Buyer’s remorse

Meta’s stock market beating and Musk’s acquisition of Twitter paint a grim picture of the state of social media, argues Paul Demarty

There are two news stories about social media floating around at the moment - and, two stories to be told about those stories, taken together.

The first is that Elon Musk has concluded his acquisition of Twitter. We discussed this once before,1 shortly after an initial deal had been brokered between Twitter’s board and the flighty billionaire man-child. Since then, of course, there have been choppy waters. Musk almost immediately attempted to wriggle out of the $44 billion deal, claiming that Twitter had wildly misrepresented its fake user numbers. So far as we can surmise, the real reason was the same as why Twitter more or less forced him to buy at gunpoint (or, rather, judge-point): the deal coincided with a sudden and drastic run on technology stocks. He is thus paying wildly over the odds for a depreciating asset.

Stock prices have more than a little to do with our other story: last week, Meta (owner of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and a few other bits and pieces) announced disappointing earnings - though, unlike Twitter, it still makes a profit. The result was a 25% hit to its stock price, which, as I write, has not rebounded at all. Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s anti-charismatic CEO and controlling owner, put the poor results down to investment in the company’s ‘Metaverse’ project, but lurking in the background are more ominous matters: the threat of regulatory action; Apple’s clampdown on Facebook’s cash cow, behavioural tracking; and a new cynicism among investors about big, speculative investments.


There is, then, a ‘narrowly’ economic story to be told about all this. It starts, roughly speaking, in 2008. In the wake of the financial crash, central banks one after the other resorted to printing vast amounts of money through quantitative easing and slashing interest rates to near zero. Under such circumstances, more conservative investors - especially large institutional funds like pensions and so forth - are pushed into riskier ventures, since ‘safer’ assets like treasury bonds do not even keep up with inflation.

One such class of riskier investment is venture capital. A VC fund will invest relatively small sums in a large number of companies, on the assumption that most will fail, but one or two will become stellar successes. It is VC money that has lubricated the success - such as it is - of the modern wave of tech companies, whose biggest names at this point include, alongside the social networks, gig economy marketplaces like Uber and Deliveroo, and financial services (‘fintech’) companies like Stripe and Monzo.

It cannot be denied that a certain decadence has long since set in. ‘Success’, to a VC, is a smooth ‘exit’: ie, when the VC sells its stake for 10 times what it paid for it. It matters little whether the company itself is successful by the usual measures (for instance, making a profit). It is happy to sell to a greater fool. And, after over a decade of near-zero interest rates, there are some very great fools out there (we need only mention the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, which has been sold substantial chunks of flashy basket cases like Uber). Of course, that era has now ended. Central banks are fighting inflation with the only instrument they have available - ie, monetary policy - so that means rate hikes and quantitative tightening. The great dumb beasts of global finance are slowly awakening to the fact that they have been taken for a ride.

They are not the only ones - although Musk was largely taken for a ride by his own hubris. It is really a lesson in the empty stupidity of celebrity capitalism: like the serial bankrupt Donald Trump, Musk more plays a capitalist for an adoring audience than is one. He inherited a fortune, and then tripped over a larger one in the form of PayPal - one of the great success stories of the dotcom boom. Since then, he has thrown good money after bad in pursuit of various childish endeavours, though along the way Tesla has at least become a more-or-less functional car company (albeit wildly overvalued) and SpaceX has made itself useful to the American deep state.

Since concluding the sale, Musk has appointed himself as the only board member, and is running the show in toytown-Bonapartist fashion by asking his followers for ideas. His followers want just the one thing - a purge of the snowflakes; a host of executives, including CEO Parag Agrawal and lachrymose chief censor Vijaya Gadde, have already been moved on, and Musk is at least making a show of introducing some more transparency around Twitter’s content moderation.


