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Musk, Twitter, Speech
I’ve not said very much on the Musk Twitter Takeover, because I have complex thoughts, rather than any clear thesis; and I think many won’t agree or find my take tedious.
But, some have asked, so I’ll say this:
I think that social media – and Twitter in particular – is enormously important. It’s common to hear things like “Twitter isn’t real life,” but that’s not true. The user base of Twitter includes many prominent journalists and politicians who use the platform to form their views of world events, and who are influenced by the tweets they read there. The manual and algorithmic manipulation of these platforms via the boosting of select voices and the muting of others influences political discourse all over the world. Social media manipulation is a big part of the reason that lockdowns happened, it is a key ingredient in the vaccinator hysteria, and its importance is only growing. Social media is also hugely important for us. The populist backlash of 2016 would never have happened without the major social media platforms, and while the owners of social media have taken steps to mute the opinions of ordinary people and dissidents, with a little bit of skill and resilience, you can defeat their countermeasures and reach a wide audience anyway.
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Twitter isn’t just real life, it’s bigger than real life, and I’m far from the only person who’s figured that out. Heavy social media censorship is merely one sign of its overwhelming importance. Liberal democracies like to pledge all kinds of freedoms to their populations, but you’re generally only allowed to exercise these freedoms as long as you don’t pose a serious threat to anyone in power. The minute it starts to matter, speech is inevitably circumscribed. In Europe, where we don’t have anything like a Bill of Rights, this is typically done by laws that directly regulate what you’re allowed to say and prescribe substantial fines or prison sentences for offenders. The US Constitution requires a softer, asymmetrical approach in America. There, government regulators and advertisers pressure social media platforms to censor speech behind the scenes. We don’t understand all the ways this is done, but the results are clear enough. The freewheeling days of the early internet are over. Almost all influential content flows through a handful of tech platforms, and these chokepoints are heavily controlled.
For all of these reasons, I never had high hopes for Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover. He could conceivably escape the pull of censors by making Twitter vastly less relevant, for example by chasing off all the most important users or reducing its reach dramatically. Then, we would have free speech on Twitter as we do on many of the alt-tech platforms, but nobody would be listening. Or, he could resign himself to appeasing multiple governments and woke capital, while perhaps tweaking things at the edges. This is, quite clearly, the route he chose. Strangely, he seems not to understand Twitter very well, which is surprising given that he’s one of its most successful users. The consequences have been good and bad. The destruction of the curated blue-check Twitter aristocracy has been salutary and it has pissed off most of the right people, but the poorly thought-through Twitter Blue and the ensuing desperation to stop the proliferation of parody accounts has caused the banning of some good people.
That’s it. I don’t have deep wisdom here, except to emphasise once again that censorship is the inevitable reaction of power towards speech that it finds threatening. If you’re on a platform where censorship is widely practised, you’re in the right place; if you’re being censored, you’re probably saying things that the powerful find inconvenient or even threatening. You have to be resilient and persistent, and not let the censors distract you from your message.