Musk's Twitter: Blazing Open Trails
With layoffs, reform across Silicon Valley has already begun
Last spring when Elon Musk announced his investment in, and then purchase of, Twitter, I said that he’d “dropped a knowledge bomb on the information minefield.” Musk insisted that it wasn’t a financial play. Rather, he said it was a last-ditch effort in the face of overwhelming online censorship, to secure free speech and even democracy.
With the deal now consummated and Musk launching big changes, the heads of Musk’s critics are indeed exploding. Celebrities proclaimed they were leaving the platform (for Mastodon, or maybe Canada?), and a dozen or more Fortune 500 companies said they were canceling or pausing multimillion-dollar ad buys, likely under threat from activist groups.
Musk said the boycotts are costing millions of dollars a day, though advertisers may reconsider when they see Twitter’s latest user-growth numbers. Meanwhile, Musk’s having a ball. Not only does he build rockets, cars, and satellites, he’s a funny and incisive tweeter too. The South African native exudes an appreciation for his adopted country’s basic freedoms and opportunities, which too many prominent Americans seem to have forgotten. His critics don’t like his enthusiasm one bit.
Musk is still working on new content moderation policies, which will tilt heavily toward openness. But he’s already begun substantial cutbacks in staff, including units dedicated to ethics, human rights, and climate change.
For this, Musk is made out to be a bogeyman. But the Twitter stock hadn’t budged in more than a decade. Many knew the company was bloated. In fact, several Silicon Valley firms are following Musk’s lead in dramatic workforce reductions — Facebook and Stripe, for example. “Every founder/CEO in Silicon Valley,” tech entrepreneur Antonio Garcia Martinez wrote, “is looking at the purge . . . and wondering if they can finally correct the mistake of allowing the Borg into their companies by doing the same.”
Musk has suggested he wants to strip away the content moderation and internal politics and rebuild Twitter into something of an “everything app,” including financial tools. That takes serious software engineering, not a preoccupation with external interests.
At a deeper level, however, this depoliticization of Twitter is fundamentally a political act. The internet, which began as a communications network, is now the foundational platform for all finance, commerce, culture, and, yes, politics. The values we embrace for the internet are the values we embrace as a people.
Americans excelled at building the internet’s physical infrastructure, but they’ve not handled well the social psychedelics that it unleashed. An “exaflood” of information aroused worries over misinformation. Existing authorities felt a loss of control and reacted with aggressive content moderation. They may have meant well, but we suffered the most widespread erosion in the appreciation of free speech in memory.
The blanket of censorship was remarkable in its uniformity. I’ve argued recently just how coordinated the suppression of important health information was during COVID-19, as Big Tech firms collaborated with government health and law enforcement agencies to purge scientists and data that exposed the harms of pandemic lockdowns and mandates.
One large-scale information platform that is free and open can therefore make all the difference. Alternatives and choices are the enemies of censorship.
As I argued last spring,
An open Twitter may expose bad behavior at YouTube and Facebook. . . . I don’t think we are out of the woods yet, however. Today’s censors have made “misinformation” their central organizing theme. The totalitarian tools of intimidation and erasure needed to suppress inconvenient ideas are seductive and powerful and will not be lightly relinquished.
So the information wars are not over; a battle has merely been won.
This article originally appeared at AEIdeas.