That brings us to the cultural side of the social media crisis. Meta - especially through its key acquisitions - and Twitter have an outsized impact on the culture of western countries, through sheer weight of user numbers in the former case, and demographic cachet in the latter (Twitter has become the natural online home of the so-called professional managerial class). What is remarkable, to observers of a psychological and sociological bent, is how miserable it seems to make people. Twitter’s power users call it “the hellsite”, so frequent and apparently random are its witch-hunts and such is the prevailing pitch of vituperation.

There is an apocryphal story that Peter Thiel chose to invest in Facebook in the first place because, having read his René Girard, he knew that - far from ‘connecting people’ - the platform would be an excellent vehicle for the darker side of human nature to work itself out day after day, and that this dynamic would ensure its success. This story may merely be an artefact of Thiel’s recent Bond villain image, but it captures nicely the Facebook vibe.

So bad did Facebook’s reputation become (linked in increasingly hysterical news reports with rampant ‘misinformation’ and even genocide) that the Meta rebrand became necessary, and with it, the shiny new direction, which will ‘connect people’ - this time for real (or virtual-real). The ‘Metaverse’ is a virtual-reality … well, I’m searching for a noun to use here, but precisely the problem is that nobody actually seems to know what this thing is, and why anyone should ever need it to exist. Is it a game? A morbidly cutesy competitor to video-conferencing platforms like Zoom? Second Life without the furries? What? All Zuck knows is that it’s the next big thing, but apparently only he is enough of a Nietszchean Ubermensch to see it. (Nietzsche, for all his limitations, at least saw how close such prophetic foresight was to insanity - history will be the judge, in this case as always.)

About Twitter - what more is there to say, except to reiterate our scepticism as to what Elon Musk can actually achieve of his stated programme (even on the unrealistic assumption he actually believes it)? His takeover coincided with the release of an extensive investigation by Lee Fang and Ken Klippenstein in The Intercept, detailing the American security state’s intrusive involvement in social media censorship.2 The fact that the only ‘real’ part of Musk’s idiotic personal space programme depends on state and defence department largesse makes it all the more unlikely that he will scare the horses very much.3 Perhaps there will be less overt censorship of conservative ideologues, so far as culture-war bugbears go, but ‘misinformation’ pertaining to perceived US national interests will suffer under the same regime of dictatorship as before.

The Guardian’s economics pundit, Larry Elliott, speculated that Musk’s Twitter takeover would, in the end, be remembered as the AOL-Time Warner merger of this particular bubble: the “everything bubble”, as he calls it. There is some sense to that - one last hubristic display by people who are not as clever as they think they are. For Elliott, this is largely a matter of the macro-economics: the end of the cheap money era we mentioned above.4 But the story of the social media era is also the story of a brewing and finally exploded crisis of capitalist governance. Liberal pundits are often too quick to blame social media for this second crisis, but nonetheless there is a link. Social media was not responsible, as it were, for the movement of the political and cultural tides; but rather for the particular eddies and riptides that accompanied it.

Escape illusions

In the beginning there was Arpanet, later the internet, limited to military and academic institutions; and then, close to 30 years ago, commercial internet access and the invention of the worldwide web, which in principle allowed ordinary Joes with a PC and phone line to log on and do something vaguely useful. It was, however, another decade (and one false dawn in the dotcom bubble) before masses of people truly began to use the net, and another decade again before internet connectivity in one form or another became, even in poorer countries, the default state of civilisation.

It was during that last transition - from mass appeal to all-pervasiveness - that the social networks we know and do not very much love today emerged. It was a period when the Silicon Valley money-men were repairing their reputations, after their early-noughties bruising; the idea for a social network already existed, having grown out of Usenet and special-interest web forums into early social media sites like Friendster and Myspace. Facebook and Twitter introduced, respectively, a tie to real-world identities (early Facebook users needed a university email address even to sign up), and a mobile-focused interface (early Twitter users would update their timelines primarily by sending SMS messages).

