Three insights into Elon Musk’s brief, narcissism-fueled reign over Twitter

Photo (cc) 2013 by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

When we learned last spring that Elon Musk might buy Twitter and transform it into some sort of troll- and bot-infested right-wing hellhole, my first thought was: Bring it on. Although I’m a heavy user, I had no great affection for the service, which was already something of a mess. If Musk ran it into a ditch, well, what of it?

On second thought, I realized I would miss it — and so would a lot of other people. In particular, Twitter has become an important service in calling out injustice around the world as well as a forum that gives Black users a voice they might not have anywhere else. My friend Callie Crossley was talking about Black Twitter on the late, lamented “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney” ages ago. Black Twitter could go elsewhere, of course, but it would be hard to recreate on the same scale that it exists now.

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For now, I’m staying, but I’m also playing around. Mastodon meets a lot of my needs (I’m @dankennedy_nu@journa.host), mainly because a lot of media and political people I want to follow immediately made the move. But, so far, I see none of the non-Trump conservatives whose presence I value and very few Black users. That may be my fault, and it may change. I’m also skeptical of Mastodon’s extreme decentralization, with each server (called an instance) having its own rules of engagement. I’m also on Post News at @dankennedy_nu, but I really don’t like the micropayment scheme on which it’s staked its future, explained at Nieman Lab by Laura Hazard Owen.

Twitter really does matter. It may be the smallest of the social platforms, but it’s a place where people in media and politics have to be. I’m not sure it can be replicated. So much has been written and said about Twitter over the past few weeks, and no one could possible keep up with it all. Here, though, are three pieces that I think cut through the murk as well as any.

The first is from Dr. Meredith Clark, my colleague at Northeastern’s School of Journalism. Professor Clark is a leading authority on Black Twitter and the author of the forthcoming book “We Tried to Tell Y’all: Black Twitter and the Rise of Digital Counternarratives.” Meredith says she’s staying. In a recent interview with Michel Martin of NPR, she explained why:

We’re digging in our heels. We’ve been on this platform. We’ve contributed so much to it that we’ve made it valuable in the way that it is today. We’ve made it an asset, and so no, we’re not going anywhere. And then I see other people, honestly, who have more privilege, a number of academics who are saying, nope, we’re going somewhere else. We’re leaving for other platforms.

But I do really think that there are limits to those relationships because there aren’t many platforms that allow many speakers to talk to one another all at the same time in the same place. My use hasn’t changed all that much. I don’t plan to be one of those people who migrate. I just tweeted the other day that I’ll be the last one to turn the lights off if that’s what I need to be, because I’m certainly not going either.

By the way, Meredith was a guest earlier this year on “What Works: The Future of Local News,” a podcast hosted by Ellen Clegg and me. You can listen to our conversation here.

Taking the opposite approach is Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, who has suspended his Twitter account in favor of Mastodon — a step that he admits has cut him out of numerous conversations, but that he believed was necessary in order not to be a part of Musk’s transformation of Twitter into a reflection of his own obsessions and ego. Like Clark, Dr. Cobb is Black; unlike Clark, his reasoning makes no mention of Black Twitter per se, although he does note its value in bringing to light racial injustices. “Were it not for social media,” Cobb writes in The New Yorker, “George Floyd — along with Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — would likely have joined the long gallery of invisible dead Black people, citizens whose bureaucratized deaths were hidden and ignored.” But that, he emphasizes, was then:

Participating in Twitter — with its world-spanning reach, its potential to radically democratize our discourse along with its virtue mobs and trolls — always required a cost-benefit analysis. That analysis began to change, at least for me, immediately after Musk took over. His reinstatement of Donald Trump’s account made remaining completely untenable. Following an absurd Twitter poll about whether Trump should be allowed to return, Musk reinstated the former President. The implication was clear: if promoting the January 6, 2021, insurrection — which left at least seven people dead and more than a hundred police officers injured — doesn’t warrant suspension to Musk, then nothing else on the platform likely could.

