WeeklyWorker

05.05.2022
Why is Elon Musk prepared to shell out $44 billion to take over a stagnant media platform? Is it about profit? Is it about free speech? Is it about politics?

Moral panic and blue checks

Elon Musk’s proposed $44 billion Twitter takeover should not be compared with the last days of the Weimar Republic. Nor will it strike a blow for free speech, writes Paul Demarty

In the last decade or so, Twitter has found a particular place in the ecosystem of social media platforms.

Facebook has the raw numbers, of course: everyone and their uncle is on it, and their uncle is probably sharing some atrocious rightwing conspiracy theory, as we speak. Its subsidiary, Instagram, is the home of the photogenic narcissist, including that especially irritating subspecies, the ‘influencer’. YouTube allows people to play-act at being media professionals of various sorts.

The actual media professionals, however, are all on Twitter. Its smaller user base is, today, relatively well understood. These people are typically richer than the average Joe, and more liberal. They are more obviously stratified, fighting over follows and likes; those who, via some opaque process, can ‘prove’ their notability can get a so-called verified account. (The verified, denoted by a blue check-mark icon next to their names, are known as ‘blue checks’.) A moral panic may begin somewhere else, but, if it captures the attention of the class of bourgeois professionals, it will be fought out above all on Twitter. Thus many hobby-horses of such people are best known by their Twitter hash-tags - #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and so forth.

It is thus no surprise, then, that ‘the discourse’ - the emergent narrative of the most influential Twitter personalities - around Elon Musk’s proposed takeover is so hysterical. An early reaction to Musk’s initial statement of intent compared the situation to life in the final days of the Weimar Republic, but somehow things have only devolved from there.

On the face of it, it does not look like much of a change. The current CEO, Jack Dorsey, is - like Musk - a tech-industry billionaire of libertarian, going on liberal, political opinions (the majority opinions, more or less, of tech industry people prior to the ‘great awokening’ of the past five or 10 years). They are both tiresome cryptocurrency enthusiasts. Their public personae are very different, of course, with Dorsey infuriatingly earnest and Musk playing more the troll; and Dorsey administers, rather than owns the company. But it is pretty close to a like-for-like swap - and we should bear this in mind, as we examine the details of the situation.

Musk’s proposals so far are not terribly numerous. He says he will ‘fix’ the bot problem. He will require human accounts to verify their identities, although they may nevertheless hide behind pseudonyms on the site. He will publish the algorithms backing the display of different items as open-source code. And he will recalibrate the site’s content moderation to more closely match the first amendment of the US constitution.

There is good reason to suppose that none of these will happen, or else none of them will match up to the billing. Twitter has already placed huge resources behind spam prevention and bot detection, without noticeable results. Why should a change of owner fix that? Tying online and real-life identities, besides the moral qualms one might have (similar policies over at Facebook have been controversial), could very well reduce Twitter’s official user count considerably; he will have to think twice about it if he wants to sell the thing for more money at a later date. Publishing the algorithms would be interesting; but, even if he does, it is hard to explain the behaviour of the system purely from the algorithms, when so much depends on the data processed by them.

Moderation

It is the content moderation question which has dominated discussion, however, and which therefore requires more analysis.

In the last two years, Twitter has made a number of high-profile moderation calls, which have generated enormous controversy. The first concerns a leak of the contents of a hard drive belonging to a certain Hunter Biden, the son of then-candidate and now-president Joe. Hunter’s life is notoriously rich in incident, and will one day make an excellent meandering biopic after the fashion of Martin Scorsese. One episode saw him - in the glorious carpet-bagging years after the Maidan ‘revolution’ - acquire a comfortable sinecure on the board of a Ukrainian oil company. Emails found on the laptop rather implied that what the other bosses desired was not the business acumen of this most prodigal of sons, but access to his father - then Barack Obama’s vice-president (but it is not clear whether such access was actually obtained). The news was broken by the Rupert Murdoch-owned and Trump-supporting New York Post tabloid, shortly before the 2020 election. The major social media outlets, including Twitter, conspired to suppress the story on the basis that it was Russian disinformation - a claim that has since been comprehensively refuted. For this grave act of actual journalism, Twitter suspended the Post’s account.

