is devastating. Musk comes across as an out-of-control egomaniac with scant regard for safety at SpaceX and Tesla, his grandiosity fed by what may be his overindulgence in ketamine, described by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as “a dissociative anesthetic that has some hallucinogenic effects.” Emotionally abused by his father, Musk has now been disowned by his daughter, who’s come out as transgender even as Elon has indulged anti-trans hate-mongering on the Platform Formerly Known as Twitter.

Farrow also offers new details about the U.S. government’s utter dependence on Starlink, Musk’s satellite internet network, which powers the Ukrainian military’s communications in its war with Russia (as well as Musk’s sucking up to Russian President Vladimir Putin), and on his rocket company, which is the sole means NASA has at the moment for launching its own satellites. The overarching picture that emerges is not just a portrait of a multi-billionaire who has way too much power, but of a culture so enamored of unfettered capitalism that it has forfeited the means to rein him in.

“There is only one thing worse than a government monopoly. And that is a private monopoly that the government is dependent on,” former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told Farrow. “I do worry that we have put all of our eggs into one basket, and it’s the SpaceX basket.” The same could be said of Starlink’s role in Ukraine’s war for survival or, for that matter, Musk’s opening up Twitter to disinformation about everything from COVID to election denialism.

As I was listening to the audio version of Farrow’s story, I was also thinking back to a podcast I heard a few months ago in which tech journalist Kara Swisher interviewed Walter Isaacson, who is writing a biography of Musk. Isaacson is widely respected, and I admired his biography of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Yet he came across as weirdly obsequious in talking about Musk, even going so far as to take seriously Musk’s ambitions to turn Twitter into an “everything app” that would handle your financial transactions and who knows what else. Swisher, to her credit, wasn’t having any of it.

Maybe Isaacson was bluffing so that Musk wouldn’t cut off access or trash his book before it comes out (it’s scheduled for Sept. 12). I hope it turns out to be as tough-minded as his Jobs bio. In any event, Farrow has set a high bar.

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Threads hits a speed bump

Mark Zuckerberg may soon have reason to regret pushing Threads out the door before it was ready. Lindsey Choo reports for The Wall Street Journal (free link, I think; apologies if it doesn’t work) that user engagement has fallen by 70% since its July 7 peak.

No doubt Zuckerberg wanted to take advantage of Elon Musk’s Fourth of July weekend freakout, when he limited the number of posts you could read on Twitter (especially if you weren’t a paid subscriber), cut off access to individual tweets for non-members (thus blowing up our news feed at What Works), and killed off classic TweetDeck in favor of a new, lesser update.

But Threads is frustrating to use. The biggest problem is that you can only access it on a mobile device. Also missing: a reverse-chrono tab of accounts you follow, thus clogging up your feed with brands and celebrities you don’t care about, as well as no lists and no hashtags.

Mastodon has been my first stop since Musk took over Twitter last fall, but its decentralized nature presents problems of its own. It’s difficult to find what you’re looking for, there are parts of the unfortunately named Fediverse that are invisible to you, and most of the people and accounts I need to follow just aren’t there. Bluesky is still invitation-only and has had problems of its own.

I realize this is of little interest to most people, but for those of us whose work depends on social media to some degree, it’s been an interesting — and frustrating — nine months.

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