My own view of Trump’s reinstatement is rather complicated. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s easy to justify banning a major presidential candidate, which Trump now surely is. On the other hand, he was banned for fomenting violence — and now that he’s been given another chance, he’s likely to do it again, which means he’ll have to be banned all over again. Except that he won’t be with Musk in charge. (So far, at least, Trump hasn’t tweeted since his reinstatement.) In any case, I respect Cobb’s decision, even if I’m still not quite there.

I’ll close with Josh Marshall, editor of the liberal website Talking Points Memo. Like me, Marshall is dipping his toe into Mastodon’s waters while maintaining his presence on Twitter. And, like me, he’s trying to figure out exactly what Musk is up to. The other day he offered a theory that doesn’t explain all of it, but may explain some of it — especially the part that plays into Musk’s emotions and sense of grievance, which may prove to be the most important in understanding what’s going on.

Marshall sees Musk as traveling a path previously taken by Donald Trump. Like Trump, Musk is a narcissist who can’t imagine a world that doesn’t revolve around his every need and want. Also like Trump in, say 2015, Musk was until recently someone with vague right-wing proclivities who has hardened his views and openly embraced white supremacy and antisemitism because we liberals hurt his feelings. Trump and Musk have both taken up with horrible people because they were offering support and friendship when no one else would. With Trump, it’s Nick Fuentes and Kanye West. With Musk, it’s, well, Trump and his sycophants. Marshall writes:

I doubt very much that in mid-2015 Trump had any real familiarity with the arcana of racist and radical right groups, their keywords or ideological touch-points. But they knew he was one of them, perhaps even more than he did. They pledged their undying devotion and his narcissism did the rest.

Elon Musk is on the same path. There are various theories purporting to explain Musk’s hard right turn: a childhood in apartheid South Africa, his connection with Peter Thiel, disappointments in his personal life. Whatever the truth of the matter, whatever right-leaning tendencies he may have had before a couple years ago appear to have been latent or unformed. Now the transformation is almost complete. He’s done with general “free speech” grievance and springing for alternative viewpoints. He’s routinely pushing all the far right storylines from woke groomers to Great Replacement.

If anything good can come of this it may be that we hit peak social media a few years ago. Facebook is shrinking, especially among anyone younger than 60. TikTok is huge, but as a number of observers have pointed out, it isn’t really a social platform — it’s a broadcaster with little in the way of user interaction. Now Twitter is splitting apart.

This may be temporary. Maybe Mark Zuckerberg or (most likely) someone else will be able to reassemble social media around the metaverse. For now, though, social media may be broken in a way we couldn’t have imagined in, say, 2020. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing — although I wouldn’t mind if someone put Twitter back together again, only this time minus the trolls, the bots and the personal abuse that defined the site long before Musk came along.

Ashley Parker wins the 2022 Both Sides Sweepstakes

Stop the competition. We have a winner of the 2022 Both Sides Sweepstakes: Ashley Parker, a high-profile political reporter for The Washington Post, who took to Twitter in order to share this with us:

I put it up as an image rather than an embedded tweet because who knows what’s going to happen to it over the next few days? Plus she might wake up and delete it. But click here, while you can, to see some of the replies.

I should note, too, that as far as I can tell, this is not an imposter who paid Elon Musk $8 for a blue check mark.

Kara Swisher can’t make sense out of what Elon Musk is doing, either

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

If you are trying to make sense out of what Elon Musk is doing with (or, rather, to) Twitter, I recommend this podcast in which the tech journalist Kara Swisher talks about her interactions with the billionaire over the years.

Swisher is appalled as any of us, but she’s more sad than angry — she says she genuinely believed Musk might be the right person to fix the money-losing platform. She doesn’t attribute any nefarious motives to his brief reign, which has been marked by chaos and performative cruelty toward Twitter’s employees. But she can’t make sense of it, either.

