Three weeks ago, a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission revealed that Elon Musk, billionaire Shitposting God of Silicon Valley, had acquired over 9% of Twitter, making him the company’s largest shareholder and setting in motion a chain of events that led, ultimately, to yesterday’s outright purchase of the now $44 billion company. In a press release, Elon shared his goals for the platform, which echoed the goals he’s shared all month:
“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated. I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”
“Freedom,” “open source technology,” and “man, I really hate these spam bots.” The media’s reaction to these ambitions was instant and apoplectic. They were akin, we were told, to literal Nazism.
Welcome to the Clown World. Boy, do we have ground to cover.
The social internet is always a Dalí painting—surreal and horrifying and beautiful. A million crazy people screaming over nonsense, with funny jokes or anecdotes mixed in, fortune cookie observations, legitimate political happenings, and “words are violence” hall monitors from The Washington Post waging daily information war on trolls and Russian bots and okay actually just a lot of regular people with whom they disagree, or simply don’t like.
But even by the gutter standards we’ve come to accept from media, this has been a month for the books.
Out of the gate, it was incoherent fury, with no consensus motive. We were told that Elon, who explicitly opposes censorship, intended to deplatform, and ultimately destroy, all of his critics, who are themselves explicitly in favor of censorship. We were told that Elon was building a propaganda engine. We were told that Twitter, which was until last week apparently a peaceful, utopian haven for principled discourse, would now revert to some earlier, imagined world of carnage (very bad tweets). The case was made, with zero evidence, that Elon is a racist. It was all just table stakes, really.
After a week or so, in brutal, Darwinian competition for attention, arguments against Musk blossomed into something more colorful. From Axios, a company committed in writing to never sharing an opinion, it was “reported” that Elon, once likened to Iron Man, was now behaving “like a supervillain.” His ownership of Twitter would lead to World War III, the case was made elsewhere. In one of my favorite moments of derangement, NPR helpfully reminded us that Elon is an imperialist. The basis for such an incredible charge? In the tradition of America’s Apollo Moon landing, one of the most celebrated accomplishments in human history, Elon wants to settle Mars, an uninhabited desert planet 155 million miles from Earth. This is just like colonial-era Britain’s brutal conquest of half the world, when you think about it.
The takes were all extraordinarily stupid, and yes, I loved every single one of them.
The worst people on the internet, delirious with rage, couldn’t stop themselves from saying the dumbest things they’ve ever said since last week and listen, again, yes, I love this. But as funny as the insanity is, it’s important to remember it’s all just that—insane. Irrelevant. Not remotely about what is actually at stake.
The central tension of this discourse has nothing to do with racism or violence or anti-Martian colonialistic sentiment. The collective meltdown over Elon’s Twitter coup is likewise not about the dangers of rich people buying media platforms, a budding take growing in popularity, with innovators of the meme including most recently The Information’s Jessica Lessin. After all, if “rich people buying media platforms” were a serious concern, we probably would have heard more about it last month, when every major media platform was . . . already owned by rich people.
The truth is there’s only one thing this is really about and that’s free speech. Still. It’s always just that.
Elon has repeatedly stated his goal of guaranteeing freedom of political dissent, which he considers essential to the functioning of our democracy. This is what his detractors are reacting to.
In straight reporting, from Axios to The New York Times, the “untethered” freedom to speak is now characterized as a radical position. In the pages of The Washington Post, there was a call for direct government intervention in our speech platforms. Just a crazy op-ed? I would have thought perhaps, prayed, and called it a night. But then President Obama entered the fray.
Last week, the former president flew to Stanford and delivered an hour-long speech on the dangers of social media. While not entirely horrible, the highlight was this: After referring to himself as something very close to a free speech “absolutist,” the term we now use for people who simply believe in regular free speech, Obama openly toyed with the concept of government intervention on our speech platforms. The rules he would consider were left vague, but included anything that “helped democracy,” the rule of law, and recognized the rights, freedoms, and dignity of all citizens. Of course, to achieve goals like this, almost any draconian censorship can be justified.
Obama’s tactics here are of a kind we’ve seen from media and government for the last five years. No laws were plainly proposed, because no law concerning the regulation of speech can be easily enacted—it’s that pesky Constitution, you see. Obama’s goal was to bully tech workers into doing censorship on our government’s behalf, which is why his chosen audience was the next generation of Google engineers rather than Congress. Until recently, the legal loophole for would-be censors in government was simply asking, or threatening, a bunch of billionaires in tech to do it on your behalf. Today, at least one billionaire stands apart.
So, is the world about to end? I think it probably won’t.
First and foremost, what we’re about to get is drama. I mean all-caps DRAMA. From media to government, there are going to be takes like you have never seen. The technology industry’s craziest employees, themselves a subset of the craziest people alive, will begin to protest in all manner of colorful ways. This will happen at Twitter, where we can expect resignations, shamings, calls for Elon to be held accountable, and beyond. There will be countless interviews on such heady topics as Power and Privilege at The Verge or whatever other anti-tech tech blog you love to hate (they’re literally all the same). You thought Jack Dorsey’s performance before Congress was a wild ride? Elon, whom congressional Democrats have made a career of attacking for attention, just bought himself a season pass to our endless parade of useless Senate hearings. Will we learn anything important? Of course not. But will there be a show?
Friends, it will be the greatest pop-cultural event of the century. American Idol could never.
In terms of strategic particulars, it’s unclear what Elon will do. The man is good, but let’s be real: He’s chaotic good. Much has been said of the fact that his buying Twitter makes no clear, slam-dunk business sense. This has been pointed out as both evidence he is stupid, and evidence he is brilliant but evil. In fact, Elon is a values-driven ideologue who instantiates his values in the form of companies, which usually succeed. We’ve seen him realize his goals, or tremendous efforts towards them, in payments, energy, and space. Now, the man has set his mind to speech. So speech will be the future—or, a world of freer speech is certainly the world he’ll work toward.
All of our trend lines have drifted toward authoritarianism, not just domestically or internationally at this moment, but historically. Freedom is an incredible aberration, and while it is a right, it doesn’t come without a fight.
So thank you, Elon. If you screw this up we’re probably doomed. No pressure.