Tag Archives: Elon Musk

Trust, Safety And Twitter

The New York Times recently published a guest essay by the former head of Trust and Safety for Twitter, who has now resigned.

 In some ways, Yoel Roth’s essay was “more of the same,” for readers who’ve been following the chaos at Twitter since Musk acquired it. But what struck me was Roth’s recitation of all manner of complicated issues that Musk had obviously never considered: as he says, “even Elon Musk’s brand of radical transformation has unavoidable limits.”

The influence of advertisers has perhaps been the most obvious limitation, since it has been highlighted in a number of news reports. You’d think it is one aspect Musk would have understood, since –according to Roth–ninety percent of Twitter’s revenue comes (came??) from advertising. When Musk’s acquisition was immediately followed by a wave of racist and antisemitic trolling, wary marketers took a pause. They’re still paused.

But  even if Mr. Musk is able to free Twitter from the influence of powerful advertisers, his path to unfettered speech is still not clear. Twitter remains bound by the laws and regulations of the countries in which it operates. Amid the spike in racial slurs on Twitter in the days after the acquisition, the European Union’s chief platform regulator posted on the site to remind Mr. Musk that in Europe, an unmoderated free-for-all won’t fly. In the United States, members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have raised concerns about the company’s recent actions. And outside the United States and the European Union, the situation becomes even more complex: Mr. Musk’s principle of keying Twitter’s policies on local laws could push the company to censor speech it was loath to restrict in the past, including political dissent.

You would think someone able to pay 44 billion dollars for a social media platform would have good lawyers–and would have consulted them about the legal landscape he was about to enter, but evidently not. (The first clue that he’d failed to do so was his immediate, wholesale firing of half of Twitter’s employees–a move that neglected legal niceties like required notice.)

Regulators have significant tools at their disposal to enforce their will on Twitter and on Mr. Musk. Penalties for noncompliance with Europe’s Digital Services Act could total as much as 6 percent of the company’s annual revenue. In the United States, the F.T.C. has shown an increasing willingness to exact significant fines for noncompliance with its orders (like a blockbuster $5 billion fine imposed on Facebook in 2019). In other key markets for Twitter, such as India, in-country staff members work with the looming threat of personal intimidation and arrest if their employers fail to comply with local directives. Even a Musk-led Twitter will struggle to shrug off these constraints.

As daunting as the legal landscape, however, is a constraint of which I’d been totally unaware–and something tells me it hasn’t been at the forefront of Musk’s mind, either: the app stores operated by Google and Apple. The author says that  “failure to adhere to Apple’s and Google’s guidelines would be catastrophic, risking Twitter’s expulsion from their app stores and making it more difficult for billions of potential users to get Twitter’s services.”

Apple’s guidelines emphasize creating “a safe experience for users” and stress the importance of protecting children.

The guidelines quote Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” quip, saying the company will ban apps that are “over the line.”

In practice, the enforcement of these rules is fraught.

In my time at Twitter, representatives of the app stores regularly raised concerns about content available on our platform. On one occasion, a member of an app review team contacted Twitter, saying with consternation that he had searched for “#boobs” in the Twitter app and was presented with … exactly what you’d expect. Another time, on the eve of a major feature release, a reviewer sent screenshots of several days-old tweets containing an English-language racial slur, asking Twitter representatives whether they should be permitted to appear on the service.

Reviewers hint that app approval could be delayed or perhaps even withheld entirely if issues are not resolved to their satisfaction — although the standards for resolution are often implied. Even as they appear to be driven largely by manual checks and anecdotes, these review procedures have the power to derail company plans and trigger all-hands-on-deck crises for weeks or months at a time.

As the author points out, Musk has criticized the capriciousness of platform policies. (I believe this is an illustration of a pot calling a kettle black).

In appointing himself “chief twit,” Mr. Musk has made clear that at the end of the day, he’ll be the one calling the shots.

And  the “chief twit” is nothing if not arbitrary and capricious..