Toward the end, her producer, Nayeema Raza, asks Swisher what she’d like to ask Musk if they were back on speaking terms — which they’re currently not. Swisher’s four-word answer: “What are you doing?”

A bit about Mastodon

Photo (cc) 2007 by Benjamin Golub

I’ve opened an account on Mastodon in the hopes that it will prove to be a good alternative to Twitter, now in the midst of an astonishing implosion.

What I’m hoping for is something like Twitter pre-Elon Musk, only without the trolls and bots, the personal abuse and the piling-on. I don’t think any of us believed Twitter was a wonderful place before Musk lit it on fire. So far, Mastodon sort of fits the bill, but it’s also something different. The culture is more polite — maybe excessively so, though that might just be a first impression.

In any case, there doesn’t seem to be any going back. I wouldn’t be surprised if Twitter is essentially gone in a few weeks. You can follow me on Mastodon at @dankennedy_nu@journa.host. And for a really good explanation of Mastodon and how its decentralized governance works, I highly recommended this Lawfare podcast.

The shame of Musk’s takeover is that Twitter was starting to get (a little) better

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

The shame of it is that Twitter was starting to get a little better. Some months back I decided to spend $3 a month for Twitter Blue. You had up to a minute to pull back a tweet if you saw a typo or if a picture didn’t display properly. More recently, they added an actual edit button, good for 30 minutes. Best of all is something called “Top Articles,” which shows stories that are most widely shared by your network and their networks. I almost always find a couple of stories worth reading — including the one from The Verge that I’ve shared below.

Anyway, here we are. Billionaire Elon Musk is now the sole owner of a social media platform that I check in with multiple times during the day and post to way too much. Twitter is much smaller than Facebook and YouTube, and smaller than TikTok and Instagram, too. In fact, it’s smaller than just about everything else. But it punches above its weight because it’s the preferred outlet for media and political people. It’s also a cesspool of sociopathy. We’re all worried that Musk will make it worse, but let’s be honest — it’s already pretty bad.

The smartest take I’ve seen so far is by Nilay Patel in The Verge. Headlined “Welcome to hell, Elon,” the piece argues that Musk isn’t going to be able to change Twitter as much as he might like to because to do so will drive advertisers away — something that’s already playing out in General Motors’ decision to suspend its ads until its executives can get a better handle on what the Chief Twit has in mind. Patel also points out that Musk is going to receive a lot of, er, advice about whom to ban on Twitter from countries where his electric car company, Tesla, does business, including Germany, China and India. Those are three very different cultures, but all of them have more restrictive laws regarding free speech than the United States. Patel writes:

The essential truth of every social network is that the product is content moderation, and everyone hates the people who decide how content moderation works. Content moderation is what Twitter makes — it is the thing that defines the user experience. It’s what YouTube makes, it’s what Instagram makes, it’s what TikTok makes. They all try to incentivize good stuff, disincentivize bad stuff, and delete the really bad stuff…. The longer you fight it or pretend that you can sell something else, the more Twitter will drag you into the deepest possible muck of defending indefensible speech.

Indeed, Twitter has already reinstated the noted antisemite formerly known as Kanye West, although Musk, weirdly enough, says he had nothing to do with it.

My approach to tweeting in Elon Musk’s private garden will be to do what I’ve always done and see what happens. I use it too much to walk away, but I don’t like it enough to wring my hands.

A Washington Post reporter is suspended after his sexist retweet blows up

Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2022 by the World Economic Forum.

The use and misuse of social media platforms — especially Twitter — continue to torment newsrooms. The latest news organization to have a mess on its hands is The Washington Post, which is no stranger to past Twitter controversies.

Let’s start at the end: political reporter David Weigel was suspended for a month without pay after retweeting a horrendously sexist joke for which he had already apologized. The joke — and yes, God Almighty, Weigel should have known better: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy has a good overview of the entire controversy, which included pointed criticism of Weigel by a fellow Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez (on Twitter, naturally) and criticism of Sonmez by reporter Jose Del Real, who was upset that Sonmez had unleashed the Twitter mob on Weigel.