Then, the following January, after the Capitol riot, Twitter finally did what liberals had been demanding for over five years - ban Donald Trump himself from the platform. It was understandable in a context when Trump had apparently attempted to launch a coup, as the presidential vote tallies were ratified in Congress (albeit the most farcically under-cooked coup in living memory). People had died - although they were almost all rioters, and all but one of those apparently dead from over-excitement. The actual reason given, however - that Trump’s announcement that he would not attend Biden’s inauguration amounted to a threat of violence - was flagrantly preposterous. In statements after the event, Dorsey defended his team’s decision, but argued it was a ridiculous dereliction of duty for politicians to devolve these decisions to private companies like his. He thought Bitcoin and related technologies would solve it in the end, somehow: he always does.

One argument routinely made over the years for Trump’s suspension had at least some logic to it. People were routinely kicked off Twitter for statements deemed to be racist or hateful, or otherwise in contravention of the site’s typically vague terms of service; many such cases involved far less serious breaches than those routinely spewed out by @realDonaldTrump, and almost by definition from accounts with far less influence and therefore capacity to cause harm. Why should he be a special case? We mention this only to highlight the fact that Twitter’s moderation actions have the character of being both utterly arbitrary and politically skewed towards the liberal-identitarian doxa of the company’s employees and shrillest big-name users.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I myself was briefly suspended for calling the MP, Wes Streeting, a word unprintable in a family publication such as this; not a proud moment, to be sure, but in any case I can therefore testify that no meaningful justification is offered to those so suspended, and no recourse except a button you can click to ‘appeal’ (which results in a pro forma appeal rejection about half an hour later).

Musk’s rhetoric since the commencement of his takeover bid has tended to cast these kinds of actions as a series of dreadful errors. He has said so specifically about the Hunter Biden affair, thereby implicitly criticising Vijaya Gadde, the Twitter executive ultimately responsible for the calls made over it. Gadde was later recorded crying on a call with her subordinates, and she will no doubt be updating her CV as we speak. Predictably, liberal journalists decried this as a racist attack on a woman of colour; equally predictably, rightwingers were quick to point out that this poor, oppressed creature has to get by on a barely-livable pay packet of $17 million a year. There is some evidence of a flood of new Twitter users apparently hailing from the political right: Marjorie Taylor Greene, the utterly cracked congresswoman, has gained 90,000 followers in the last two weeks.

The peculiar thing is, of course, that nothing has actually changed. Musk has not bought Twitter - even if the deal proceeds without major problems, it will take months. Gadde and her team of censors remain in post; some of Greene’s new friends will no doubt feel the full force of the ban-hammer in due course. There is even some speculation that Musk may pull out: the expectation that he will finance the deal in part by selling Tesla stock has sent its price plummeting. (This feels like wishful thinking: presumably that would not have come as a surprise to a man who routinely uses his Twitter account in acts of borderline market manipulation.)

But suppose it does go through: can he actually deliver a significantly more ‘libertarian’ regime? Twitter is not too big to fail. Its business is utterly dependent, among other things, on presence in the app stores of Apple’s and Google’s respective mobile platforms, and on its infrastructure provider, Amazon Web Services. These are the three forces that conspired to crush Parler - a small free-speech-focused social network with an overwhelmingly far-right user base - in the wake of the Capitol riot. They could, of course, be ‘induced’ to do the same thing to Twitter. Leave aside the fact that Twitter has users outside the US, including in many countries with rather less robust constitutional commitments to free expression than we find in the first amendment. Twitter, like all the major social networks, has typically complied with these demands.

Freedom

There is a last American angle which necessitates some speculation. It is fairly clear that the US state core takes a serious interest in what goes on with these media - and why wouldn’t it? It is the FBI, CIA and who knows who else that Musk’s Twitter will have to face in many of these cases. The idea that he will be more likely to prevail against them than Dorsey and the faceless institutional investors currently holding the stock is based on nothing - how exactly is he going to do it? By making memes?

