Elon Musk is not our rival

The buzz reveals a lot about the politics of social media on both the left and right, and it's not particularly nice to either side.

Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter is not yet complete, and it appears to be on hold. Nonetheless, speculation about what this potential change in ownership of the social media behemoth means for online life has persisted, especially in light of Musk's recent promise that he would lift Donald Trump's permanent ban. The buzz reveals a lot about the politics of social media on both the left and right, and it's not particularly nice to either side.

Much of the commentary has framed Musk's move for a Twitter buyout, which began last month, as part of a right-wing revolt against perceived left-wing social media bias. (The suspension of the Babylon Bee, a conservative satirical site, for a tweet dubbing Health and Human Services Secretary Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, "Man of the Year" was presumably the proximate cause for the Tesla CEO's serious investigation into Twitter ownership.) Musk's politics, on the other hand, are not very right-wing. Unlike his erstwhile competitor turned colleague Peter Thiel, Musk, at least based on his public remarks and actions, does not want to empower a weird blend of extreme libertarian and ultra right ideology. Musk, along with then-Disney CEO Bob Iger, resigned from Trump's two White House commissioned business advisory councils in June 2017 as a result of Trump's decision to withdraw from the Obama-era Paris climate accords; Musk had previously justified his participation in the councils by claiming that he and other business leaders could do good by helping shape the White House agenda.

Musk was still in the good graces of the mainstream media at the time. This appears to have changed in May 2018, when Musk responded to bad media reports about Tesla by attacking the media's legitimacy on Twitter.

Musk was most likely being thin-skinned and attempting to redirect attention away from the company's troubles. Despite this, he wasn't the only one with thin skin. In the age of Trump and right-wing trolls, it was easy to dismiss any criticism of the media as aiding and abetting the Troll-in-war Chief's on "fake news" and "enemies of the people." The following was a typical exchange between Verge transportation editor Andrew Hawkins and Musk:

Needless to say, the media's retaliation had the usual Streisand effect of bringing greater attention to Musk's attacks while also politicizing them. Musk made some unavoidable mistakes, but he was still concerned about maintaining his mainstream credibility at the time; when he inadvertently recommended a media criticism piece from a site affiliated with the sex cult NXIVM, he quickly removed it after the shady provenance of the website was revealed. Despite all of Musk's deserving criticism, his detractors in the media engaged in their own underhanded tactics, such as when the Daily Beast published a piece by science journalist Erin Biba claiming that female journalists who criticized Musk—such as herself—were subjected to particularly vicious and sexist abuse by Twitter "MuskBros," with unmistakable innuendo of misogyny-by-association—despite the absence of any evidence that Musk himself had (For that matter, Biba's main proof that female journalists were singled out for harassment came from a male journalist who said despite going after Musk, he didn't get much backlash; such gender-based narratives tend to rely on skewed and cherry-picked facts.) Anti-Semitism allegations also surfaced around the same period. "Do you think it's in the interest of powerful people to A: encourage a free press that exposes their lies, or B: tear it down so their lies are easier to tell?" asked Verge co-founder Joshua Topolsky in response to Musk's idea for a media rating site. "Who do you think *owns* the press?" Musk responded with a tweet. Hello.” As I stated earlier in the post, Musk clearly meant "powerful individuals" in context. However, many people, including journalists like NBC News writer Ben Collins, immediately assumed Musk was implying the "Jews own the media" trope:

Alt right trolls jumped on the bandwagon as well, but it was difficult to know whether they were drawn to Musk's initial tweet or the accusing answers. It didn't help matters that Topolsky eventually erased all of his tweets from the thread, removing all context. Collins, who was the first to pounce on Musk's tweet, launched a thread a year later pointing out that it was still being circulated out of context by neo Nazis and other baddies, and implying that Musk was to blame for not removing it (even though the example Collins gave was a screenshot which Musk could not have stopped anyone from using).

In essence, I believe Musk's latter online persona—connected to the "anti-woke" counterculture, prone to "shitposting" and "lib owning," and occasionally even Trumpy—has been a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy for Musk detractors. This is not to imply that Musk is unaccountable for his actions. He's an adult, but he's also prone to thin-skinned, juvenile outbursts (as evidenced by the iconic "pedo guy" spat with a British cave rescuer in Thailand in June 2018). His feud with the progressive commentariat, on the other hand, has clearly taken two.

