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The Year Elon Musk and the Techno-Optimists Fought Back

Musk’s takeover of Twitter marks a new, strange phase of tech optimists reasserting themselves after years of disinformation discourse. Now, for better or for worse, a more balanced and open conflict is being fought.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Seven years ago, Twitter banned conservative activist Chuck Johnson for seemingly soliciting the assassination of civil-rights activist DeRay Mckesson. This was the height of Johnson’s bizarre conduct on the platform and elsewhere, which included trashing his allies, suing his haters, misdirecting mobs, doxxing reporters, and fudging sources for many of his own “exclusive” stories—a bombshell about New Jersey Senator Cory Booker not actually living in New Jersey, for instance—on his now-defunct website GotNews. Johnson was a troll, but his trolling under the guise of political activism meant that Twitter wouldn’t just ban him for being a nuisance to other users—it would require a genuine threat to someone’s life.

When Twitter finally banned Johnson, it wasn’t just a turning point for the self-described “investigative journalist.” As Vox noted at the time, “This kind of tweet might have slipped through the system a few months back.” Liberals increasingly favored tighter moderation of online content, and conservatives favored nonenforcement of even the weakest standards of conduct. Johnson was the first major casualty in the long and ongoing war among competing factions to dictate the ideological bearing of Twitter.

Who owned Twitter before Elon Musk? A variety of institutional investors as the largest shareholders in a public company? No, wrong; sorry. The libs owned Twitter. No, sorry; joking! But actually, hold that thought.

In October, Musk bought Twitter and took the company private in a $44 billion buyout at $54.20 per share. Musk then quickly began to purge more than half of his initial workforce—7,500 employees now down to about 2,300 as of this month. He’s gone into this business grudgingly, after trying for several months to renege on the deal before it closed, and now suggesting he’ll soon step down as CEO. Though he’s friends with cofounder and former chief executive Jack Dorsey, Musk has spent the past several months hounding Dorsey’s successor, Parag Agrawal, and ridiculing the wider staff for its supposed left-wing bias in content moderation decisions. For example, the company suspended the conservative Christian satire website The Babylon Bee in March for mocking U.S. health official Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, with a joke about her winning the website’s “man of the year” award. Twitter also drew criticism for taking extraordinary measures to halt dissemination of reporting about Hunter Biden on the eve of the 2020 presidential election and, perhaps most notoriously, banning Donald Trump. (Dorsey reportedly urged Musk to buy Twitter, and in his own turn as chief executive, Dorsey says he resisted such supposed overreach until his resignation from the board of directors in November 2021.)

A couple of weeks ago, the independent journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss, working in (frankly, weirdly transparent) close coordination with Musk, began releasing the so-called Twitter Files. This is an ongoing investigative series so far revealing (in the first installment, published by Taibbi) the urgent internal communications about the company’s decision to suspend the New York Post and censor its reporting about Hunter Biden; the second installment, released by Weiss, illuminates the backend enforcement of “visibility filtering,” a.k.a., “shadowbanning,” which was used disproportionately, Weiss believes, to target conservatives, such as Charlie Kirk and the Libs of TikTok account. Later installments (there are currently eight, the most recent of which was published by Intercept journalist Lee Fang this week) touch on the events leading up to Trump’s suspension, the company’s internal reaction to the January 6 attack, and the FBI’s contact with Twitter to suggest that various accounts be halted from allegedly spreading election disinformation.

This is a turf war. Twitter is the common lounge for a variety of culture elites—journalists, academics, activists, politicians, and so on. This is why you’ll often see Twitter characterized as a sort of “town square.” Perhaps it’s a profoundly misguided and rather dystopian characterization of a for-profit microblogging platform, but it’s a term meant to fully convey the outsized role of Twitter in modern newsmaking, political campaigning, and intellectual life. Unfortunately, Musk professes to despise these elites and wishes to reclaim Twitter for the people. So much so, in fact, that on Sunday he ran a poll on the site asking whether he should remain CEO; two days later, he declared that he would “resign as CEO as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job!”

