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

Tag: Elon Musk Page 2 of 4

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.

Leave a comment | Read comments

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.

Leave a comment | Read comments

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.

A few more thoughts about Threads

Although Mastodon is my preferred Twitter alternative, there’s every indication that Threads is going to emerge as the closest thing we get to a true Twitter replacement. It’s missing a lot — browser access, a reverse-chronological feed of your followers, and lists, to name just a few. I can really do without the celebrities and brands that Threads is pushing. But it’s already got mass appeal, a precious commodity that it’s not likely to relinquish.

There are reports that Mark Zuckerberg and company rushed this out the door before it was ready in order to take advantage of Elon Musk’s meltdown last weekend. Musk rewarded Zuckerberg by sending him a cease-and-desist order — precious publicity for an app that is taking off. As I said yesterday, you only get one chance to make a good first impression, but I suspect users will give Zuckerberg some time to get it right.

In addition to Twitter, I suspect the big loser in this may be Bluesky, started by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. I finally scored an invitation earlier this week and have been playing around. I like it. But Dorsey has got to regret the leisurely pace he’s taken.

For now, I’m posting mainly to Mastodon because I want to, Twitter because I have to, and Bluesky and Threads because I’m checking them out. I’ve given up on Post. (If you’re reading this on the Media Nation website, my social media feeds are in the right-hand rail.) But it wouldn’t surprise me if this quickly devolves into a war between Twitter and Threads, with everyone else reduced to spectator status.

The unimpressive, trying-too-hard debut of Threads

Photo (cc) 2011 by J E Theriot

They say you only get one chance to make a good first impression. If that’s true, then Mark Zuckerberg missed that chance with the debut of Threads. There’s no browser access, so you’re stuck using your phone. You can’t switch to a reverse-chronological non-algorithmic feed of accounts you follow. Even Elon Musk still lets you do that at Twitter. No lists.

The whole thing, teeming with brands and celebrities you’re not interested in, feels very commercial in a forced-joviality, trying-too-hard way. These things can be fixed unless Zuck thinks they’re features rather than bugs. For now, though … not great.

Musk’s latest moves call into question the future of short-form social media

Elon Musk isn’t laughing with us. He’s laughing at us. Photo (cc) 2022 by Steve Jurvetson.

Update: Ivan Mehta of TechCrunch reports that Twitter may have already reversed itself on requiring log-ins to view tweets. I’ll test it later and think about whether I want to go to the trouble of restoring our Twitter timeline to What Works.

Today I want to return to a topic that I write about from time to time: the ongoing travails of Twitter under Elon Musk and the future of what I’ll call short-form interactive social media, which some people still refer to as “microblogging.” It’s something that’s of no interest to the vast majority of people (and if I’m describing you, then you have my congratulations and admiration) but of tremendous interest to a few of us.

You may have heard that a number of changes hit Twitter over the weekend, some deliberate, some perhaps accidental. They cut back on the number of posts you could read before encountering a “rate limit” of 600 per day for non-subscribers and 6,000 a day for those who pay $8 a month. Those limits were later raised. Now, very few people are paying $8 for those blue check marks and extra privileges, and you can reach 600 (or 800, or 1,000, or whatever it is at the moment) pretty quickly if you’re zipping through your timeline. It was and is a bizarre limitation, since it means that users will spend less time on the site and will see fewer of Twitter’s declining inventory of ads.

Twitter also got rid of its classic TweetDeck application, which lets you set up columns for lists, notifications and the like, and switched everyone over to a new, inferior version — and then announced that TweetDeck will soon be restricted to those $8-a-month customers.

Finally, and of the greatest significance to me and my work, you can no longer view a tweet unless you’re actually logged in to Twitter. We’ve all become accustomed to news outlets embedding tweets in stories. I do it myself sometimes. Well, now that has stopped working. Maybe it’s not that big a deal. After all, you can take a screenshot and/or quote from it, just as you can from any source. But it’s an extra hassle for both publishers and readers.