Today, as Musk appears to be on the verge of acquiring Twitter (talk about lib owning! ), there are compelling grounds to doubt Musk's plans to overhaul the social media network. I believe he undervalues the challenges of sustaining a "free speech" commitment—a commitment to allowing maximum self-expression and exchange of ideas—on a worldwide site with 330 million active users while weeding out the toxic content that would render it worthless if allowed to expand unchecked. Given that several of those nations have extremely restrictive regulations, his recent comment that he would "hew close to the rules" of the countries in which Twitter operates raises a whole new can of worms. And his eagerness to engage a venomous alt-right troll like Michael Cernovich in the same tweet raises serious doubts about his judgment.

Musk's rash anti-lockdown posts at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, in my opinion, raise similar problems.

But it is also true that some of the recent attacks on Musk have been intemperate, ill-informed, and patently unfair, not only from individual Twitter users but also from the mainstream media. The most egregious example so far is John Eligon and Lynsey Chutel's May 5 New York Times "deep dive" into Musk's South African background, which began by implying that Musk had largely kept quiet about "how growing up as a white person in South Africa under the racist apartheid system may have shaped him." The evident suggestion was that Tesla's CEO was concealing nefarious racist secrets. Further down in the piece, it was found that Elon had black friends (rare in his environment), questioned his father about the country's racial inequities, and was once humiliated at school for chastising a classmate who had used a racial slur. Internet sleuths like Tom Gara (of Meta/ Facebook, formerly of Buzzfeed News) soon deduced that the Times story had been secretly changed from a more critical version. Furthermore, Eligon's first tweet linked to the piece oddly implied that apartheid South Africa, with its vast system of censorship, highlighted the perils of Musk's "unchecked speech." The "unchecked speech" in question, however, was apartheid propaganda from the government.

Ultimately, perhaps, it boils down to this: While right‐​wing complaints about left‐​wing bias in the social media often amount to self‐​serving grievance‐​mongering, the progressive freakout over Musk does suggest that many people on the cultural left think Twitter should be their turf and their instrument of social change.

This is especially evident in the alarm about all the harassment and disinformation that Musk’s (yet unseen) free speech policies will supposedly unleash on Twitter.

For instance, in a New York Times guest essay, Elizabeth Spiers, the founding editor of Gawkerwrites that “free speech absolutists” like Musk often conflate criticism with harassment. Spiers writes that she has received rape threats, threats to her family, misogynistic comments, and even anonymous letters to her home address. According to Spiers:

These are not uncommon experiences for women and minorities who speak in public, on Twitter and beyond, and I’ve suffered far less harassment than others. It happens all the time. Twitter’s current moderation policies can’t completely prevent it, but they are designed to mitigate it. Twitter requires its users to comply with a terms of service agreement that bans certain types of speech—harassment, in particular. It also has moderation policies in place to combat disinformation. …

Mr. Musk insists that the company’s policies are too restrictive. … It’s an absolutist definition of free speech that says corporations are obligated to let things that may be harmful to their users or bad for their businesses remain on their platforms because any limitation on speech is de facto censorship and censorship of any kind is worse than the consequences of hate speech, harassment and disinformation.

Of course, getting rid of policies that restrict hate speech will most likely affect women and minorities much more than it does white men like Mr. Musk, and unlike him, most people on the receiving end of threats and harassment can’t afford personal security. Twitter’s rules already allow for a broad range of abuse, much of which falls into a kind of gray area between personal insult and harassment.

But in fact, in a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, respondents reported that they had experienced online harassment at fairly similar rates—whether men or women, white or black. shows (similarly to previous studies) that men, woman, and black and white Americans experience online harassment at fairly similar rates. The specifics differ; women, not surprisingly, are more likely to report sexual harassment on the Internet, while men are more likely to report threats. But there’s a bigger issue here, which is that Spiers’s definition of Twitter harassment almost certainly leaves out a vast swath of extremely nasty abuse from the wrong (from her point of view) end of the political spectrum: progressive mobbings.

On the very day Twitter melted down over the presumed Musk purchase, a writer named Marisa Kabas tweeted asking people about their “favorite day on Twitter” in an apparent nostalgic tribute to the site. One of the top replies came from another writer, Jenna Quigley:

What Quigley was referring to (along with several other "blue check" Twitter users) was one of the most heinous episodes of mass harassment in Twitter history: Justine Sacco's mobbing in December 2013 for a tweet she sent just before an 11-hour flight from London to Cape Town that read, "Going to Africa. I'm hoping to avoid contracting AIDS. Just joking. I'm white!" Sacco, a 30-year-old director of corporate communications at the IAC media firm, was mocking a naive "white privilege" mentality, but when her tweet went viral, some assumed she was being literal rather than humorous. People eagerly anticipated the surprise on her face when she landed and checked her email and social media accounts, fueled by the fact that IAC had published a statement saying Sacco was in flight and inaccessible. By the time she arrived, she was not only unemployed, but also so well-known that hotels had to cancel her reservations, and her own relatives had rejected her. Yet, when an effort was finally made to clear the air (thanks in part to Jon Ronson's coverage of Sacco's story in his 2015 book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed), a progressive academic, Patrick Blanchfield, felt compelled to write a Washington Post column griping that Sacco was an undeserving "poster child" for online abuse because 1) her ironic tweet could have still caused "hurt" and somehow compounded or trivialized the tragedy of AIDS