This benevolent, dare I say, popularist interpretation of his intentions (“for the people”) is somewhat strained; Musk talks a good game about centrism and neutering both political extremes, but he always seems disproportionately resentful of the far left and joyously naive about the far right. He’s entitled to his biases, of course, but this explains the ceaseless agony in some corners—and the orgasmic schadenfreude in the opposing corners—about Musk’s governance of Twitter. Musk is as much a savvy entrepreneur struggling to transform a chronically unprofitable social media platform into a sensible business as he is an aggrieved thought-leader waging a culture war against the progressive elements of Silicon Valley, the Democratic Party, and The New York Times.

The major social media platforms have each been hyper-politicized at some point in the past decade. But Twitter is something else. Twitter is the war room. The sort of vulgar backbiting once reserved for pseudonymous forums took a slightly more middlebrow form among high-status users posting under real names and often in professional capacities (disclaimers in their profiles notwithstanding). The progressive critics of Twitter have been calling the place an abusive psychological hellscape since the second Bush administration—and they’ve always been right!—and yet these very same users have, if anything, doubled down on the platform over the years, determined to improve the place by agitating for more content moderation. In the meantime, they’ve been coping with the deficiencies of Twitter with ironic contempt. Twitter was a hellsite, but it was their hellsite. It was a terrordome of inanities and indignities, but it was also a weirdly democratizing force, empowering random anons to humiliate Bret Stephens with so little as a hashtag; in fact, with time, some of those anons could even become power users and maybe even media professionals themselves. Twitter isn’t only good for progressives in this regard: Twitter more or less created Teen Vogue, but Twitter also more or less created Libs of TikTok. Still, progressives always seemed to believe Twitter was the natural extension of their wider dominance in news, arts, and culture.

Musk may well ruin Twitter in the long run, but first, immediately, he ruined this illusion. In the last few days before the deal closed, Musk teased massive layoffs and entered the San Francisco headquarters with an ominous motto—“let that sink in”—suggesting a stark shift in the culture of Twitter, internally and externally. He didn’t just fire everyone. He launched a counteroffensive in the larger war between mainstream media and big tech. The unrelentingly critical coverage of Musk, he and his corporate allies insist, is emblematic of the media’s greater hostility toward tech companies and tech trends such as cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence. The left has shifted rather drastically from the techno-optimism of Chris Hughes and Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign to the post-Trump techno-pessimism that has in recent years turned “misinformation” into a full-fledged newspaper beat. Musk, more than anyone else in Silicon Valley, resisted this turn. If Mark Zuckerberg would sit before Congress every now and again to beg forgiveness for his company’s role in disseminating “fake news,” if Dorsey was only ever going to suffer in silence, then Musk would lead the backlash to the backlash. He’d play hardball with Ed Markey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He’d freely disparage his own staff and sic his fans on the dissenters. He’d reassert the hyper-capitalist confidence of the indispensable boss who commands unfailing loyalty and unpaid overtime from a grateful workforce that would be dead in the street without him. He is, in other words, a progressive’s nightmare.

Musk isn’t immune to this sort of ideological overinvestment in Twitter. After all, he tweets all goddamn day, every day, and he paid $44 billion for the privilege of running the place. That’s the underlying irony in Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. The story of news media and the story of web tech are in fact hopelessly intertwined, and I wouldn’t be alone in arguing that the leading anti-woke techies such as Musk are in denial and being more than a little disingenuous about their industry’s role in devising the perverse incentives of web journalism in the first place.

I end the year clinging to a perverse bit of optimism about Twitter. Musk may well alienate the progressive power users from Twitter, in which case web journalism will have to be driven by something other than Twitter with all of its bizarre pathologies and persistent limitations. That sounds ideal. Alternatively, Musk could genuinely improve Twitter, even from the backseat, focused on software and servers. He could neutralize some of the incentives and tools for massive pile-ons, for instance, and this might restore some sanity and dignity to an otherwise deranged and humiliating application. Finally, Musk could ultimately run Twitter into the ground, and this would at least put a lot of long-addicted users out of their misery while also being incredibly fun to write about for The Ringer. In any event, it’s just too hard for me to imagine Musk somehow making Twitter a worse place than it’s always been: a hellscape of self-righteous threads, recursive screenshots, petty pile-ons, so many viral lies, and so much toxic nonsense eroding our trust and safety.