Mayonnaise Clinic Part 1: The Twitter Issue
Of course Elon Musk is right that Twitter is liberal. Why else would liberals be so mad about him buying Twitter?
This was supposed to be the mailbag column, but I started writing a top-note about Twitter, and then I wrote and I wrote and eventually it was about 3,000 words, and we decided it was a stand-alone issue. So, this week you’ll hear from me in a slightly different order: Today, I talk about Elon Musk breaking the internet; tomorrow, I answer your mail; Friday, we have a weekend-ready podcast about cocktails featuring Peter Suderman.
Okay, so. Twitter. What does it mean that Elon Musk is probably going to own it soon? What does it mean?
My main guesses are (1) the acquisition will matter much less for broader society than Musk’s fans or detractors seem to think, partly because they overstate how much Twitter will change, and partly because they overstate how much Twitter (and “narrative shaping” more broadly) affects political outcomes; and (2) there may be some significant changes Musk drives at Twitter that (2a) may be ones people don’t expect and/or (2b) don’t cut in obvious ways across the ideological divide that is driving how people talk about this story.
Everyone is focused on moderation decisions and who will be un-banned from the platform, which I’ll get to in a moment, but first I take note of Musk’s stated intention to “verify all humans” on the platform and get rid of spambots.
I don’t know what this will mean in practice and I suspect he doesn’t either. (He has talked previously about letting paid users of Twitter Blue obtain an alternative version of the verification checkmark, but that wouldn’t come close to verifying “all” the site’s humans.) But a site that consisted entirely of real people posting under their real names — or, as seems more feasible to me, where most users were using a default view where they would only see content from other real people posting under their real names — would be a materially different environment from today’s Twitter. Remember, not very long ago, one of liberals’ top complaints about Twitter was the prevalence of fictitious accounts, sometimes originating from Russia, posing as Americans and seeking to influence our political conversations. An emphasis on verification could further curtail that behavior. It could also be a problem for people who have better reasons to speak anonymously than Russian trolls do. My guess is a platform with much less anonymity would be both somewhat better on balance and somewhat more congenial to liberals than today’s platform, but I’m not sure about that — I’m mostly sure it would be different.
I would also note that Twitter has not been an especially well run company — its stock-price performance has been lackluster, and it’s failed to modernize features in ways that would have improved both user experience and financial performance. For example, as private messaging has become a more integral feature on other social networks, Twitter has not improved its direct message feature in a way that would make it competitive with Facebook Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, and the like. You can’t even search your DMs.
Musk is already talking about this — he wants end-to-end encryption for Twitter DMs, a shift that would walk the company right into a policy fight that scrambles usual Republican-Democrat divides in Washington.
I also think Ezra Klein is right that Twitter founder Jack Dorsey has an unreasonably grandiose vision of what Twitter is for, and that Musk’s juvenile sensibilities actually reflect a better understanding of the core product than Dorsey has. So I think it’s plausible this takeover will lead to better functionality.
Of course, moderation is important, too. I think a lot of the commentary about this has been frankly unhinged, as with CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis comparing the day of Musk’s takeover bid announcement to “the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany.” Moderation matters less than that. But sure, it matters. And moderation is hard, and you’ll never make everyone happy when you do it.
Musk’s public statements about moderation suggest to me he hasn’t fully thought the issue through. I think a lot of commentators (including Matt Yglesias and Tim Lee) have been overly fixated on how Twitter’s content algorithm supposedly makes moderation especially important. But you need moderation to deliver a satisfactory user experience on any platform where users are being shown content they didn’t seek out — and even a non-algorithmic Twitter would fall in that category, because of retweets and replies. Musk’s stated emphasis on the need to drive spambots off Twitter shows even he understands you need to exclude certain kinds of perfectly legal content to make the site work well. So, Twitter can’t and won’t shift toward a moderation model that only blocks illegal content, even if Musk claims he’ll get pretty close to that.
What you can do is adjust the knobs on Twitter’s moderation model so it is not so biased against conservatives. And it is biased against conservatives, which is no surprise, since the company’s employee base is overwhelmingly liberal and its most influential users also tend to be liberal. Moderation is always biased, but let’s look through a few key areas where Musk might push change in the approach to moderation to nudge the bias a different way:
Musk is right to call the suppression of the New York Post’s reporting on what really does seem to have been Hunter Biden’s laptop a serious mistake — for that matter, this is Twitter’s own institutional position, since then-CEO Jack Dorsey called the move a “total mistake” back in 2021. The most charitable view of the incident is that panicky Twitter employees, scarred by the 2016 campaign and primed to assume derogatory information about the Biden family must have been an illegal Russian op, moved to ban first and ask questions later. Extending conservative news outlets the same benefit of the doubt that liberal ones get is a change Musk probably could push from the top down.
The policies that drove the Babylon Bee off the site enshrine a particular set of views about transgenderism that many conservatives reject, a special practice that extends to few other contexts — you’re free to express on Twitter that you believe homosexuals are going to hell, for example. (Mandatory affirmation of transgenderism is one of those political things that liberals will tell you is “not political,” and is yet another attempt at a stolen base.) The Bee ban seems to have been a key precipitating event for Musk’s takeover bid, and he could rescind or significantly narrow that policy.