I hope I have enough popcorn…

 

Free Speech For Me But Not For Thee….


Back in the early 1990s, Nat Hentoff wrote a book titled “Free Speech For Me But Not For Thee.” I loved it. 

Hentoff’s point was a popularized version of Law 101: liberty is indivisible.  If the government gets to decide who has a right, it isn’t a right at all–it’s a privilege that can be withdrawn. We all have freedom of speech–even despicable people voicing horrible opinions–or no one really does. (Someone should mention this to Ron DeSantis...)

Hentoff pointed out that those on the political Right–rabid as they are– aren’t the only would-be censors. He pointed to the anti-porn feminists who were active at the time, gays who supported blacklisting Anita Bryant, and various other enforcers of political correctness. When it came to college campuses, he endorsed a comment made by Clark Kerr when he was president of the University of California; Kerr said “The purpose of a university is to make students safe for ideas–not ideas safe for students.”

What triggered my recollection of Hentoff’s rigorous and intellectually-honest approach to free speech was the recent (mis)behavior of Elon Musk. Musk, a strikingly un-self-aware narcissist who likes to style himself a free speech purist, has demonstrated an understanding of free speech principles roughly on par with his understanding of how to manage a social network–that is to say, very little.

As the Daily Beast–among many others— reported, 

Self-described free speech maven Elon Musk discovered a new limit to his principles this week, after a Twitter employee publicly rebutted the billionaire’s explanation for slow app performance in many countries.

“He’s fired,” Musk declared on Monday morning.

According to The New York Times, 

Mr. Musk’s team was asked to comb through messages in Twitter’s internal chat platform and make a list of employees who were insubordinate, people briefed on the plan said. They also sorted through employees’ tweets, looking for criticism. Those deemed rule breakers received emails around 1:30 a.m. Pacific time on Tuesday, notifying them that they were fired, according to emails viewed by The Times…

Elon Musk says he wants free speech, but his track record suggests otherwise
Musk’s free speech advocacy seems to apply mostly to his own speech or that of his fans and promoters.

The firings of critics who made the mistake of exercising what they believed to be their freedom of speech followed significant cuts to Twitter’s contract work force–cuts that followed the wholesale firings upon completion of Musks 44 Billion dollar acquisition of Twitter, and preceded the recent mass resignations.  Many of the contractors who were terminated over the weekend worked on content moderation and data science and were let go without notice.

Pass the popcorn…

The obvious hypocrisy of a thin-skinned, self-styled free speech protector’s devotion to the First Amendment evaporating when someone dares to criticize him prompts a lot of schadenfreude as yet another narcissistic buffoon discovers that he doesn’t know half as much as he thinks he does.

Clearly, some men believe that being rich means they are smarter than everyone else about everything. (America watched for four years while Donald Trump–who has a lot in common with Elon Musk–demonstrated daily that he didn’t know diddly-squat about government and how it worked. ) Now we are watching Musk create chaos with his new toy–for which he vastly overpaid–as he learns the hard way that management of a social media platform involves skills beyond those needed to compose and send a tweet–not to mention compliance with legal regulations of which he was obviously unaware.

I don’t know how Musk came up with an offer of 44 Billion dollars for a platform that had rarely been profitable, but under his management, its finances have already gotten appreciably worse. Thanks to his boneheaded “blue check charge,” imposters have had a field day, and important advertisers have “paused” their spending. (That includes local giant Eli Lilly, after phony Lilly tweets promising free insulin were left up for hours.) Others who aren’t currently advertising on the platform include Macy’s and General Motors. Omnicom Media Group, composed of agencies representing companies like PepsiCo and McDonald’s, urged its clients to halt activity on Twitter. Omicron warns that risks have “risen sharply to a level most would find unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, Musk’s increasingly frantic efforts to avoid bankruptcy and the effective destruction of Twitter are all playing out in public–and it is the public humiliation he is trying to avoid (or at least moderate) by firing employees who dare to criticize or disagree with him.

