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Elon Musk must go
Last weekend was the final straw. It's time for a #TwitterStrike.
If you don’t earn your living on Substack, you may have missed the drama of Easter weekend.1 I’ve begun writing about it several times, but I threw out the drafts because I was too angry. What I wrote wasn’t inaccurate, but my tone so lacked composure that were Musk to suffer a misfortune, I feared, the police would come looking for me.
If you missed it, a recap. Last Thursday, Musk decided to ban links from Substack by marking them as “unsafe.” If you clicked on a link to anything we’ve published here over the past three years, Twitter showed you a warning that “the link you are trying to access has been identified by Twitter or our partners as being potentially spammy or unsafe.”
The links were perfectly safe. Elon was punishing Substack, according to the rumor, because Substack had debuted a product called Notes for Beta testing, which Elon viewed as a prospective rival to Twitter.
This, at least, is what has been widely reported, but I don’t find it credible. Notes is no more a threat to Twitter than any other social network. A more credible theory—my own—is that Musk has it in for Hamish McKenzie, the founder of Substack, because McKenzie worked for Tesla and then wrote a book about Musk that presumably wasn’t fawning enough.
Free-speech absolutist Musk has a history of trying to silence McKenzie, or so it seems from a reference I found on McKenzie’s own Substack. I’ve seen no mention of this in any of the articles I’ve read about the weekend’s imbroglio, but I suspect it might be key. McKenzie writes:
… After rent, most of our money went to a $450-an-hour lawyer that we ultimately couldn’t afford. I was paying him to help me respond to legal pressure from Elon Musk, who did not want me to write about my experience at Tesla. I burned our balance down to zero.
Nothing Musk has said about why he blocked Substack makes sense—in fact, his only comments have been transparent and childish lies—so his word about why he did it doesn’t count for much.
In any event, he prevented Substack users from embedding tweets in their stories and began blocking engagement with tweets featuring links to Substack so that users couldn’t like, retweet, or bookmark them. Then he blocked Substack’s official account. Then he manipulated Twitter’s search feature so that if you searched for “Substack,” the word “newsletter” came up.
Matt Taibbi—of Twitter Files fame, or fifteen minutes of it, anyway—is the source of the idea that this was a response to Notes. Earlier that day, Taibbi went on Mehdi Hasan’s show, where he insisted that he liked Musk and didn’t want to criticize him. The reward for this doglike loyalty was Elon’s effort to make it impossible for him to promote his work. Taibbi wrote that blocking Substack made Twitter useless to him—as it does everyone on Substack—and he would be “staying at Substack, and leaving Twitter, I guess.” With characteristic maturity, Musk unfollowed Taibbi’s Twitter account, deleted Taibbi’s Twitter Files, lied about Taibbi’s employment (prompting his 135 million mindless acolytes to begin harassing him), and published Taibbi’s confidential text messages.
The uproar over the blocking of Substack was considerable. Substack’s writers rely almost completely on Twitter to promote their work: More than 60 percent of Substack’s traffic comes from Twitter. In our case, it’s closer to 80 percent. Without Twitter, there would be no Cosmopolitan Globalist. It’s how everyone involved in this project met. It’s how we find new writers. It’s how we find new readers. And because of the size of Twitter’s network, there is no substitute—a point Daniel Drezner makes, correctly, in an essay about dominant networks. Their effects are why serious abuses of power, he notes, don’t result in Twitter losing its dominant status. (He argues that this also applies to the dollar, too. I agree.)
[It] boils down to a factor familiar to those of us who study weaponized interdependence for a living: It’s really, really difficult to exit from the dominant network. Simple inertia is a powerful force. Furthermore, in the case of Twitter, Newton acknowledges that none of the proposed substitutes—Mastodon, Post, other sites I’ve never heard of—possess the qualities that even the current iteration of the birdsite possesses. In other words, don’t underestimate the power of path dependence and network externalities.
So for several days, I was forced to ask myself whether the Cosmopolitan Globalist would be viable if we had no access to Twitter. Unfortunately, the answer is “probably not.”
For reasons as mysterious as the initial ban, Musk then changed his mind. Perhaps he hadn’t expected Twitter’s most prolific users to quit. (But of course we would: Substack is how we earn our living. On Twitter, we’re how Musk earns his living.)
For now, it seems, I can again post links to Substack on Twitter, although it remains impossible to embed Tweets on a Substack post. Still, I was obliged to contemplate losing everything we’d painstakingly built over the past three years, and losing it in the most absurd and humiliating way—because a puerile, syphilitic twat like Elon Musk has not only taken charge of Twitter but thinks nothing about waving his hand and killing the very last venue where writers like me have a chance to earn a living, however meagre. It wasn’t enough that the Internet killed journalism. It wasn’t enough that the woke revolution killed publishing. Now Elon Musk had to kill Substack, too?