If you don't think Sacco's mobbing was an egregious case of Twitter harassment, your definition of "harassment" is likely to be political. If you think that was a fantastic Twitter moment, you're probably not against online harassment. There are numerous such instances of online harassment masquerading as social justice advocacy. Consider the years-long smear campaign against journalist Jesse Singal, which included terrible slanders and threats, many of which came from blue-check progressive journalists rather than anonymous trolls. Singal has questioned several aspects of progressive conventional wisdom on transgender matters, therefore this hounding is sheer political revenge.

Consider those who have been falsely labeled as bigots as a result of a viral video. After example, in October 2018, a woman from Portland, Oregon was dubbed "Crosswalk Cathy" on social media and in a Portland Mercury article for allegedly contacting the cops on a black couple over a lousy parking job. In fact, as the Mercury eventually admitted, the woman seen in a 30-second video clip was reporting a car that was partially obstructing a crossing while its owners were picking up takeaway food nearby (and had no means of knowing the owners' racial identification until they returned and challenged her). After the video went viral, at least one activist used Twitter as a means of retaliation, saying, "Twitter, do your thing and identify this woman." Others published identifying information, encouraged people to contact the data management school where the woman worked, and boasted about writing to demand her dismissal. While Crosswalk Cathy did not lose her job, she did clean up her online reputation for at least a year. Should recommendations for preventing online abuse be included in strategies to combat the problem?

"Disinformation" involves equally laden definitional difficulties, as evidenced by the current controversy surrounding the planned "Disinformation Governance Board" of the Department of Homeland Security. Do we merely place the "disinformation" sticker on Donald Trump's "stolen election" falsehood, or should we also put a "misleading" or "partly untrue" label on Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams' comparable claims? Should Twitter's disinformation crackdown have caught the many viral tweets in March 2021 claiming that a Georgia police official casually excused Robert Allan Long's fatal shootings of eight people (six of them Asian women) at several Atlanta spas and massage parlors as "yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did" based on a blatantly out-of-context quote? (In truth, Capt. Jay Baker was simply responding to a query regarding what the suspect had told interrogators.) Would it apply to a viral tweet earlier this month that misrepresented a footnote from Justice Samuel Alito's draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, claiming that Alito and Justice Amy Coney Barrett were arguing that abortion should be prohibited because the US requires a "domestic supply of infants" for adoption?

The same issues arise when it comes to "hate speech." Does the definition cover insults directed towards white people or men? Do "gender-critical feminists" have a right when they suggest that Twitter's rules on "misgendering" (which can refer to anything from specific abuse of transgender people to broad statements about sex, gender, and identity) unfairly favors one side in an ongoing and unresolved debate?

Because Twitter is such a large site with relatively ambiguous rules and norms, as well as inconsistent enforcement—based not only on user complaints but also on individual staffer decisions—drawing any type of conclusion concerning bias trends is extremely difficult. The point isn't whether Twitter is biased towards conservatives or progressives. It's more that those who believe Musk will unleash the forces of evil on Twitter have a massive blind spot when it comes to the existing toxicity, especially toxicity among progressives, and they want social media to be regulated in a "no enemies to the left" mindset.

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Even if Musk does purchase Twitter, it is far from guaranteed that he will improve things. He doesn't seem to have a right-wing goal, despite his nods to the "countercultural" right; he's no serious political thinker, but he's flexible enough to provide some alternatives to kneejerk divisiveness. (Is Trump's proposed unban a hint of where things are heading? Not necessarily—and some argue that the decision will hurt Trump.) Even if his ego is likely to get in the way, Musk appears willing to talk across party lines. Making him the enemy ahead of time is not a good idea.

At the very least, a Musk buyout, or even the possibility of one, would shake things up and force us to reconsider a variety of issues, including the political and ideological framing of terms like "harassment," "disinformation," and "hate speech" on Twitter. Perhaps the uncomfortable debates will also address Twitter's disproportionate influence in the media and politics. Is this a public plaza? A collective consciousness? Unrepresentative opinions in an imperfect cross-section? Or is it simply a hangout for journalists, pundits, and activists, whose importance they tend to exaggerate?

We're having that discussion right now, which is a good start.

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