Too bad Nat Hentoff died in 2017. He’d have had some pretty pithy observations about Elon Musk’s version of free speech. He’d probably even share my popcorn.  

 

Are We On Self-Destruct?

I am still mulling over the attack that sent Paul Pelosi to the hospital.

You will note that I have not characterized that vicious assault as an attack “on” Paul Pelosi, because that would be inaccurate. The maniac who invaded the Pelosi home was clearly intent upon finding and injuring or killing Nancy Pelosi. It was only because she wasn’t home that he turned his fury and hammer on her 82-year-old husband.

It’s bad enough that the crazy media outlets have responded by doing what they do–inventing weird and exculpatory stories entirely remote from any evidence whatever. (One “explanation” making the rounds suggests that Nancy Pelosi attacked her husband and the entire episode as reported was a cover-up. Other rightwing fantasies are equally bizarre.) But coverage from the sources we like to believe produce legitimate journalism hasn’t been much better.

As several pundits have reminded us, this was an attempted assassination of the Speaker of the U.S. House–the person who is third in line for the U.S. Presidency. Think about that.

In his newsletter, Robert Hubbell minced no words, asserting that the attack “has struck at the heart of America’s political dysfunction and mass delusion.”

Major media outlets are going out of their way to caution that “the assailant’s motives are unknown” and limiting their description of what occurred to “an attack on Paul Pelosi” without acknowledging that the intended target was the person third-in-line for the presidency of the US. Right-wing media is in full conspiracy mode, trafficking in wild and baseless claims that are insulting, defamatory, and offensive to a grieving family and a severely wounded victim. Elon Musk inflamed the situation by tweeting and deleting a bogus “opinion” article from a media outlet known for peddling bizarre conspiracy theories, e.g., that Hillary Clinton died before the 2016 election and her “body double” debated Trump

Apparently, Elon Musk tweeted a link to an “opinion” piece that was admittedly pure  speculation about what “might” have happened. According to Hubbell, Musk deleted the tweet shortly thereafter, “but not before it was exposed to his 120 million followers.”

The damage was done. No amount of truth-telling or retractions by reckless Fox affiliates will overcome the momentum created by Musk’s tweet. See NYTimes, Elon Musk, in a Tweet, Shares Link From Site Known to Publish False News and WaPo, Paul Pelosi attack prompts Elon Musk and political right to spread misinformation.

 In short order, Elon Musk and a reckless Fox affiliate converted a near-miss national tragedy into a cesspool of disinformation and delusion. In the process, the Pelosi family is being subjected to a second trauma that may be greater than the original assassination attempt and injuries suffered by Paul Pelosi.

So here we are. An estimated third of American citizens get their “information” from sources so distant from fact and reality that the term “propaganda” seems inadequate. If, as the Founders’ believed, democratic self-government requires an informed citizenry, the United States is in big trouble.

A commenter to a previous post on the state of our information environment pointed out that the ability to spread disinformation and confusion has grown with each “advance” in communication–newspapers, radio, television, movies, and now the Internet. True. The question we face is: what do we do about it? No serious person wants to abandon the First Amendment–and for that matter, we couldn’t totally suppress manufactured garbage if we tried.

And to be fair, it isn’t just America.

We are at a place in human history where a substantial portion of the population simply cannot cope with the realities, constant changes and uncertainties  of modern life. Those humans are a ready-made, eager audience for the purveyors of hate and division–and so long as there is an audience, there will be self-promoters to prey on that audience, either to make money (Alex Jones) or acquire political power (Trump/ fill in your favorite example).

My middle son has a theory that the reason we haven’t detected evidence of superior alien civilizations “out there” is because, at a certain point in the evolution of a civilization, it self-destructs. I hope he’s wrong, but the trajectory of humanity right now sure lends weight to that theory.

In less than a week, Americans will go to the polls and choose whether to continue down the path of conspiracy and theocracy–a path that will continue to facilitate the fascist fantasies being spread by Elon Musk, Fox News and their ilk, and will likely signal the end of the American Idea as we have understood it.