And it’s not enough that Ukraine has an enemy in Vladimir Putin—they need one in Elon Musk, too?
I was, I admit, beside myself. Yes, perhaps we could find other ways to promote ourselves. Perhaps I was catastrophizing. But over the course of the past twenty years, I’ve seen one professional door after another slam shut, and none that have subsequently opened have made up for them. One magazine after another has gone under. The entire publishing industry has been taken over by a clique that will not publish anything that deviates from the Orthodoxy, not even fiction. How the hell, I asked myself, would I support myself? I don’t know how to do anything but write, and I’m too old to learn anything else.
Elon may have reversed himself, but we’re still in the same position. The Cosmopolitan Globalist is dependent on a platform run by Elon Musk—a man who can’t be dissuaded from enthusiastically promoting Kremlin propaganda. I’ve understood since he took over that this was a problem, but its urgency has now become overwhelming. He can’t be trusted. We either have to make CG independent of Twitter or we have to get rid of Elon. If we fail to do one or the other, we’ll have only ourselves to blame when next he bans us from the platform—or when the platform itself collapses.
My anger is disproportionate, I recognize that. I can tell when I’m in the grip of a hysterical emotion, and clearly, the anger isn’t just about Musk. But I can’t remember being so furious—not since that sleazy construction company in Istanbul knocked down my building with me still in it, and with it, my home and the life I had built for myself in Turkey—so they could pave over the protected historic Ottoman bathhouse next door.
In fact, it’s a very similar situation. In both cases, ruthless and amoral bullies capriciously tried to destroy something precious to me, exhibiting total indifference to my life in the first case and my livelihood in the second.
And I had no recourse.
I had no recourse in Turkey because the Turkish legal system doesn’t work. It doesn’t protect life or property from corrupt construction companies. In fact, because Turkey’s political parties—all of them—run on construction money, the construction companies are Turkey’s real masters.
I have no recourse against Musk because the American legal system doesn’t work. Musk shouldn’t be able to do something like that. It’s a textbook anti-trust violation. Even if it weren’t, in a political system that reflected the principles most of us share—and common sense—we would have long ago regulated social media companies in a way that ensures their minimal accountability to the billions of users who’ve become their product. We would have codified obligations, on the part of the platforms, and rights, for the users, both to ensure that social media doesn’t destroy our societies and to see to it that the rules by which they operate are reasonably equitable, predictable, and transparent.
For many of us, using these services is no longer optional. When people ask me why I don’t just quit Twitter, they’re not grasping the role it plays. For people in a good number of industries, but especially in journalism, it’s no longer possible to make a living or grow a readership without using social media.2 Twitter is a monopoly by virtue of the size of its network and the composition of its user base. We can’t switch to a competitor. We should therefore have the assurance that if we abide by a set of reasonable, clear, and transparent rules, we won’t be denied access to the service.
For that matter, we should also have some control over the way data about us is collected, used, and sold. But we have nothing of the sort, and this is absurd. These companies have been behaving in a patently monopolistic and anti-competitive fashion for the past twenty years. They’ve done massive damage to liberal democracies, to our social fabric, and to many users’ psychological stability. We know this: It’s no longer really in any doubt. But our legislators haven’t done a thing about it. Why not? Because our political parties run on Big Tech’s money. The tech titans are our real masters.
The GOP has been capitalizing on Americans’ legitimate unease with this situation by holding farcical hearings on the Twitter Files—hearings in which Musk is portrayed as a champion of free speech, not one of the biggest threats to free speech in the modern world. Musk has stage-managed the whole show. The point of the hearings is not to serve the American people. It’s to ensure these platforms will never be regulated by conflating efforts to do so with censorship. It’s abjectly stupid—you’d think people would see right through it, and most do—but many don’t. Musk has managed to style himself as a hero to Everyman simply by saying, “Looking for a hero? Here I am!” What he does seems not to matter. He has presumably learned from watching Trump that if the lie is big and outrageous enough—decorated in populist rhetoric and Pepe the Frog memes—a large segment of the public will support him in grabbing whatever he pleases.
The populist urge—on the right and the left—has arisen in response to a very real problem. If we ruled our government, Congress would be holding hearings—in fact, they would have long ago held hearings—on the danger of handing one of the world’s critical communication arteries to a patent lunatic. The government would have prevented the sale on the grounds that in the most generous formulation, Musk is nuts, in the less generous formulation, he’s severely compromised by hostile governments and manifestly far too unfriendly to free societies and their values to have that much power over that many people. But because Big Tech runs Congress, rather than vice-versa, nothing of the kind has happened or will.