Both rapidly outgrew their gimmicks, driven particularly by the invention of modern smartphones. Facebook was opened up to everyone, though it retained an often-clumsy real name policy; before long, Twitter refocused on being a kind of news network. Its characteristic user experience of relentless, total flow dovetailed with a revival in anarchistic forms of political action. Meme-politics was initially welcomed by exultant liberals, in those innocent days before Pepe the Frog and Donald Trump’s trickster-god act. Not a few political revolts were erroneously credited entirely to the influence of social media - notably the Iranian protests of 2009, and Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring a couple of years later.

The appearance of escape from bad old ‘hierarchical’ politics was, in fact, wholly illusory. People talked, in those days, as if the internet was a gift from god, or a race of benevolent space aliens, rather than a piece of physical infrastructure designed to allow communications to continue in the event of a nuclear war (later commercialised by an esoteric wing of the investment banking industry). So long as the honeymoon period persisted, the Valley moguls could project themselves as Promethean figures, irrevocably remaking the world in unrecognisable shape, finally bringing John Perry Barlow’s 1996 ‘Declaration of the independence of cyberspace’ - which has not, it is safe to say, aged as well that year’s clarets - to fruition. In reality, they were subject to the same imperatives as the ‘old’ capitalism, which is to say the discipline of the market and the state system.

One part of that equation was that sooner or later they had to make money. Facebook succeeded in this by becoming the main company (after Google) to achieve a sufficiently commanding position in online advertising. That involved tweaking the app to keep people using it for longer, which in turn meant increasingly manipulative and opaque algorithmic content selection. Twitter’s attempts in this direction have largely been failures, and in its whole period as a public company turned in a profit in only two financial years. It has, peculiarly, had the same net effect in terms of its users’ psychology: the design of the platform allows, by default, everyone to yell at everyone else, send unsolicited private messages, and so on. A public shaming in some weird subculture often ends up sucking in the general population of the site. Despite its apparently more ‘sophisticated’ user base than Facebook, it ends up reproducing the same paranoiac culture-war polarisation.

Tides and eddies

As wider western society’s apologetic ideologies lost traction - as the rising tide failed to lift all boats, and as the very rich escaped any meaningful consequences of economic dislocation - we watched it all happen on our smartphones. A shift towards revanchist, chauvinist rightism was already discernible in the early post-2008 years (or even before). The upshot of all the frothy ‘new movement’ left politics was the left’s capitulation to liberalism, at just the moment liberalism collapsed into irrationalist forms of identity politics. There was only the one alternative to a no-longer-viable post-cold war liberalism, then, and it was a rightwing alternative.

It is this that gets blamed on social media; but the underlying assumption of such an apportionment is that democracy can only survive if there is ‘civil discourse’, and that ensuring this is in the end a technocratic matter. Thus is the argument, roughly, of a recent anti-Musk jeremiad in the New Republic from a military-industrial-complex liberal by the name of Brynn Tannehill, who at least has the courage to come out and say that she considers free speech essentially a bad thing:

Freedom of speech has caused untold death and suffering, when used to disseminate hate or spread disinformation. The protocols of the elders of Zion was a fabricated anti-Semitic text that purported to expose a global, baby-murdering Jewish plot, bent on world domination. Mein Kampf was Hitler’s autobiography, which blamed Germany’s post-World War I woes on a global Jewish conspiracy. Both were readily available in the Weimar Republic, which had no First Amendment per se, but guaranteed freedom of speech. They were key contributors to the fall of German democracy, the rise of the Third Reich and the holocaust itself.5

This is such a fantastically daft and reductive piece of historiography that we feel a little dirty even reproducing it here. Yet it is illustrative of the sheer poverty of this outlook: every schoolchild in this country is taught about the Treaty of Versailles, the Ruhr crisis and hyperinflation, the devastation of the depression, the Third Period fiasco, and Hitler’s successful courting of the military high command. Can American high-school education be so dreadful that all this stuff is absent? Surely not, and Tannehill’s fellow deep-state liberals must have cringed in large numbers at that argument (must have, surely). Her article is illustrative because she is just as stupid about Hitler as her whole caste is about Ukraine and January 6 2021.

