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Saturday, April 13, 2024

How Elon Musk Upstaged Barack Obama’s Social Media Manifesto

Hi, everyone. Plaintext is enacting a poison pill to prevent Elon Musk from taking over. But, like Twitter, $44 billion might change our minds.

The Plain View

While everyone was going nuts about Elon Musk and his impending takeover of Twitter last week, a former US president was speaking out. No, not that one, the guy banned by Twitter who might be restored by Musk if and when the Tesla mogul becomes the sole owner of the platform. I’m referring to Barack Obama, once seen as the embodiment of a tech-savvy leader of the free world. On April 21, in a rare post-presidency policy speech at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, Obama addressed disinformation, internet platforms, and their role in eroding democracy.

The former president is troubled, deeply so, by social media discourse. This isn’t surprising—late in the 2016 election, he was making campaign appearances for his former secretary of state, bemoaning Facebook’s role in the disinformation campaign against her. But his criticisms are now sharper. “All we see is a constant feed of content,” he said of the platforms, “where useful, factual information and happy diversions flow alongside lies, conspiracy theories, junk science, quackery, racist tracts, and misogynist screeds. And over time we lost our capacity to distinguish between fact, opinion, and wholesale fiction.”

Obama was addressing social media’s core problem, which bedevils Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube, and any other big platform. The astonishing megaphone that these services provide to billions of people can blast toxicity as easily as truth. And the algorithms that those platforms adopt to accelerate growth and serve ads wind up promoting the former. How do you create a convivial, or at least a non-destructive, environment while providing voice to all, even terrible people? (Or otherwise nice people with a terrible dark side that social media allows them to indulge.) More specifically, how do you handle misinformation, a legal form of speech with destructive potential? No one likes the idea that the billionaires who build or run these platforms should be the arbiters of truth. The billionaires themselves don’t want it. But if governments take that role, it equates to censorship. In the US, in fact, the government is constitutionally banned from making those choices.

No one has managed to solve this problem as of yet, and perhaps it is insoluble. While Obama advocated for both regulation and new innovations, his suggestions for what should actually be done to increase algorithmic transparency and empower users lacked specifics. He did say that doing nothing was unacceptable. His bottom line was: Do something.

The speech merited attention, if for nothing else then the fact that the former president had prioritized this problem as an emergency. And though Obama’s appearance was well covered in its immediate aftermath, the coverage was nothing compared to the Musk media-quake that had been going on since April 4, when the Tesla and SpaceX CEO announced he’d taken a stake in Twitter. The frenzy culminated in this week’s news that the Twitter board agreed to sell the entire company to Musk for $44 billion.

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The spectacle of the world’s richest man taking over a major speech platform because he wanted to change its policies dominated news outlets and online chatter with countless articles, hot takes, and retweets. Meanwhile, barely a week after his Stanford address, Obama’s plea for reform has faded into the cybersphere.

And that is kind of a commentary in itself. Obama’s medium was ancient: 63 minutes at a podium on a Thursday morning, delivering 7,000 words of well-shaped, carefully reasoned prose. If it was a Twitter thread, it would have gone on for 162 tweets. And to be honest, it was not one of his more fiery, inspiring acts of rhetoric. But even if it were, you couldn’t help but feel that this form of discourse now seems somewhat antediluvian.

Musk, in contrast, has mastered a hotter, more contemporary tool set, based on the social media principles that Obama called out as dangerous. We are now at the point where apps originally built for bored teenagers have become our lingua franca. And hey, it turns out you can wage quite a war in 260-character chunks, especially with 81 million followers. (It also doesn’t hurt to have some pliant bankers—when it comes to making a mark on internet speech, money talks.)

So where does the new lord of Twitter stand on that core problem of social media? Musk’s views, expressed through prankster koans on the service he’s about to run, seem to indicate that he thinks the issues that trouble Obama—and pretty much everyone except right-wing politicians who want to spread lies—are not worth discussing. He announced this week that he’s inclined to allow people to tweet anything that’s within the law. (Um, legal speech includes porn, violent images, and racist slurs.)