And of course, Twitter’s decision to keep Donald Trump off the site was a subjective judgment call, which Musk could reverse.
All of these changes would make conservatives more satisfied and liberals less satisfied at the margin with how Twitter is governed, but you’d still have lots of actions making each side unhappy. And since I think it is actually true that the conservative masses are dumber, nastier, and more inclined to hateful, incendiary, and factually inaccurate attacks than the progressive masses (sorry, conservatives!) I think Musk is wrong that an approximately neutral moderation approach would lead to approximately equal complaint on each side of the aisle. Maybe he would settle for more equal, which he could achieve with a more even hand.
In fairness, Musk has also acknowledged publicly that moderation will still make conservatives mad sometimes even when he is in charge, so maybe he does have a sense that this is going to be harder than some of his more glib public comments about just hewing to the legal definition of free speech have suggested. Still, it’s going to be a messy process — not least because a lot of employees won’t like and won’t be especially cooperative with his efforts — that won’t produce anything similar to what his most ardent conservative fans are expecting.
I want to talk some about the completely unhinged tenor of some of the press coverage of this deal.
On Tuesday, conservative populist podcast host Saagar Enjeti tweeted critically of Vijaya Gadde (Twitter’s chief legal officer, who oversees privacy and safety functions) and her handling of the New York Post matter. Referencing a Politico story about Gadde crying in a meeting with her employees after the takeover offer was accepted, Enjeti called her “the top censorship advocate at Twitter who famously gaslit the world on Joe Rogan's podcast and censored the Hunter Biden laptop story.” Musk, apparently to Enjeti’s surprise, responded to his tweet saying “suspending the Twitter account of a major news organization for publishing a truthful story was obviously incredibly inappropriate.”
Musk’s response — offered in frankly pretty measured terms, especially for Elon Musk — is interesting in part because his acquisition agreement says he is “permitted to issue Tweets about the Merger or the transactions contemplated hereby so long as such Tweets do not disparage the Company or any of its Representatives.” If I were Musk’s securities lawyer, I would probably discourage him from publicly criticizing company management during this period — though I doubt he would listen, because he is Elon Musk, and besides, he could argue that criticism is not necessarily disparagement and that perhaps, if you read it closely, this provision applies only to tweets specifically about the merger transaction, not to grousing about Twitter more generally.
Musk’s response is also somewhat interesting because it underscores something that should already be obvious but apparently isn’t to some people: Musk’s desire to purchase the company is premised on the idea that the company is mismanaged, making choices that are bad for the broader culture and perhaps also for the bottom line. Another one of Musk’s premises is that this mismanagement arises from a broadly problematic culture within the company. So that makes the shock and horror that Musk would be critical of employees is kind of stupid. He would not be buying the company if he did not think its employees were a problem. He will probably fire a lot of them, if they don’t quit.
But in its coverage, the Washington Post’s weird choice was to treat the feelings of Twitter employees as the primary issue here — blaming Enjeti and Musk for the fact that people on the internet tweeted mean things about Gadde after they tweeted negatively about her. Some of the comments were racist (remember, these are random people on the internet) but other comments that the Post chose to highlight were merely critical of Gadde and her performance, calling for her firing, or in one instance saying that she will “go down in history as an appalling person.”
A Post reporter emailed Enjeti’s producer at 2am to ask whether he had any concern that “mentioning a specific twitter exec could result in attacks on that exec,” noting as one example that some people on the internet had responded to Enjeti and Musk’s tweets “saying she should be fired.” When Enjeti did not respond promptly to this 2am email, the Post noted in their story that he had not been immediately available for comment (they later updated their story with comments from Enjeti’s subsequent tweets, after he woke up.)
Gadde, I should note, is no mere employee. She’s Twitter’s chief legal officer, and her compensation last year was $17 million. A 2020 Politico profile called her “the most important Silicon Valley executive you've never heard of.” She is the sort of figure that the press is ordinarily supposed to be interested in scrutinizing and holding accountable. Even when reporters think senior corporate executives are good people doing their jobs well, they generally understand that they are fair game for criticism, and that not everyone might agree.
As Tim Carney notes, centering Gadde’s feelings and the fact that people might say nasty things about her on the internet is just a bad-faith tactic. Liberals have found an increasingly long list of reasons to say that arguments need not be rebutted because they are not even allowed to be made:
Robby Soave @robbysoaveIf @esaagar and @elonmusk criticizing a Twitter executive (for a decision Twitter itself admits was bad!) counts as targeted harassment, then isn't WaPo itself engaged in targeted harassment of Saagar and Elon? I unpack this utterly ridiculous standard. https://t.co/KEHDhWHfA4
Again, I remind you: Musk’s stated purpose and intention is to change Twitter. He sees its management as a problem. And yet, according to the Silicon Valley correspondent for the Financial Times (!), it’s supposed to be a matter of “basic human decency” that he doesn’t talk about what, specifically, he thinks an executive making $17 million a year is doing wrong? You can use the ‘someone else committed “harassment” after you spoke’ line to argue against the making of any argument in public. It proves too much. And it’s whiny.
I think there are a few explanations of why reporters are taking this insane pose.