There is always a grain of truth, however, and Tannehill is quite correct to state that “the argument that the free market of ideas will win out, or that truth will inevitably conquer demonstrably false narratives, is essentially a libertarian fairy tale … completely ungrounded in observable reality.” Quite so: the increasing derangement of mainstream politics, its reduction to competing menus of shibboleths, the pervasiveness of conspiracy theories: these are not things to be settled agonistically, without a shared discourse in which to settle them. Yet they cannot be settled antagonistically either, since they reflect contradictions at a whole different level of social life. All victories are partial, all celebrations frustrated; there is always one more stain to clean away, one more QAnon fanatic, one more ‘groomer’ …

What would a real alternative to this paralysis look like? Not a more ‘leftwing’ version of liberal identitarianism, which is where most of the left in Britain and America seem to be at; still less its simple inversion - an anti-liberal alliance with conservatives. Regular readers of this paper will be aware of our prescription: a party, which aims to become a majority of society at large, which openly regards the prevailing constitutional arrangements as illegitimate and fake-democratic, and which maintains an internal regime of robust disagreement and unity in action. Such a party would address ‘culture war’ questions as part of a programme for all of society - not as a series of isolated issues, in which it is necessary to appear to be on the right side.

It would, of course, need a set of media - and a set of media of its own. We cannot trust Twitter or Meta, whether they are owned by narcissistic pillocks like Musk and Zuckerberg or faceless grey committees of Blackrock fund managers. It is better for us if there is less censorship on these platforms; but the overwhelming dominance of a small private oligopoly is censorship in itself. Tannehill notes that, if Twitter just gets taken over by irritating, rightwing rabble-rousers, liberal users will simply abandon it - and, again, there is a truth there. I have been on old-fashioned web forums that got taken over by full-on Stormfront-style fascists; the forums ceased to be usable. (Stormfront, one assumes, would suffer the same problem if it was somehow taken over by an army of queer influencers.) The problem is not ‘filter bubbles’ as such, but the total non-transparency over how the filtering works - its administration by bureaucrats in the momentary interests of capital and the state. If I belong to an openly communist web forum or Discord server, then I will not confuse the consensus view there with that of society at large, because I know its biases.

A revolutionary communist movement must strive for the maximal independence of its media: its own print shops, its own corners of ‘mainstream’ social networks, but also its own social networks (in extremis - in conditions of insurrection, for example - might we not even need our own internet or localised internets? There is nothing magical about the internet - it is just computers, wires and radio waves at the end of the day.) A victorious communist movement would be faced with the problem of making the internet and wider media landscape safe for socialist democracy; the ‘infrastructure’ - the wires, radio waves, hard drives, servers, data centres - are certainly a natural monopoly and should be publicly owned on day one.

At the level of the media themselves, who can say? Do we really need a People’s Metaverse? Should the world really have, as per Twitter’s marketing, a single town square? Is a large, centralised social network really ‘progressive’, compared to a smaller one, like the forums of old? My own inclination, without wanting to romanticise the old days, is that it is not, any more than Tsar Bomba was ‘progress’ over Little Boy and Fat Man. Let a hundred flowers bloom - a hundred thousand, each ‘filter bubble’ contributing to a civic republicanism fuller than has ever existed.

In the meantime, we have front-row seats for the decline and fall of Twitter and Facebook. Who knows what drama awaits?


  1. ‘Moral panic and blue checks’ Weekly Worker May 5: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1394/moral-panic-and-blue-checks.↩︎

  2. theintercept.com/2022/10/31/social-media-disinformation-dhs.↩︎

  3. yasha.substack.com/p/elon-musk-is-surveillance-valley.↩︎

  4. www.theguardian.com/business/2022/oct/30/twitter-deal-may-signal-turning-point-when-the-everything-bubble-bursts.↩︎

  5. newrepublic.com/article/168309/elon-musk-twitter-free-speech-ruin-america.↩︎