If Musk and Dorsey have much in common, Musk and Trump have more. They both have the whiff of people who have never been told ‘no’ in their lives, who were born rich and got richer, who are surrounded by toadies and yes-men, and who have therefore never quite reached the level of psychological maturity found in the median 15-year-old. They both want to project an image of entrepreneurial vigour and an ability to fix things through their can-do attitude and refusal to be fobbed off by the sea of mediocrities around them. They alone have the balls to get shit done. But Trump, for all the palaver, was ultimately tamed; he ranted on Twitter like a new breed of isolationist paleo-conservative, but governed in practice as a run-of-the-mill Republican, doing much (to take one example) to prepare the ground for the Ukraine war despite his campaigning on a thaw in relations with Russia, passing huge tax cuts for the rich, and any number of other George W Bush-type initiatives.

We expect much the same result in the case of Musk, if for no other reason than that the American state’s commitment to freedom of speech - always more fragile than the clear words of its constitution on the matter would lead you to believe - has been tested almost to destruction. This is ultimately a result of contradictions in the capitalist system itself.

From its beginnings, capitalism has posed peculiar problems for the maintenance of its specific modes of class rule. It emerged typically through a class alliance of the bourgeoisie, the peasants, urban artisans and other plebeian layers against the traditional privileges of squire, bishop and king; but the all-consuming logic of capitalist production tends to concentrate power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, and reduce the other elements to propertyless proletarians. In order not to need to conduct unlimited warfare against the exploited (indeed, in order to be able to pay soldiers and the like), it requires a legitimating ideology that can replace the antique and medieval picture of a hierarchically ordered universe. Thus the myths of the deserving rich down the centuries, from Calvinism to Thatcherism.

Each individual proletarian, however, is steadily stripped of even the means of self-protection the peasantry held against its own exploiting classes; thus, sooner or later, it organises - since its only power is in numbers - and produces its own ideologies. The rapid technological innovation brought on by capitalism, meanwhile, quickly reaches into the means of communication, which are repeatedly revolutionised in the invention of various forms of moveable type, the telegraph, and so on. There is a contradiction here: the bourgeoisie needs rapid means of communication, and true information, but it cannot easily control its flow; it has instead a limited range of police instruments to suppress the speech of dangerous agitators, starting with press licensing and criminal libel, and proceeding through to the prosecution of anti-war activists in World War I-era America (which gave us the quip about ‘shouting “fire” in a packed theatre’ so beloved of modern anti-fascists).

The political results of this largely depend on the state of the proletarian movement; when it is strong, it can look something like a straightforward test of strength, as in the attempts of Bismarck to suppress the social democrats and the organisation, in reply, of the ‘red postal service’, to smuggle literature from abroad. In today’s America, of course, the movement is not strong at all; but meanwhile the means of communication have undergone the mother of all revolutions, by way of the internet and the emergence of social media usable by non-‘techy’ people.

The result of this combination is not less polarisation, but fewer and fewer adequate forms of polarisation: polarisation on second order problems, or wholly trivial problems, and ultimately in the age of QAnon and Russiagate, wholly illusory questions. There is a tendency, in ‘sophisticated’ Marxist conceptions of ideology, to bracket entirely the question of whether what is ‘known’ through ideology is true or false; a certain sniffiness about traditional metaphysical ideas of truth-value is borrowed either from Hegel or Nietzsche, or both. This is to miss an essential part of the dynamic: ideologies do resolve in part to simple propositions, which may be true or false (or, more usually, partly true). One really can investigate whether ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’. This is true, in fact, for more or less all ‘models’ of reality - as statisticians say, “all models are wrong, but some are useful”. In statistics and other scientific disciplines, however, a more useful model necessarily corresponds more closely to its object, at least in some respect. That link does not necessarily exist for ideologies, though they are unlikely to be successful if their pictures of the world are entirely alien to popular experience. Instead they must correspond to interests.