Post executive editor Sally Buzbee weighed in on Sunday, writing an internal memo calling on Post journalists “to treat each other with respect and kindness both in the newsroom and online.” That might have been the end of it, but obviously Buzbee thought she needed to make a statement about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

We are all tempted to push the envelope on Twitter to get attention, measured by like and retweets. But at this late date, you’d think a reporter for a respected news organization would have figured it out. We don’t always know where the lines are, but it was pretty obvious in this case.

Twitter has its uses in journalism — mainly to follow people and organizations who are useful for your beat. If you read 10 times more frequently than you post, you’re probably doing it right. I’d say that journalists ought to restrict their Twitter activities to posting links to their work and that of their news organization; sharing other work they think is worthwhile; and engaging in light banter, because we’re all human. But if light banter is what Weigel thought he was doing, maybe he needs to take a long, long break from Twitter.

Weigel, by the way, lost an earlier gig at the Post back in 2010 after it was revealed that he’d been disparaging conservatives on a private forum called Journolist. And Sonmez was suspended after she took to Twitter in the immediate aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death to remind everyone of his past sexual assaults.

As they say: Never tweet.

The Buffalo horror raises thorny issues about hate speech and the media

Image via Today’s Front Pages at FreedomForum.org.

Correction: An earlier version of this post identified 4chan’s hosting service. In fact, it was a porn site that uses the name 4chan but is otherwise unrelated.

Our thoughts at this time need to be with the Black community of Buffalo — and everywhere — as we process the horror of one of the worst mass murders of recent years. We need to do something substantive about guns, racism and white supremacy. What actually happened, and what we can do to prevent such horrific events from happening again, must be at the top of our agenda.

This blog, though, is primarily about the media and often about free speech. So let me address some of the secondary issues. The shootings intersect with notions of hate speech, social media and the role of Fox News in mainstreaming dangerous racist ideologies such as so-called replacement theory, which holds that the left is trying to push out white people in favor of non-white immigrants in order to obtain an electoral advantage.

First, keep in mind that hate speech is legal. The New York Times today says this about New York Gov. Kathy Hochul:

When pressed on how she planned to confront such hate speech online, without impinging on First Amendment rights, Ms. Hochul noted that “hate speech is not protected” and said she would soon be calling meetings with social media companies.

Hochul is wrong, and the Times shouldn’t have used “noted,” which implies that she knows what she’s talking about. If hate speech were illegal, Tucker Carlson would have been kicked off Fox long ago.

What’s illegal is incitement to violence, and you might think whipping up racist hatred would qualify. In fact, it does not — and the very Supreme Court case that made that clear was about a speaker at a rally who whipped up racist hatred. Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) held that a ranting Ku Klux Klan thug demanding “revengeance” against Jews and Black people had not engaged in incitement because his threats were non-specific.

Hochul can cajole and threaten. And she should. But it’s going to be difficult to do much more than that.

As for the media themselves, that’s a morass, and it’s too early to start sorting this out. But the shooter reportedly fell down the 4chan hole during the pandemic, immersing himself in the racism and hate that permeate the dark corners of the internet. There are a lot of moving parts here, but it seems unlikely that a young mass murder-in-the-making was sitting around watching Fox, even if some of his rants paralleled Carlson’s rhetoric. Fox’s role is to mainstream such hatred for its frightened, elderly viewers. The radicalization itself happens elsewhere.

So, are we going to ban 4chan? How would that even work? If the government tried to shut them down, they could just go somewhere else. I’m sure Vladimir Putin would be happy to play host.

