Charlie Warzel, author of the Galaxy Brain newsletter at The Atlantic, joins to talk about what Elon Musk will do to Twitter and how his acquisition could change media, tech, and politics. Part of their conversation has been excerpted below.
Derek Thompson: My head is completely spinning right now. I honestly did not think this was going to happen. When [Elon Musk] announced the bid, I thought I was in Crazyville. When it seemed like he might actually go through with the purchase, I thought things were getting even crazier. And when he actually announced that Twitter accepted the bid, I was just astonished. What has been your emotional roller-coaster ride for the last few weeks, just watching the Elon Musk news, as a user of Twitter and as a commentator on all things tech?
Charlie Warzel: Yeah. Exhaustion is one of them. I feel like the way that things played out with Musk is actually very similar to the way that things will play out with Donald Trump, which is that he’s constantly creating these pseudo-events, where it’s these mass-attentional events, like some outlandish claim, or some trollish, winky type of thing. The ultimate reaction is, “Is this real? Can he do this? What should my level of alarm be?” versus my level of, like, “I’m getting out over my skis here”?
DT: What should our level of credulity be?
CW: Right, exactly.
DT: When most people say, “I’m going to buy a company,” or, “I’m going to take my company private,” they mean it 100 percent of the time. But with Musk, it’s basically a coin-flip probability. “I’m going to take Tesla private.” No, he didn’t. “I’m going to buy Twitter.” Yes, he actually did. It’s very, very difficult to know when to take him seriously. One thing I want to do: You wrote a really fantastic newsletter—your newsletter is Galaxy Brain—that looks at three potential timelines for a Musk-owned Twitter. I think one good way to emergency-podcast our way through this morass of confusion is to do what you did: break down our possible futures into optimistic, less optimistic, and mildly dystopian. Is that a fair representation of the valence of your three timelines? Optimistic, semi-optimistic, and mildly dystopian?
CW: Yeah, I think so. I would say optimistic is probably less [likely] than we think. It’s basically how much control he exercises over the platform, to some degree. It goes dystopian the higher you give it.
DT: All right, let’s start with the most optimistic timeline here. What does this look like? What does it look like if Elon Musk becomes the leader, the CEO, of Twitter, on top of being the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, and things turn out sort of OK?
CW: I think this one is where, essentially, he gets very excited at the beginning to make some broad changes, and enact his view on it. But what ends up being this new shiny toy ends up being a boring and logistical nightmare for him. Then he ultimately offloads that onto his underlings, and then diverts his attention to the things that do interest him. In this version, I think he starts off with maybe some big, splashy things, trying to reinstate some accounts that he thinks were either unfairly banned, or trying to give a free speech maximalist approach. So Donald Trump could be one of those, but it could be any number of accounts, and maybe it’s just a whole bunch of smaller accounts from people who’ve been kicked off for what he views as ticky-tack misinformation infractions.
CW: So it kicks off this media cycle, and we all complain about it, but it’s not necessarily clear whether the platform’s worse off or not. Then after that, all the things he wants to do are going to be a lot harder. A lot of these content moderation rules, when it comes down to implementing them, are just exhausting. You have to war-game out all these different strategies. Does he really want to deal with child-exploitation content, and trying to find ways around hashing to make sure that child porn doesn’t circulate on the platform? There are these thorny content-moderation issues that people have been debating and arguing about that Twitter and every other social media platform has been agonizing over since their inception, essentially, and no one’s found wonderful strategies for these.
So I see him getting disinterested there, and going by the wayside. But some of the things he might have implemented, reinstating some accounts, and/or maybe rolling back some of the trust-and-safety requirements. Maybe changing the TOS—the terms of service—so certain things aren’t as big of violations, or adding more strikes for people. What that, I think, would do, this scenario I’m describing, I think would take Twitter back to like 2016 Twitter, which is a place where there was more harassment, fewer bans, fewer people being kicked off the platform. It was easier to poke the bear and not get burned.
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Charlie Warzel
Producer: Devon Manze