There’s considerable evidence that “nuts” isn’t the least of it. Over the same weekend, Twitter began amplifying Chinese state media and Kremlin accounts. Not just “allowing them back on the platform,” as one might expect if you (very stupidly, at this point) believe Musk’s pretensions to “free speech absolutism.” He’s now helping enemies of the West reach as many Westerners as possible:
Tests from multiple accounts showed that Twitter’s search results, timeline and recommendation tools are showing users such as Vladimir Putin’s presidential account, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and its UK Embassy—all of which had restrictions placed on them when hostilities broke out. It comes after it emerged that Twitter was no longer limiting the reach of Russian state media organizations.
Last April, in the weeks after Russian troops entered Ukraine, Twitter said it would “not amplify or recommend government accounts belonging to states that limit access to free information and are engaged in armed interstate conflict,” saying the policy would instantly apply to Russian government accounts. It said this would mean the accounts would not be recommended in searches, the home timeline and other parts of the service.
However, tests by The Telegraph last week showed that Russian government accounts featured at the top of certain search results and would show up in suggestions of other accounts to follow. Russian government tweets appeared in Twitter’s algorithmically-driven “For You” feed for a newly created account, even when it did not follow them. (My emphasis.)
Thus Dmitri Medvedev’s lusty calls to liquidate the entire nation of Ukraine are now being pushed on Twitter users whether or not they’ve expressed any antecedent interest in them. Russian state pages are now recommended by Twitter.
Twitter has meanwhile downranked information from Ukrainian accounts:
“Free speech absolutist” Elon Musk’s Twitter algorithm is paying particular attention to the ongoing war in Ukraine. According to an analysis of the Twitter source code, the site makes specific mention of Twitter Spaces that reference the “Ukraine Crisis.” …
(Musk has made it impossible for me to embed this Tweet. If you want to read the thread, it’s here.)
Musk seems to feel no special loyalty to his adoptive country. You may have read that there’s been a catastrophic leak of US national security documents.3 These documents seem to be at least partly real, and they’re doing massive damage to the US, its allies, and to Ukraine. They’re still circulating freely on Twitter, even though the Department of Defense begged for Musk’s help in getting them off the platform. This is how he replied:
Musk’s acquisition of Twitter should have been stopped on multiple grounds, foremost among them that in Musk’s hands, Twitter is a national security threat. (As far as we know, he’s already turned over all of Twitter’s user data to the CCP. If Beijing asked for it, does anyone doubt he’d do it, especially if they offered him a good price for it?)
The Twitter Files have been a massive exercise in priming the public to reject the obvious point that Russia and China systematically exploit Twitter to spread their propaganda, undermine Western unity, demoralize and confuse Western publics, and advance geopolitical interests and values that are directly counter to our own. This, too, is not in serious doubt. A functional government, fully grasping this and seeing that it poses a genuine danger to our system of governance, would take action to stop it. Instead, it’s doing the opposite: Congress is now performing some kind of kabuki dance in which the principles pretend that the danger comes not from Beijing and Moscow, but from hapless FBI agents who have tried to limit hostile governments’ efforts to elect the American politicians they prefer. (It is amusing, I suppose, that after exploiting Matt Taibbi for this purpose Musk discarded him and his idiotic Twitter files.)
This spectacle is a sign that our government is not working for us. It’s working for Elon.
… A person with so much decision-making power is a welcome guest among political leaders. It’s not just that Elon Musk’s charisma and power rub off on them, through his decisions on location, investment and employment, he can make and break political careers. In Berlin, Elon Musk therefore has access to the highest circles.
Twitter is facing fines in Germany equal to more than its net worth: Since Musk took over, Twitter has entirely ceased obeying Germany’s laws against Nazi propaganda. Twitter is violating a host of EU laws. Vendors around the world are suing over its unpaid bills. Laid-off employees are suing, too, claiming they were terminated without proper notice. Twitter’s headquarters no longer pays its rent. It will be interesting to see whether any of this legal action results in settlements against Musk. It will tell you who’s really in charge.
In outline, the populist argument goes as follows: The people’s power has been usurped. They tell you that this is a government of, for, and by the people, but in reality this isn’t so. Someone or something else is pulling the strings. This is why it feels that you have no control over your destiny.