4chan represents the bottom of this toxic food chain; Fox News is at the top. In the middle are the mainstream social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Twitch (which allowed the shooter to livestream his rampage for nearly two minutes before taking it down) and the like. It’s too early to say what, if anything, will happen on that front. But it’s probably not a good time to be a billionaire who wants to buy Twitter so that there will be less moderation on the platform than there is currently.

As it turns out, that billionaire, Elon Musk, may be backing away.

Looking back at the early promise of Twitter with Andy Carvin and the Arab Spring

With Twitter apparently on the verge of falling into the hands of billionaire troll Elon Musk (or maybe not), I thought back to a time when we thought it could be used as a force for good. More specifically, I thought back to a story broadcast on the “PBS NewsHour” 11 years ago (above) in which Andy Carvin, then with NPR, talked about how he was using it to track the Arab Spring uprisings that engulfed Tunisia and, later, Egypt and beyond.

This is a great story, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch it. I used to show it to my students as a demonstration of how Twitter could be used to track news in real time. If I showed it to them now, it would be as a historical artifact.

Carvin began with about a half dozen people in the Middle East who he was already following on Twitter — what interviewer Hari Sreenivasan called Carvin’s “first ring of trust.” From there, Carvin looked at who those people were following. He’d engage in private conversations via DM to add to his circle, building a “mental map” and explaining: “It doesn’t mean that they’re all reliable. It does mean that they’re all talking to each other.”

Carvin also discussed his methods, some of which I would not recommend today given the toxic cesspool that Twitter has become. “I see my Twitter feed as an open newsgathering operation,” he said, explaining he would often retweet items with comments such as “Source?” or “Verified?”

In one such instance, he said he retweeted a sign being held by protesters in Iran that showed three prominent politicians photoshopped to make it appear they were about to be hanged. He was able to verify that the sign was real. Today, given that Twitter has long since grown beyond a small conversation among a fairly sophisticated community, that sort of activity would be called out for promoting misinformation and probably removed by Twitter. (But maybe not after Musk takes over.)

Carvin talked about what was then the surreal experience, now fairly common, of watching live coverage of the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square while using Twitter to follow people on the ground. “You don’t necessarily get complete situational awareness,” he said. “But you get a pretty close proximity to it.” Just a few years later, in 2014, many of us followed the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter as protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown — protests that television didn’t catch up with for many hours.

Carvin also discussed the overwhelming nature of social media, saying he would check tweets on his phone while making dinner, lay off while eating with his family and reading to his kids, and then go back to TweetDeck until nearly midnight to keep up with the latest. Of course, Carvin was a journalist covering vitally important live events, and his routine was certainly less exhausting than being a reporter on the scene. If you leave that aside, though, it speaks to the difficulty we’ve all had of achieving any sort of work-life balance in the age of always-on digital technology.

“I don’t know how to juggle all this,” he said. “I’m kind of hoping that others will be able to come in and do similar things. I probably will reach some saturation point at some point. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting pretty close.”

Twitter remains a valuable tool for journalists, but it’s fallen far short of its initial promise. It’s hard to see how Musk is going to make it better. Even after reaching a deal to buy the platform, he was attacking top executives at Twitter, unleashing his army of trolls. It has not been a good week — or, as the Carvin video reminds us — a good decade for any of us who are interested in preserving some sliver of civil online discourse.

Twitter was right to ban MTG — but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s going to matter

Marjorie Taylor Greene. Photo (cc) 2021 by Gage Skidmore.

If I were in charge of Twitter, I would have banned Marjorie Taylor Greene, too. But let’s not kid ourselves. This was a business decision, aimed at protecting Twitter’s brand and keeping its customers satisfied. Greene’s reach will hardly be affected (her official congressional Twitter account is still online), and her fans will simply write off her punishment as further evidence that Twitter is part of the liberal elite’s global conspiracy or whatever.

Meanwhile, Joe Rogan and other right-wingers are moving to GETTR, the latest Trump-friendly Twitter alternative. And our cultural disintegration continues apace.