The credibility gap of a ruling ideology will ultimately lead to its defeat, regardless of whether the only true possibility of getting out of its grip permanently - the working class movement - is in any state to do the defeating. It is merely that it will be defeated by other ideologies, which serve the interests of different configurations of ruling layers, or even of subordinate layers (typically among the petty bourgeoisie). The result is a cycle of liberalism and reaction, each of which exhausts itself and is gobbled alive by its enemies in turn. Capitalism cannot, in the end, speak the truth about itself; its rival tribes of politicians and paid persuaders are doomed to refight the same battles on different terrain.

Regime change

Our current moment is one where a period of ‘liberal’ hegemony seems to be giving way at last. The election of Trump in 2016 made the crisis plain, and it is in the light of this crisis that we must view the liberal bourgeoisie’s increasingly bizarre enthusiasm for baroque rules of political etiquette, and censorship and public humiliation of those who breach them. The bourgeoisie as such, the owners of stocks of capital, cannot by themselves govern complex societies, but must defer to a caste of technicians suspended on the border of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie: today it is usually called the ‘professional managerial class’ or PMC.

A change of hegemonic ideology really does threaten such people, since they administer things not in the name of capital accumulation and the naked rule of wealth, but the prevailing values of the day: liberty, order, equality, meritocracy, tradition, anti-racism - whatever complex of ideas is to hand. The replacement of one set of such values by another entails the replacement of the holders of those values with others in the apparatuses of the establishment, most especially the apparatuses of persuasion - the media, including the modern social media. (The ‘replacement’ will naturally in part take the form of the defection of opportunists.)

The election of Trump enabled a peculiar dynamic - he was, after all, a candidate considered ‘unreliable’ by at least a faction of the American deep state, and frequently rebuked by former intelligence people (who are only ever retired to a certain point) and even serving army officers. There was thus an objective basis for the liberal media to not only retain its pre-eminence in elite opinion, but to become more (pseudo-) radical. Trump was portrayed, in a series of exceptionally bold falsifications, as a traitor and a Russian agent; his liberal opponents styled themselves, in leftist style, the ‘resistance’ - oh sorry, my mistake, the ‘#resistance’.

Instead of being supplanted by a new Trumpite-nationalist media class, there commenced the most universally antagonistic relationship between media and government since at least the Watergate nadir of Richard Nixon; but this experience was double-edged. Trump, of course, fought back from his Twitter bully pulpit, and rightwing mistrust of the mainstream media grew considerably. In response to emboldened white nationalists, liberals embraced ever more irrational forms of anti-racism; the backlash has resulted in sweeping local laws against ‘critical race theory’ in red states (a term which has expanded to cover almost any serious teaching of the history of the race question in America); and so on.

The point here is not that the anti-CRT laws, or Florida’s notorious ‘don’t say gay’ bill, or whatever else, are liberals’ fault in any moral sense. To argue such would be an insult to people who are largely trying very hard to make a real difference when it comes to real injustices. It is merely to point out that liberalism is not capable of really securing gains of this sort, because it cannot - any more than nihilistic conservatives like Christopher Rufo - tell the truth about them. It must, like such conservatives, be driven ultimately to irrationalism when its ‘model’ fails.

The only meaningful instrument the PMC has to shape the agenda is the thing it monopolises by virtue of its class role: control of the means of communication - especially among elite layers and within the PMC itself, and secondarily ‘outward’ to the masses. Hence the ability to coerce social media platforms into deplatforming certain individuals assumed such vast significance in the last six years, and the related ‘moral clarity’ ethic in journalism, and so on. It maintained a kind of discipline among in-group members. If it is about to be robbed from them, it is no wonder that they picture themselves in the last days of Weimar.

Hellsite

The alternative to it being stolen from them, as we argued above, is not general freedom of speech on Twitter. Among the many errors of ‘post-left’ analyses of the PMC is that they tend to view the present liberal-intersectional ideology it typically holds as the ‘natural’ class ideology appropriate to its position within the social structure. Such an idea is falsified merely by comparing the public statements of today’s ‘median’ journalists, academics and whatever else with their equivalents in the early 1960s. These are jobs that can just as well be done by reactionaries.

