Elon Musk could make things worse, but Twitter was already in bad shape

Many fear that Twitter, under the leadership of Elon Musk, is falling prey to trolls and stalkers. It’s possible. But instead of arguing about who should be excluded from Twitter, we should focus on why Twitter exists and the intended impact of the social network on the behavior of its users.

Source: Jacobin Mag, Ryan Zickgraf
Translated by the readers of the Les-Crises website

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives at the Axel Springer Award ceremony in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Tesla Inc. will be added to the S&P 500 Index in one shot on Dec. 21, a move that will ripple through the entire market as money managers adjust their portfolios to make room for shares of the $538 billion company. Photographer: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Twitter’s real problem isn’t the billionaires who own it, but the outrage its algorithms are designed to provoke, turning our thoughts and attention into a commodity. (Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

To hear the liberal talkative class last week, Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter isn’t just bad news — it’s the apocalypse.

“A takeover by Musk could truly be a major step towards the collapse of democracy,” begins a tweet. Elizabeth Warren added that the agreement was “dangerous for our democracy. »

“We may see in retrospect that Twitter has driven the final nail into the coffin of being able to tackle climate change,” another tweet read. Yet another lamented that logging on to Twitter before Musk arrived was like partying in a Berlin nightclub “in the twilight of Weimar Germany. »

To sum it up: democracy is dead, climate change is unstoppable, hell is empty, and all the demons come to Twitter because the richest man in the world bought it.

But the real devil’s bargain is the one we got when we migrated our public discourse to social media platforms. Speculation about what changes Musk might champion on Twitter serves as cover for the real problem: the algorithm-driven outrage that turns our thoughts and attention into a commodity.

Hell is other people in line

If the “end is nigh” talk sounds a bit melodramatic, it’s a core feature, not a bug, of the site our Edgelord Emperor Elon now owns.

In recent years, several designers of social media platforms have admitted that their systems are addictive and that the algorithms that mediate our experience and decide what content we see tap into negative “triggers” in our brains. According to the academic study titled “Angry by Design”, sites choose to spread negative and emotional messages farther and faster.

As a result, Twitter runs primarily on fear, outrage, and hateful clicks. That’s not really a revealing statement. Knowing that social media sucks is part of the mood of the talk. Yet large swaths of the population never seem to tire of raging within and against the machine.

The numbers don’t lie. The time we spend consuming digital media has increased during Covid lockdowns and has yet to return to pre-2019 levels. The time we spend in front of screens is estimated to have topped eight hours per day, about half of our waking life. The average American spends more than two hours a day on social media, which is more than many of us spend talking to people face to face. The distinction between an “online” and an “offline” world is itself losing its meaning.

This is why I question one of the underlying assumptions liberals have made about free speech. They claim that Musk’s commitment to free speech on Twitter will result in a growing tsunami of new hate speech, misinformation and harassment that will flood our news feeds. Their argument seems to be that objectionable speech comes from individuals who are mean in the offline world and that their meanness spills over online. Twitter needs to exclude them in order to preserve the integrity of our public discourse. Musk doesn’t want to do that, so he could become responsible for a rising tide of fascism.

But if it were the opposite? Perhaps the hate-inspiring digital architecture of social media is at least partially responsible for distorting our thoughts and communication, not the other way around.

In 2018, The New York Times published a damning story about Facebook’s specific role in encouraging sectarian violence in Sri Lanka. The Council on Foreign Relations released a report on hate fueled by social media turning into real violence, and which has led to an increase in violence among American teens. This may be proof that the opposite of what liberals think is true: rather than keeping bad people off digital platforms, maybe we should be keeping people off digital platforms so that they don’t turn bad.

The truth is, Twitter was already designed to stoke anger, spark outrage, and bolster political tribalism before Elon Musk bought it out — because it keeps users online longer, and every minute they spend in front of a screen is monetizable. The issue, then, is not Musk’s commitment to free speech. It is the greed of the private platforms that exist for public discourse.

The brewing of billionaires

Freedom of expression does not exist online. Not really. Twitter is a billion-dollar company, and the audience is both the customer and the product — with or without Musk.

Just last week, Twitter was owned by a confederation of capitalists. Its biggest shareholder was the Vanguard Group, an investment firm with assets of $7 trillion, about twenty-five times more than Musk’s fortune. The second was Kingdom Holding, a company controlled by billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. A lawsuit last year revealed how Twitter was complicit in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on dissidents and critics of the regime.

Will the arrival of different billionaires at the head of the company make a big difference?

The answer is probably no, just as the Washington Post has not fundamentally changed after the takeover by Jeff Bezos, another tech billionaire comparable to Musk. But Silicon Valley must be delighted that this is the only question being asked in this current period. A few Big Tech companies, including social media companies, spent $70 million lobbying the federal government in 2021. In the face of a cycle of outrage over free speech online, Washington’s rhetoric on the dismantling of the very lucrative monopolies of Facebook and Twitter on the attention economy has been muted.

Tech companies benefit from the belief that the main problem with their products is that some people aren’t using them properly. This inevitably leads to a discussion of enlightened moderators responsible for rewarding good speeches and punishing bad ones.

Lost in all the noise around Musk, there is a deeper debate about building democratic social media networks from below, networks that could foster more positive or constructive human interaction, and nurture our better angels at the bottom. place of our darkest demons. Better still, we could speak of the reconquest of the public sphere emptied of the physical world, where freedom of expression is greater.

Instead, it’s as if the ‘site of hell’, as it’s often dubbed, is destined to remain the epicenter of human communication forever, and we’re only able to bicker to find out who deserves to be kicked off this otherwise unchallenged platform. It seems Twitter users are collectively tied to Prometheus, eternally doomed to type our misery machines 280 characters at a time while the Twitter bird logo eats our livers every day.

And if you agree, please retweet this.

About the Author

Ryan Zickgraf is an Alabama-based journalist. He is the editor of Third Rail Mag.

Source: Jacobin Mag, Ryan Zickgraf, 30-04-2022

Translated by the readers of the Les-Crises website

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