Researchers dig up embarrassing data about Facebook — and lose access to their accounts

Photo (cc) 2011 by thierry ehrmann

Previously published at GBH News.

For researchers, Facebook is something of a black box. It’s hard to know what its 2.8 billion active users across the globe are seeing at any given time because the social media giant keeps most of its data to itself. If some users are seeing ads aimed at “Jew haters,” or Russian-generated memes comparing Hillary Clinton to Satan, well, so be it. Mark Zuckerberg has his strategy down cold: apologize when exposed, then move on to the next appalling scheme.

Some data scientists, though, have managed to pierce the darkness. Among them are Laura Edelson and Damon McCoy of New York University’s Center for Cybersecurity. With a tool called Ad Observer, which volunteers add to their browsers, they were able to track ads that Facebook users were being exposed to and draw some conclusions. For instance, they learned that users are more likely to engage with extreme falsehoods than with truthful material, and that more than 100,000 political ads are missing from an archive Facebook set up for researchers.

As you would expect, Facebook executives took these findings seriously. So what did they do? Did they change the algorithm to make it more likely that users would see reliable information in their news feed? Did they restore the missing ads and take steps to make sure such omissions wouldn’t happen again?

They did not. Instead, they cut off access to Edelson’s and McCoy’s accounts, making it harder for them to dig up such embarrassing facts in the future.

“There is still a lot of important research we want to do,” they wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “When Facebook shut down our accounts, we had just begun studies intended to determine whether the platform is contributing to vaccine hesitancy and sowing distrust in elections. We were also trying to figure out what role the platform may have played leading up to the Capitol assault on Jan. 6.”

In other words, they want to find out how responsible Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and the rest are for spreading a deadly illness and encouraging an armed insurrection. No wonder Facebook looked at what the researchers were doing and told them, gee, you know, we’d love to help, but you’re violating our privacy rules.

But that’s not even a real concern. Writing at the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram points out that the privacy rules Facebook agreed to following the Cambridge Analytica scandal apply to Facebook itself, not to users who voluntarily agree to provide information to researchers.

Ingram quotes Princeton professor Jonathan Mayer, an adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris when she was a senator, who tweeted: “Facebook’s legal argument is bogus. The order “restricts how *Facebook* shares user information. It doesn’t preclude *users* from volunteering information about their experiences on the platform, including through a browser extension.”

The way Ingram describes it, as well as Edelson and McCoy themselves, Facebook’s actions didn’t stop their work altogether, but it has slowed it down and made it more difficult. Needless to say, the company should be doing everything it can to help with such research. Then again, Zuckerberg has never shown much regard for such mundane matters as public health and the future of democracy, especially when there’s money to be made.

By contrast, Facebook’s social media competitor Twitter has actually been much more open about making its data available to researchers. My Northeastern colleague John Wihbey, who co-authored an important study several years ago about how journalists use Twitter, says the difference explains why there have been more studies published about Twitter than Facebook. “This is unfortunate,” he says, “as it is a smaller network and less representative of the general public.”

It’s like the old saw about looking for your car keys under a street light because that’s where the light is. Trouble is, with fewer than 400 million active users, Twitter is little more than a rounding error in Facebook’s universe.

Earlier this year, MIT’s Technology Review published a remarkable story documenting how Facebook shied away from cracking down on extremist content, focusing instead on placating Donald Trump and other figures on the political right before the 2020 election. Needless to say, the NYU researchers represent an especially potent threat to the Zuckerborg since they plan to focus on the role that Facebook played in amplifying the disinformation that led to the insurrection, whose aftermath continues to befoul our body politic.

When the history of this ugly era is written, the two media giants that will stand out for their malignity are Fox News, for knowingly poisoning tens of millions of people with toxic falsehoods, and Facebook, for allowing its platform be used to amplify those falsehoods. Eventually, the truth will be told — no matter what steps Zuckerberg takes to slow it down. There should be hell to pay.