Could he really be encouraging Twitter to be more toxic than it is now? If his own tweets can be taken as evidence, the answer would seem to be yes. Irked by the idea that Bill Gates might have shorted Tesla stock, he posted a photo of Gates that seemed to exaggerate an abdominal paunch. It was accompanied by an emoji image of a pregnant man. If he had done that a month ago, it might have been funny in the way that a transgressive comic can sometimes make people laugh at a mean jibe. But considering that Musk’s every move is being scrutinized in light of the kind of speech he will encourage on Twitter, it seems utter anarchy to tweet that childish taunt. Another disturbing set of Musk tweets approvingly boosted criticism of Twitter officials, exposing them to online harassment from Musk’s online army. That’s the opposite of the “healthy conversation” former CEO Jack Dorsey had hoped to encourage on the service he invented.

Despite all of this, I’m not panicking about Elon’s plans for Twitter—yet. No one knows what Elon will really do, just that his North Star is to permit more speech. The idea of allowing all legal speech might excite his fan club, but in practice it’s ridiculous. Musk is smart enough to know this. I suspect that wherever he does draw the line between acceptable and banned content, the ink won’t be indelible. (Maybe he won’t even draw the line until he figures out how to implement his promise to give users a choice of algorithms to curate their feeds, a difficult task that will take many months to implement.) He’s an engineer, who has to deal with scientific truths in his other companies. He knows that bad actors can cheat people with language—and maybe with the right lawyers you can even snow the SEC—but you can’t cheat physics. SpaceX crashed a lot of rockets before it figured out how to land them upright on the launch pad. If his Twitter ideas aren’t resonating, he’ll try something else.

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Nonetheless, the blithe bluster of his tweets are troubling. I love a good jester, but that’s not the ideal job qualification for solving a complex problem like social media. It makes me question whether Musk is going to do better than, say, Mark Zuckerberg, in resolving the issues that Barack Obama worries about. Certainly not until he admits that they exist.

Time Travel

In 2017, I talked to Jack Dorsey about a number of Twitter matters, including social media’s impact on society. Here’s one part of the exchange.

Steven Levy: Lately, a lot of people have been alleging that social media, including Twitter, has degraded the quality of public discourse. What do you think?

Jack Dorsey: You can have conversation that’s distracting and you can have conversation that is focusing. I don’t think it’s a matter of the tool—it’s how people use the tool. Could we encourage better usage of Twitter through changing the product? Absolutely. We are always going to be looking for opportunities to make it easier, but also to show what matters faster. We moved from a completely time-ordered, reverse-chronological timeline to actually bubbling up what you should be seeing and what matters according to our understanding of what you’re interested in—and potentially showing the other side of what you’re interested in, as well. One of the values Twitter espouses is that it can show every side of a debate. I get The New York Times and I follow Fox, too, because I just want to challenge what I’m seeing. And that’s awesome. Whether you choose to dive into it or not is really up to you. We’re not going to force that on people.

But do you think Silicon Valley has worsened the divide?

It’s not just technology companies that are out of touch with a big part of the country and the world. I think it’s all of us.

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Ask Me One Thing

Ken asks, “Would you accept the position of chief technology officer of the United States? If not, who would you suggest for the position?”

That’s flattering, Ken. If offered the position I would turn it down. For one thing, who would want to work for a White House so wrongheaded that it offered me that role? Seriously, though I know a bit about the tech world, in my opinion that job is best filled with someone with an engineering background, or at least someone who’s been in the game. That person should also have a geek streak. It should be someone to inspire young people with a STEM-y inclination to pursue their dreams and maybe not hate the government. How about Erica Joy Baker?

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

Get ready for the insect apocalypse. You’re going to miss those buggers.

Last but Not Least

Musk is promising to make Twitter’s algorithm open source. That won’t solve anything.

You think social media is complicated now? Wait till people start using Snap’s new drone.

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The amazing mind of Janelle Monáe has produced a mind-blowing book of “stories of dirty computers.” Maybe she should be our CTO.

Since time is running out for humans, why not rethink time itself? One suggestion: Give 12-year-olds the vote.

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