Sunday, December 18, 2022


When I think about what Elon Musk is doing to Twitter, I think about how Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes made Fox News a mainstream, highly profitable cable channel with an unmistakable right-wing bias. They did it, starting in 1996, with two slogans suggesting that the channel didn't have a bias: "Fair & Balanced" and "We Report. You Decide." Right-wing viewers knew what the slogans really meant: All other news outlets have an extreme left-wing bias, so you have to come here for a counterbalance. But the slogans were meant to signal to less ideological viewers that what Fox told them was the simple truth. The hope was that Fox would rope those viewers in and make them regular viewers and right-wingers. It worked. Fox is financially successful and it's radicalized viewers across the country. (Fox retired "Fair & Balanced" in 2017, and "We Report. You Decide" was abandoned at around the same time.)

Now, imagine accomplishing the same goal without having to storm the barricades because you're already inside the barricades. Imagine starting with the mass audience and then transforming your site into the social-media equivalent of Fox News. I think what Musk imagines is that he can turn Twitter into a right-wing propaganda outlet without losing the vast majority of the normies on the site, most of whom just want the wide-ranging access to celebrity news, cat pictures, friends' accounts, and news and politics. He might not even lose most of the liberal journalists -- notice how the ones whose suspensions were ordered and then reversed this week meekly returned. But if Seth Abramson is correct, the right will dominate Twitter:
On Twitter, a new algorithm will allow far-right trolls to band together en masse—something they have already been shown to have done repeatedly and systematically over the last 24 months—to make the tweets of Twitter Blue–verified left-leaning accounts disappear from public visibility permanently simply by muting or blocking them....

You can be certain that Elon Musk is well aware that the far-right subculture that has developed at Twitter is very much focused on coordinating behind-the-scenes massive attacks on disfavored left-leaning accounts, to include waves of false reports of misconduct to Twitter and sprawling block-lists.

The current largest such campaign unfolding on Twitter is run by a group of neo-Nazis who are trying to erase the voices of 5,000 Black and Jewish Americans on Twitter, and—to a lesser degree—feminists. The pretext behind this list is that all those on it are somehow associated with “antifa” or communism, when of course virtually none of them are....

We know that Musk is well aware of this effort because he is regularly corresponding with far-right troll and fake journalist Andy Ngo, who has made it his personal goal to lobby Musk to remove all antifa supporters from Twitter.

... far-right campaigns of this sort can now become co-conspirators with a new, sinister Twitter algorithm by systematically muting and blocking Twitter Blue–verified accounts that they want disappeared. Just a few hours on a neo-Nazi block list or a mass false-reporting list can lead to a targeted account essentially disappearing from visibility on Twitter forever.
Is this really the plan? I don't know. But Musk's friends on the right have lots of ideas, many of which Musk is implementing, so he probably believes that the end result will be a Twitter he finds much more ideologically congenial (i.e., radically right-wing) but that remains the mass-market social media site it's been for years.

But can Twitter sustain itself that way? Fox is commercially successful because Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes understood how to reach and hold a mass audience in non-ideological ways. Murdoch had experience running widely read tabloid newspapers on three continents. Ailes had produced The Mike Douglas Show -- a popular daytime talk show that wasn't political -- and had helped soften Richard Nixon image in order to sell him to middle-of-the-road voters in 1968. They kept Fox lively and tabloid-y. They understood mass appeal.

Musk isn't consulting with anyone like that. He's consulting with right-wing cult figures like Andy Ngo and Catturd. They're demimonde-level successful, not mass-market successful.

On the other hand, if very few left/liberal people are fully banned and very few leave in disgust, Musk might get what he wants.

But will Musk's Twitter ever be profitable? Run this way, no. But Musk is at the age when tech billionaires (Bill Gates, for instance) often start thinking about doing Good Works -- and he's also at the age when a somewhat older generation of billionaires began funneling large amounts of money into Republican political campaigns and organizations intended to steer America to the right. We might have to start thinking about Twitter less as a business and more as his version of the Koch network. That kind of political giving doesn't pay direct dividends. But it does help construct a world much more to the billionaires' liking, with more politicians in office who cut their taxes and ease their regulatory burden. Maybe that's the point of Musk's Twitter. He's claimed since he first made the offer to buy Twitter that he wants to use it to save civilization. What he means, I think, is that he wants to save civilization from us.

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