The reason this argument is so compelling is that it’s too often true. But the political figures who most successfully exploit this inchoate frustration are far too slovenly and incompetent to identify or solve the real problem, and they have no intention of solving it, anyway. Their interests are best served by keeping the oligarchs fat and happy and the public stupid and angry, not solving problems.
It appears to be trivially easy for figures like Donald Trump and Elon Musk to manipulate this populist sentiment. Meanwhile, hapless legacy politicians—in this case, the Democrats—are so thoroughly enmeshed with Big Tech and so dependent on its money that they’ll never challenge its monopolies. AI will soon penetrate every aspect of human life. Should this trajectory hold, the people who build and operate the AIs will become the true centers of power everywhere. Our elected governments will become a decorative nuisance, at best. They’re well on the way. (If they had the power they need to tame these forces, Musk would surely be more circumspect about insulting them.)
The tendency will become more acute as the technology that dominates our lives becomes more sophisticated, if for no other reason than this: Our elected representatives don’t understand it. If you’ve ever watched a Congressional hearing on any aspect of modern technology, you see instantly how deeply out of their depth they are. They’re like dogs contemplating the automatic feeder and concluding it might work better if they bark at it.
This isn’t the only reason. The last serious effort to trust-bust Big Tech was when the government sued Microsoft for trying to monopolize the market for personal computers, in the 1990s. Big Tech learned its lesson, and has since devoted almost as large a percentage of its resources to lobbying and purchasing the government as it does to marketing its products. Last year, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook spent more on lobbying than the defense industry or Big Pharma. Google’s spending has soared in recent years to ensure that antitrust legislation stalls and no one forces them to do something about the YouTube-to-terrorism pipeline. Facebook went on a spending spree to see to it that nothing came of Frances Haugen’s whistleblower revelations.
This is extremely frustrating for citizens—and it is, in part, why I spent the weekend in a state of such agitation. The feeling of helplessness and humiliation in the face of an abuse of power is an awful one. When generalized across a population, it’s a dangerous one. The Arab Spring and populist revolts the world around were driven by people who felt humiliated and thwarted by unaccountable power. When the anger is directed, as it is more often as not, at the wrong targets, it succeeds only in making the situation worse and the public more frustrated.
I am quite convinced, however, that Elon is the right target—or one of them, at least. It’s preposterous—and it is obviously un-American—that someone as unstable, childish, petty, grotesque, grossly irresponsible, divorced from reality, and enamored with filth as Elon Musk has monopolized power over a platform that has itself monopolized global discourse. Twitter isn’t just a big company: As Musk correctly limned, it’s the critical modern forum for political speech, and without access to it, it is far more difficult meaningfully to exercise one’s First Amendment rights.4 That, clearly, is why he wanted to control it—although his ambition was hardly to restore a voice to those arbitrarily deprived of it, but to arbitrarily deprive others of their voice. The willingness of his slavish enthusiasts to believe otherwise is depressing.
I don’t believe that he acquired Twitter merely to silence the views he doesn’t like and promote the views he does, however. I don’t even think he bought it as a super-vehicle for lobbying for his other companies. His ambitions are surely broader. He seems to mean to transform it into something more like China’s WeChat—an “everything app,” as he puts it. Need I say that if he succeeds, it will be bad for everyone? That he has not shown himself to be a man who is sensitive to the serious responsibilities managing such a platform would entail?
In the Bulwark, Cathy Young writes, “So Much for ‘Elon Musk, Free Speech Warrior.” She does what she does best, compiling a cool-minded case even as everyone else is losing their minds. She details the way Musk has arbitrarily restricted access to the platform:
It wasn’t long after the Tesla founder took over Twitter that the limits of his commitment to free speech became apparent. Long before Taibbi’s revolt—just two weeks after the “Twitter Files” first dropped in December—Weiss, who also played a major role in their publication, criticized Musk for booting journalists from the platform during a spat over an account that tracked the location of his private jet. (Musk said the account was publishing “assassination coordinates” for him. In fact, the tracker showed only the origin and destination of the flights some time after takeoff and landing; what’s more, not all the suspended journalists had even linked to the tracking account, and some had merely criticized Musk or tweeted links to other social media platforms.) …
The Twitter-Substack war is not the only speech restriction controversy in which the self-styled “free speech absolutist” Musk has found himself on the egregiously wrong side. There’s also the fact that Twitter has been accommodating demands by the increasingly authoritarian government of India under populist prime minister Narendra Modi to disable the accounts of opposition politicians, activists, and journalists—including some who live outside India. Add to this the recent revelation that the Twitter algorithm has been directed to downrank tweets about “the Ukraine Crisis,” which just happens to coincide with Musk’s increasingly overt antipathy to Western support for Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s war of aggression.