The problem

Moreover, this had a significant negative effect on What Works, the website about the future of local news that Ellen Clegg and I host. Just recently, I decide to add a news feed of updates and brief items to the right-hand rail, powered by Twitter. It was a convenient way of informing our readers regardless of whether they were Twitter users. And on Monday, it disappeared. What I’ve come up with to replace it is a half-solution: A box that links to our Mastodon account, which can still be read by Mastodon nonusers and users alike. But it’s an extra step. In order to add an actual Mastodon news feed we would either need to pay more or switch to a hosting service and put up with the attendant technical challenges.

What is Musk up to? I can’t imagine that he’s literally trying to destroy Twitter; but if he were, he’d be doing exactly what he’s doing. It’s strange. Twitter is now being inundated with competitors, the largest of which is Mastodon, a decentralized system that runs mainly on volunteer labor. But Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey is slowly unveiling a very Twitter-like service called Bluesky (still in beta, and, for the moment, invitation-only), and, this Thursday, Facebook (I refuse to call it Meta) will debut Threads. If Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t screw it up, I think Threads, which is tied to Instagram, might prove to be a formidable challenger.

Still, what made Twitter compelling was that it was essentially the sole platform for short-form interactive social media. The breakdown of that audience into various niches makes it harder for any one service to benefit from the network effect. I’ve currently got conversations going on in three different places, and when I want to share links to my work, I now have to go to Twitter, Mastodon and Bluesky (which I just joined), not to mention Facebook and LinkedIn.

The solution

And speaking of the network effect: Twitter may be shrinking, but, with 330 million active monthly users, it’s still by far the largest of the three short-form platforms. Mastodon was up to 10 million registered users as of March (that number grows in spurts every time Musk indulges his inner sociopath), and Bluesky has just 100,000 — although another 2 million or so are on the wait list. What that means for my work is that just a handful of the media thought leaders I need to follow and interact with are on Mastodon or Bluesky, and, from what I can tell, none (as in zero) of the people and organizations that track developments in local news have budged from Twitter.

It will likely turn out that the social media era was brief and its demise unlamented. In the meantime, what’s going on is weird and — for those of us who depend on this stuff — aggravating. In some ways, I would like to see one-stop short-form social media continue. My money is on Threads, although I suspect that Zuckerberg’s greed will prevent it from realizing its full potential.

I’m back on Twitter, and no, I’m not especially happy about it

Illustration (cc) 2009 by Pete Simon

Recently I wanted to add a news feed to What Works, the website that Ellen Clegg and I host about the future of local news. There are a fair number of items that come to our attention, and we wanted a way to alert our readers without necessarily writing a full blog post.

Because we had deleted our Twitter account last fall in response to Elon Musk’s sociopathic debut as the platform’s new owner, I looked into setting up a Mastodon news feed. I began by signing up for a Mastodon account for What Works. That was simple enough. Then I tried to figure out how to embed it at our website. I’m not going to get into the technical details except to say that it would have required either more money than we wanted to spend or more hassle than I wanted to put up with. We revived our Twitter account — we’re at @whatworks_nu — and added a news feed to the right-hand column of whatworks.news.

How long will it last? I don’t know. Musk has been arbitrarily cutting off access to Twitter’s API, which means that the feed could stop working at any moment. For now, though, it’s by far the best alternative we have. Which brings me to the state of Twitter and its various alternatives and would-be alternatives.

Twitter is of no importance to most ordinary people, and they should feel fortunate. I’d been a heavy user since the early days, though, and I wasn’t sure what to do when Musk took over. But in late November, following some particularly vile behavior by the Boy King, I decided I’d had enough. I stopped using Twitter and went all-in at Mastodon, writing about it a few weeks later.

And I stuck with it for three months. I don’t believe I posted any tweets in December, January and February except to remind people that they could find me here or on Mastodon at @dankennedy_nu@journa.host, or to rip into Musk. I was so anxious to get rid of my blue check mark that I found out how to do it myself without waiting for Musk to get around to it. In March, though, I started drifting back, and there I remain — mostly on Mastodon, but on Twitter as well.