Even if we manage to avoid that result, we will be left with a conundrum: what do we do about the prevalence and appeal of invented realities–lies– and the people who believe and act on them?

 

The New Gatekeepers?

Speaking of media and information failures…

Any competent historian will confirm that propaganda and misinformation have always been with us. (Opponents of Thomas Jefferson warned that bibles would be burned if he were elected). The difference between that history and the world we now occupy is, of course, the Internet, and its ability to spread mis- and disinformation worldwide with the click of a computer key.

As a recent column in the New York Times put it, the Internet has caused misinformation to metastasize.

The column noted that on July 8, Trump had taken to Truth Social, his pathetic social media platform, to claim that he had really won the 2020 presidential vote in Wisconsin, despite all evidence to the contrary. Barely 8000 people shared that “Truth.” And yet 

Within 48 hours of Mr. Trump’s post, more than one million people saw his claim on at least dozen other sites. It appeared on Facebook and Twitter, from which he has been banished, but also YouTube, Gab, Parler and Telegram, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

The spread of Mr. Trump’s claim illustrates how, ahead of this year’s midterm elections, disinformation has metastasized since experts began raising alarms about the threat. Despite years of efforts by the media, by academics and even by social media companies themselves to address the problem, it is arguably more pervasive and widespread today.

It isn’t just Facebook and Twitter. The number of platforms has proliferated. Some 69 million people have joined those like Parler, Gab, Truth Social, Gettr and Rumble, sites that brag about being “conservative alternatives” to Big Tech.  And even though many of those who have flocked to such platforms have been banned from larger sites, “they continue to spread their views, which often appear in screen shots posted on the sites that barred them.”

When the Internet was in its infancy, I was among those who celebrated the diminished–actually, the obliterated–role of the gatekeeper. Previously, editors at traditional news sources–our local newspapers and television news stations–had decided what was newsworthy, what their audiences needed to know, and imposed certain rules that dictated whether even those chosen stories could be reported. The most important of those rules was verification; could the reporter confirm the accuracy of whatever was being alleged? 

True, the requirement that news be verified slowed down reporting, and often prevented an arguably important story from being published at all. Much depended upon the doggedness of the reporter. But professional journalists– purveyors of that much derided “lame stream” journalism–were gatekeepers preventing the widespread dissemination of unsubstantiated rumors, conspiracies and outright lies.

Today, anyone with a computer and the time to use it can spread a story, whether that story is verifiable or an outright invention. We no longer have gatekeepers. Even the larger and presumably more responsible platforms are intent upon generating “clicks” and increasing “engagement,” the time users spend on their sites. Accuracy is a minor concern, if it is a concern at all.

The Wild West of today’s information environment is enormously dangerous to civil society and democratic self-government. But now, an even more ominous threat looms: Billionaires are buying social media platforms. Elon Musk, currently the world’s richest man, now owns Twitter, “a social media network imbued with so much political capital it could fracture nations.”

It’s a trend years in the making. From the political largess of former Facebook executives like Sheryl Sandberg and Joel Kaplan to the metapolitics of Peter Thiel, tech titans have long adopted an inside/outside playbook for conducting politics by other means.

 But recent developments, including Donald Trump’s investment in Twitter clone Truth Social and Kanye West’s supposed agreement to buy the ailing social network Parler, illustrate how crucial these new technologies have become in politics. More than just communication tools, platforms have become the stage on which politics is played.

The linked article was written by Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and it details the multiple ways in which these billionaires can deploy the power of social media to the detriment of American democracy. As she concludes:

In many ways, the infamous provocateur journalist Andrew Breitbart was right: politics are downstream of culture. To this I’d add that culture is downstream of infrastructure. The politics we get are the ones that sprout from our technology, so we should cultivate a digital public infrastructure that does not rely on the whims of billionaires. If we do not invest in building an online public commons, our speech will only be as free as our hopefully benevolent dictators say it is.

A world in which Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are informational gatekeepers is a dystopian world I don’t want to inhabit.