Even Cathy, though, barely touches the surface of Musk’s hostility to free speech. He fires and sues and harasses employees and former employees who say things that irk him. (It’s his right to fire anyone he likes, but how can he be taken seriously when he then pretends to cherish the expression of unpopular ideas?) He’s blocked countless journalists and activists whose politics he doesn’t like from the platform. He enlisted the assistance of the Communist Party of China in censoring comments critical of Tesla. He directs his legions of malformed groupies to harass journalists who write things that displease him:
… This is worse than just stalking: Musk is setting his army of fanboys loose on Lopez, he’s retweeting stuff they find, and he’s encouraging them every step of the way. Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for setting mobs upon his enemies; Musk should be banned too, but won’t be. Musk’s harassment of Lopez is obsessive and deranged, to the point at which it should worry every shareholder of any company where he serves as CEO.
His indifference to freedom of expression is particularly grave for countries without robust First Amendment protections. His moderation policies are shaping a grim trend:
“For all his talk about ‘free speech,’” writes Parker Malloy, who chronicles the hundreds of ways he’s degraded the experience of Twitter, “he’s operated the site like a petty tyrant, throttling topics and users he doesn’t like and inventing new rules on a whim.”
And he’s such a repellent specimen, too: a puerile, stammering creature who resembles some kind of pale, hairless mole and who is, despite all the riches in the world, unable to land a joke. (This is not strictly relevant to my argument, but it adds to my aggravation.)
Most Twitter seem to be somewhere between “annoyed” and “furious” about what he’s done to the platform, which he’s rendered far less useful and far more annoying. The obsequious fans remain, of course: Elon will always have the loyalty of Bret Weinstein and CatTurd2, I’m sure; but the rest of the users are growingly fed up.
“People who follow Claire Berlinski” are obviously not a representative sample of Twitter users, but I suspect if you were to poll a representative sample, you’d see the same downward trend:
Given this, what we’re looking at is a collective action problem. Two obvious solutions suggest themselves:
Solution 1: Though Substack Notes had no hope of becoming a serious rival to Twitter before Musk’s outburst, it’s just possible that he’s now given the platform enough publicity that when it’s available to the wider public, a mass exodus from Twitter to Substack will take place.
If enough journalists, in particular, migrate to Substack, the rest might follow. The reason Twitter has such outsize influence is that it’s the central platform for breaking news. The reason journalists might go to Substack, as opposed to Mastodon or Post or any of the other networks that have tried to fill Twitter’s shoes, is that, first, many are already there; and second, they have a financial incentive to go there. Substack is an excellent platform, which is why I’m here and so are you.
Solution 2: Suppose 50 percent of Twitter users are fed up enough to do something to limit Musk’s influence over the platform. Recall: The platform has no value at all without its users. If half of its users were to go on strike and refuse to return until Elon handed off the management of Twitter to someone else—anyone else—I bet we’d win. Twitter users, acting collectively, would not be powerless. Without us, Twitter doesn’t exist. All we have to do is organize.
A #TwitterStrike would work. How could it fail to work?
If users aren’t willing to do that, then presumably it means they’re not, actually, all that bothered by Musk. They just enjoy complaining about him. But they should be that bothered. Last weekend it was my livelihood he momentarily entertained destroying to satisfy some spiteful whim. Next weekend, it may be theirs. If they don’t have a business that depends on Twitter, they should consider Musk’s perfect willingness to destroy people just because they offend his vanity—like “Pedo guy”—and to turn on people when he’s done using them—as he did on Matt Taibbi.
Musk must go. The users, not him, built the platform. The users could change its management almost overnight by means of a #TwitterStrike—particularly if it’s widely publicized in the media, which it should be, given that journalists everywhere claim to be as fed up as I am.
May Day would be the obvious day to begin.
Shall we try?
Being jerked around by Elon Musk is intolerable. I’ve built, by the sweat of my brow, a small but serious venue for discussing global news. The Cosmopolitan Globalist isn’t a juggernaut, but it’s an honest endeavor that represents more labor than anyone could possibly know. It’s intolerable that on a whim, for no reason at all, Elon threatened to destroy it. I hope that anyone who reads this will join me in solving this problem.
Musk must go.
I realize that for faithful Christians, the drama was considerably greater.
We’ll publish a piece about this soon—it’s bad.
Don’t misunderstand me. I do not believe you have a First Amendment right to say anything you wish to say on Twitter. I believe Twitter can and should apply clear and consistent terms of service aimed at making the site useful and reasonably decent, discouraging criminal activity, and thwarting the efforts of the West’s enemies to drown our duller citizens in lies.