If you don’t care, believe me, I get it. You’re under no obligation to read this post. But if you’re dealing with the same dilemma as me, here are the various reasons that I came back: Only a tiny handful of the people and accounts I follow on Twitter moved to Mastodon. Black Twitter has most decidedly not moved to Mastodon. Likewise with conservative voices that I value. Some of Mastodon’s biggest boosters have continued tweeting like crazy. Most media and political people are still exclusively on Twitter, especially at the state level. The local news outlets and journalism organizations I follow as part of my work are not on Mastodon. Big Media won’t move, either. Finally, despite everything, Twitter is not nearly as broken as some observers will have you believe. It still works, even though it goes down more than it did before Musk laid off most of his workforce and stopped paying the bills.

Everything is always subject to change, and I wish I hadn’t sounded as definitive as I did when I wrote that I was leaving. If you want to call me a hypocrite, go right ahead. I still like Mastodon, I still expect that at some point it will become more feasible (or necessary) to leave Twitter for good, and I continue to be interested in other alternatives — especially Bluesky, with which Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey is involved.

For now, though, I’m back on Twitter — chagrined, not as active as I was before, but with a greater understanding that most people are not obsessed enough with social media to go to the bother of packing up and moving to a new, unfamiliar platform.

GBH will keep tweeting

GBH is sticking with Twitter, at least for now. I just received this statement from spokeswoman Erin Callanan:

At this time, GBH is continuing to use Twitter as a platform for sharing trusted content with its audience. We strongly object to Twitter’s labeling of NPR and PBS  as “government-funded” media. However, GBH continues to be the most trusted media in this market, and we have a responsibility to share our news and other programming with the broadest possible audience using the tools available to us.

This remains an evolving situation, and we will continue to monitor the changes as it moves forward.

Like all public media organizations, GBH is locally owned, operated, and governed. We receive the vast majority of our support from individual donors and members, as well as from foundations. We provide independent fact-based news, as well as other quality educational entertainment. We strongly believe that editorial independence and a free press are critical to our democracy.

In my earlier item, I mentioned GBH News specifically, as that is the local news division that competes most directly with WBUR Radio. GBH, of course, is a massive operation, comprising local and national programming on television and radio.

I was affiliated with GBH News for many years and still consider myself a friend of the station. But I think this is a mistake. As I noted earlier, GBH News is already on Mastodon, the leading Twitter alternative, though GBH as a whole is not. But neither is WBUR, and they took the hit rather than continuing to play in Elon Musk’s toxic garden.

Then again, there’s no particular reason why public media outlets are under any special obligation to leave Twitter just because they’re NPR affiliates. All news organizations should be packing up and moving, and that includes The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and all the rest. It’s the right thing to do, and it would make it that much easier for small players (like Media Nation, for example) to do likewise.

The Twitter logjam may be starting to break as NPR says: See ya, Elon

Elon Musk. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Despite Elon Musk’s best efforts, Twitter is still alive, more or less. From sending poop emojis in response to media requests to putting his dog in charge of the company (what company?), Musk has demonstrated massive contempt for his customers. He’s also allowed the site to be flooded with trolls and hate speech — not that those weren’t a problem even before he bought the company.

But now there’s a chance that the logjam will finally break. After Musk labeled NPR’s Twitter feed as “state-controlled media” and then, upon reflection, changed it to “government-funded media” (it is neither, though NPR does get a tiny percentage of its revenues from government sources), NPR’s leadership finally decided it had had enough. NPR media reporter David Folkenflik writes:

NPR will no longer post fresh content to its 52 official Twitter feeds, becoming the first major news organization to go silent on the social media platform. In explaining its decision, NPR cited Twitter’s decision to first label the network “state-affiliated media,” the same term it uses for propaganda outlets in Russia, China and other autocratic countries.

Unfortunately, NPR is going to allow its journalists to make their own decision. That’s a mistake. What’s needed is to push news organizations to leave Twitter behind in order to encourage the use of alternatives, the most prominent of which (so far) is Mastodon.

From November through February, I went cold turkey, taking to Twitter only to let my followers know where else they could find me. Twitter’s weird resilience, though, led me to come back on a limited basis. I continue to do most of my social media posting on Mastodon, and I hope you’ll follow me there.

Page 2 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén