The Blue Check Culture War
Digital Town Squares, Part 2
See Part 1 of this series.
When he bought Twitter, Elon Musk wrote, “The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner.” Since then, he has done just about everything possible to make Twitter unsuited to that purpose.
The DC Cocktail Party That Never Ends
It is questionable whether ideas were ever frequently debated on Twitter “in a healthy manner.” It always had its share of trolls who say obnoxious things just to get attention. It suffered the drawbacks of any forum that allows people to post anonymously or has a large number of participants who believe they will suffer no personal or professional consequence for being jerks.
On the other hand, the presence of anonymous or amateur contributors was part of the charm of Twitter. Any random person could challenge a famous pundit, people could say things that aren’t part of the mainstream conversation, and often a person of no particular national significance would turn out to be witty and have interesting things to say. And there was a great deal that was fun without having any particular political significance, such as Dave’s Car ID Service (which is now on Substack, too).
As a forum, Twitter certainly performed some useful functions, and a disproportionate amount of influential political debate took place there. More to the point, for those who debate and report on the big issues, it was a chance to be noticed by other prominent commenters and to interact with people we may not have otherwise met.
It was a place where I could correct a New York Times editor about Virginia politics or spar with a New York Times reporter about his coverage of global warming. Many interviews I have done for my podcasts have started with a connection I made on Twitter. For some recurring guests, I don’t even have an e-mail address; I communicate with them only through direct messages on Twitter. Even some of the articles I have written over the past ten years have started with an editor seeing one of my tweets and asking if I could flesh it out into an article.
As I have described it before, Twitter is the DC cocktail party of myth and legend, except that it is going on 24 hours a day, you don’t have to live in or near the nation’s capital to be part of it, and you don’t even need an invitation. It serves an important function for social networking and the transmission of ideas and influence in the American media, which is how it got its reputation as the “digital town square.”
But precisely for that reason, as it became more influential, it attracted people who wanted to exploit the forum for nefarious purposes, whether that was to gain outsized influence for a narrow ideological faction (or a hostile foreign government), or to express their hatred of supposed “elites” by showing up at our cocktail party for the sole purpose of spitting on the carpet.
This created a growing need for content moderation—and plunged Twitter into the Moderator’s Dilemma.
The Moderator’s Dilemma
I often complained about content moderation under Twitter’s old management, whose decisions seemed a bit arbitrary, capricious, and subject to political bias. But the fact is that no system of moderation is going to be perfect, and the larger the forum, the harder the job becomes.
Recently, I discussed with Shoshanna Wiessman and Jess Miers what is called the “Moderator’s Dilemma,” in the context of Section 230. This is the provision that resolved the old the legal dilemma in which forum hosts were encourage either to moderate nothing or to moderate everything. But even with the law changed to accommodate partial moderation, the moderator still faces a set of unpleasant choices. See a good description of this wider sense of the Moderator’s Dilemma.
[Suppose] you concede a need to at least occasionally intervene in a particular kind of dispute such as banning the white supremacists or deleting comments that contain racial slurs. It is really, really good to be able to do this. On the other hand, once you intervene in a particular manner, you create the expectation of intervention. Suppose you've banned the white supremacists, but since people expect you to be consistent you end up extending the ban to other hateful ideologies, too. Quite quickly, you'll find yourself being forced to render a verdict on a whole host of ideologies, not just the clear-cut examples. Before you intervened, you could refuse take sides in certain disputes, but once you've intervened your decision not to intervene in another situation will be taken to mean that you don't consider a particular ideology hateful. If this is a contentious issue, then people will be unhappy no matter how you decide; often you would much prefer to not have to make a ruling on this issue….
Suppose you write up a set of rules for your club. This makes it easier to ensure that everyone is aware of them. However, in the absence of any written rules the expectation is that you should use your common sense. When these rules are written down, people will start to assume that if something isn't in the rules, it must be allowed, particularly if it would have been easy to put it in the rules if they had wanted to. So you may actually find that more people end up doing the things that you don't want.
In the comments field of this article, I found a link to a post by the moderator of a small gaming forum that really rings true with my online experience, going back many years into the distant mists of Internet history. The basic idea is that most of the trouble on a forum is caused by a small number of people who are acting maliciously, whatever their reason. Here's the crucial point.
Most communities are built around the idea of getting these people to behave. This is a mistake. Broken people cannot be fixed by rules. If you make the rules loose, they will find weak spots and exploit them. If you make the rules tight and specific, they will rules-lawyer you to the brink of insanity.
I like this idea that “broken people cannot be fixed by rules.” A person acting maliciously will simply adapt to any system of rules.
This moderator’s answer to the problem is simply to identify the malicious people and remove them from the forum. But this is on a forum with a few hundred active participants, small enough that one good, fair-minded moderator can keep track of it all without having it consume his entire life.
I’ve been in many forums like this over the years, and they’re a great place to have a good discussion. The problem is that you can’t scale it up to a size anywhere near that of Twitter or Facebook. By the time you get big enough to be a national-level “digital public square,” you need a whole team of moderators, supplemented by automatic algorithms designed to flag suspicious posts, all operating according to general rules. Such a system is not going to be able to catch all bad behavior, and it is not going to be able to apply rules with completely consistency, even if the moderators are trying.
In short, content-moderation at scale is hard. It is necessary at some level, because for reasons I have explained elsewhere, a totally unmoderated forum can be quickly overrun by trolls. But it will always be contentious and a permanent headache for the forum’s hosts.
The Twitter Files Files
Enter Elon Musk, who instead of making any of these problems better, dialed them all up to 11.
The problem with Musk is not so much that he changed the rules or incentives. Rather, there have been no rules other than his own personal whims. He has been conducting the moderation of Twitter the way the guy with a few hundred active users does: personally. And he hasn’t been a good moderator, a fair and calm hand at the helm. He has been touchy and erratic, careening around at random.
The first big sign of this was when he shut down the Twitter accounts of a group of professional journalists merely for reporting on a story he didn’t want them to discuss. Musk shut down a Twitter feed that reported publicly available information about the travel and whereabouts of his private jet. Musk described these as “assassination coordinates,” though the information is too vague and not updated quickly enough to actually be useful for that purpose. But then Musk shut down the accounts of journalists who merely reported on this story.
The story of Musk as a free-speech champion came full circle with his treatment of Matt Taibbi—a former left-winger who now seems to caucusing with the nationalist right—who is one of the journalists he tapped to expose the so-called “Twitter Files.”
In my review of this controversy, I noted the pointedly one-sided character of these stories. They were releases of information calculated to make Twitter’s old management look bad, while revealing nothing about the policies of its new management. That turned out to be the big issue in light of Musk’s later behavior.
As he began to regard Substack as a competitor, Musk starting blocking links from Twitter to Substack. Taibbi, who makes most of his income from his Substack newsletter, questioned and criticized this policy—and Musk reacted by having Twitter “deboost” Taibbi and hide his contributions to the Twitter Files reporting.
So much for Elon Musk as an opponent of heavy-handed moderation.
There has been a lot of debate over whether Musk is a visionary genius or a charlatan or some combination of the two. SpaceX seems to have done something extraordinary in the field of rockets, and Musk has some more questionable achievements in automobile manufacturing, but in the areas I know well—media and free speech—he has proven himself a complete charlatan.
This is not the only evidence that Musk’s dedication to free speech is skin deep—a PR slogan not matched by policy. After making a big exposé out of communications between the US government and previous Twitter management, Musk’s Twitter has been assiduously cooperating with foreign authoritarian regimes. This includes shutting down Twitter accounts of critics of the Modi regime in India and blocking the sharing in India of critical news reports, including a BBC documentary on Modi.
After doing the bidding of the Modi regime, Musk then had the effrontery to have National Public Radio labeled “state-affiliated media.” This is very misleading on factual grounds. According to NPR, “It receives less than 1 percent of its $300 million annual budget from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting.” More to the point, NPR is an independent organization that is not subject to editorial control by the government. I have criticized the idea of having a government funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other forms of government funding for art and ideas. I have also criticized NPR for its biases, which reflect the cultural and political preferences of its largely urban and college-educated audience. But there is a huge difference between NPR and, for example, RT, the network that functions as a propaganda wing of the Russian regime.
After a backlash against this decision, Musk dropped the labels for NPR—but also eliminated them for actual state-controlled propaganda outlets like RT and China’s Xinhua.
See this great interview with Peter Pomerantsez about the collapse of RT America in the weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It includes a crucial observation about the goal of Russian propaganda.
[I]f you want to go really complicated into the Russian doctrine of information warfare, it basically says that democratic communication is impossible. Basically, their claim is that all types of communication are actually manipulation, whether it’s human rights NGOs or—basically the public sphere, in the liberal democratic idea of it, [doesn’t] exist, [it’s] a myth, things like freedom of speech are just weapons invented by the West to get at Russia, and basically all information is a form of warfare. But…the aim of any information operation is to get your stuff picked up by locals and amplified.
Well, mission accomplished, because at least one very influential “local,” Elon Musk, has been picking up Russian talking points, not just on the invasion of Ukraine, but also this point about all communication being propaganda. In explaining why he was relaxing previous Twitter management’s limitation on Russian government accounts, Musk declared, “All news is to some degree propaganda.”
NPR reacted to all of this, appropriately, by suspending its participation on Twitter. A lot of the rest of us are doing that, too, and this is not the only trigger.
The Blue Check Culture War
A lot of Musk’s management of Twitter is driven by his own personal resentments and the weird hobby horses he picks up from right-wing Twitter trolls. One of these is his resentment of the supposed arrogance of people with blue check marks after their names. Under the old management, these blue checks were supposed to indicate that our real identities had been verified and that we were “notable” in some way. Musk’s new Twitter policy removed the blue checks for all of us who had arguably earned them on our own merits and gave them instead only to “Twitter blue” subscribers—i.e., the suckers he managed to talk into paying for a free website. In return, they get a special boost in the distribution of their posts, a proposition that was mainly appealing to trolls and spammers.
So Musk took what had been a (very small) mark of prestige and turned it into a mark of shame.
The prestige of the checkmark was vastly overestimated to begin with. Those who didn’t have one under the old system valued them far more than those who did. But the problem is that whatever prestige it carried had been earned by those who did something “notable” to get one.
So to avoid completely devaluing it, Musk has kept the checkmarks for a roster of celebrities who have not paid for them—in some cases because they are dead. This produced a unique milestone in the annals of marketing: a moment when Musk got a who’s who of celebrities to publicly declare that they did not buy his product and would never do so.
Meanwhile, the number of people who actually did pay for checkmarks in this whole misadventure has proven to be too small to be a significant revenue stream for the company.
The blue check saga underscores the basic problem of Musk’s Twitter: It is run in a way that is hostile to the very people who give the forum value.
This was summed up for me when one of my favorite Twitter feeds closed up shop. Called “For Exposure,” this feed documented something that anyone in a creative field will find familiar: attempts to con writers and artists into working for free in order to get “exposure.” The proprietor recognized Twitter Blue as the ultimate “for exposure” scam, in which Musk tries to get us to pay him for the privilege of producing the content for his website.
Musk never realized that the value of Twitter was created by us, its users, and especially by the old “notable” blue check types. If this was the digital town square, it’s because we had made it so. And then he declared a culture war against the people who made Twitter work.
What is happening on Twitter right now is something of an exodus or slow drain.
Some are proclaiming that Twitter is done, but it’s not going to be that quick or simple. People who write for a living tend to be very focused on news and politics, but there is a lot more to Twitter than that.
Someone sent me a Wall Street Journal article on Musk’s plans for Twitter, which takes his proclamations about the company’s financial future rather credulously at face value. (This is something that has a poor track record.) But what I take from this article is that Musk’s big new brainwave is to combine a social media platform with stock trading. What could possibly go wrong? Given that Musk became, temporarily, the richest man in the world by turning Tesla into a meme stock, why not turn Twitter into a meme stock factory? It’s already halfway there. About three-quarters of my Twitter direct messages right now are from people trying to lure me into cryptocurrency pump-and-dump schemes. (The rest are offering me what I am sure are totally genuine relationships with attractive young women.)
Maybe there’s some kind of future in that, though I’m skeptical it’s going to make back a $44 billion investment. But what Twitter seems on the verge of losing is the very thing that made Musk so interested in it: its status as the leading digital public square. For a long time, Twitter was the place you would look when some big event happened to find out what’s going on and what people think about it. I’m not seeing that happen as much any more.
But the question has always been: What is the alternative?
Twitter’s status as the digital public square was always somewhat overstated. This is a large and diverse country with many different media options. There was never just one digital public square. There have always been competing town squares, as there are usually are in any city. Different neighborhoods offer different opportunities and a different atmosphere.
So there has always been the possibility that some other digital public square could steal Twitter’s prominence.
I think Substack is uniquely poised to do so, for reasons I will examine in the next and final installment.