For a real commitment to freedom of expression, we must instead turn to the class that really needs it - the working class. Its status as propertyless again demands organisation on its own terms; but the true fulfilment of its interests in turn demands the ruthless pursuit of the truth, the abandonment of the illusions strewn everywhere about it by the two factions of the bourgeois political regime and its functionaries. Any given section of the working class must understand both that the rising tide does not lift all boats, and that capsizing nearby boats will not save it.

Until our own age, the organisations of the working class were at least able to produce media that could aspire to compete with those produced by our rulers. It was largely in response to this reality that the prima facie broad commitment to free expression found in the great constitutions of bourgeois society were curtailed in practice, but often to no great effect. The existence of great organisations and parties, or even modestly successful ones, provided the courage of solidarity and could thereby lead members to assert freedom where it was denied, even on pain of jail time, or worse.

If we regain our strength, we will do so in a new period in the history of media technology. The last time around was still very much the ‘old media’ era. Its platforms were either wholly closed to us (television and radio) or relatively decentralised and therefore easier to exploit (print). The internet era has proved more or less hospitable for small operations to tick over in the interstices of the larger, but the immediate context of the Twitter takeover is the shrinking of that space and sharper ideological homogenisation. Just as the parties of old needed their own printing presses, so the parties of the future will need their own social networks.

This might be achieved by literally building new ones, or by seizing the existing ones and rebuilding them as - for example - worker-consumer cooperatives. In either case, it is worth thinking for a moment about what could be different about ours. Twitter is an exemplary case here of the present state of affairs. All kinds of people are on it - including me, when I manage to keep my nose clean in the view of Gadde’s inquisition - but it seems a near universally hated platform (the more hated, the more time people spend on it). Its most engaged users call it the ‘hellsite’.

There are well-known problems frequently cited by Twitter celebrities, most particularly the proliferation of threats and abuse in direct messages. But the abuse is surely a side effect of the general design of the platform, which - unless users take special measures, which really rather break the whole experience - relies on the ability of anyone whatever to scream at anyone else, through the fiery void of the hellsite.

If users (barring a small subset of inveterate trolls) actually hate this, why does it survive? Because Twitter does not exist to make its users happy, but rather its advertisers. The more obnoxious everything is - up to a certain point - the more of their lives people pour into it; and the more of that, the more time they will incidentally spend staring at adverts. The result is the worst of all possible worlds: a space divided in fact into a series of smaller sub-communities - left Twitter, book Twitter, MAGA Twitter, and so on ad infinitum - permanently exposed to the most obnoxious opponents available. Twitter is not unique in this respect; it is merely the example of the genre most used by agenda-setting elites, which gives it an oversized profile. (For all the drama of Trump’s Twitter account, insofar as his victory can be attributed to one social media platform or another, the culprit is surely Facebook.)

Liberals have conventionally defended the moderation decisions of Twitter in controversial cases by arguing that the first amendment gives you the right to free speech, not to post your ideas on any particular platform (which are all privately owned and therefore not ‘the government’). This argument is specious, but on a technicality - there is not actually any alternative to the major platforms, so long as they are subsidised by advertising and sovereign wealth funds via venture capital, so it is in the end the same as saying that the right to free speech does not extend to the use of the telephone network, which in the US and this country is privatised, and so on. The grain of truth is that the (supposedly) flat space, across which anyone on earth can call anyone else an asshole at a moment’s notice, is a total novelty in the history of human society - and one that is comprehensively proven useful only to a self-devouring digital advertising industry.

So a fighting party’s social network would doubtless have stricter limits than today’s Twitter for acceptable discourse. The difference would be, firstly, that it would have no pretence to being the entire world’s public square, and thus would be transparent about its limits; and secondly that moderation decisions would be answerable to the party and its democratic structures, and not to a faceless morass of institutional investors and their paranoid functionaries, who may or may not be spooked into some intervention by a big enough noise on a slow enough news day. Numerous other ‘advances’ would follow - that people would not burn up their lives scrolling through it purposelessly, that it would have no nauseating promoted content or creepy tracking, and all around fewer ‘features’ that have made life on the internet so trying in recent years.

In the meantime, we huddle in our corner of Twitter, awaiting the coronation of our new boy king.

paul.demarty@weeklyworker.co.uk