A NEWSLETTER FROM DAVID CORN
Elon Musk and Twitter: What to Worry About
By David Corn April 30, 2022
Elon Musk this week reached a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion. Photo by Pavlo Gonchar/Sipa via AP
Are you worrying about how much you should be worrying about Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter? The weird tech billionaire’s move to acquire the social media platform for $44 billion ruffled many feathers among tweeters who feared that Musk, who claims to be a free-speech absolutist, might open the gates to disinformationalists, extremists, and harassers (including the now-banned Donald Trump) or implement other changes to turn this digital town square into his personal plaything.
As an avid Twitter user, I am concerned. But like most people, I have no clue as to Musk’s intentions. Why does he want to own a company that has only produced a profit twice in the past decade? Plus, he must borrow about $25 billion to consummate this deal. He may be worth $250 billion, but he’s not liquid enough to write a check to cover the purchase price. He will have to commit about $65 billion in Tesla stock to make this work. (Tesla shares plummeted after the Twitter deal was announced.) Seems like a lot of bother.
Because this deal will leave Musk one of the world’s most indebted billionaires, there may be less reason to fret. He will have to answer to his creditors, as he oversees his new toy. Turning Twitter into an unmoderated slime pit will likely not be good for business. After all, alt-right incels are not the ideal demographic for advertisers, and ads represent 86 percent of Twitter’s revenue. There could well be a market-driven check on what Musk can do. It also is extremely unclear what he means when he refers to himself as a free-speech fan. It’s easy to wave that banner, but does he want the site to be loaded with deep-fake celebrity pornography? Or anonymously posted false negative reviews of Teslas? Twitter has over 200 million users presently. What capitalist would want to alienate a big chunk of that consumer base? It’s no more than a hunch, but I would expect no wholesale or radical changes immediately. Musk may be compelled by business forces to be a somewhat responsible steward of Twitter. And the deal, which will take three to six months to complete, could well fell apart.
As Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others have pointed out, it is risky for such an important social media site to be in the hands of one person. Twitter gets dumped on a lot, but it is an incredibly valuable and enjoyable digital gathering place for many. It provides opportunities for political, social, and professional networking, and you can share videos of monkeys juggling frogs. For journalists (such as me), it provides an important launching pad for our work. I’ve developed significant reporting and personal connections on Twitter. I’ve received tips for stories. I follow the flight paths of Russian oligarchs’ jets on Twitter. Political and public-interest organizers reach supporters through Twitter. War crimes can be brought to light with tweets. Yes, Twitter mobs can be terrible, trolls and thugs are empowered by the platform, and the site can be abused by governments and bad actors through bots and other means. But the Twitterverse is often an enlightening and entertaining public space that is used reasonably and responsibly by most tweeters. It's a good spot to share photos of flowers, complain about a sports team, ask for advice, or conduct reasonable debates—even about Twitter itself, as Ezra Klein and I did this week.
So if I close my eyes and wish hard, I can almost be optimistic that Musk won’t screw it up too much. But one of his tweets this week caused me to wonder if I am being Pollyannish.
The news of Musk’s grab-up of Twitter made lots of conservatives giddy, for they seem to believe that Mr. SpaceX will turn it into an open bar for the alt-right and smite all the supposed wokeness within its ranks. One alt-right alumni named Mike Cernovich tweeted at Musk and encouraged him to take out Jim Baker, the deputy general counsel of Twitter. Why? Because Baker, when he was general counsel at the FBI, met in 2016 with Michael Sussmann, a Democratic lawyer who said he wanted to share research collected by computer data experts that suggested a link between Trump and a Russian bank. (Sussmann has been indicted by special counsel John Durham for this.) In his tweet, Cernovich accused Baker of having “facilitated fraud.”
That was false. Baker took a meeting with Sussmann but fabricated nothing. When the FBI looked at this allegation of interactions between the computers at Alfa Bank, the largest private Russian bank, and Trump-related servers, it concluded there was no there there. (Baker, a social acquaintance of mine, has long been a target of right-wing conspiracy theorists for his role in the Trump-Russia investigation—which to an extent involved me.) Cernovich’s brazen misrepresentation was not shocking. This is a guy who amplified the bogus and dangerous Pizzagate conspiracy theory and who co-hosted a show on Infowars with Alex Jones, a notoriously unhinged conspiracy theorist and 9/11 truther who claimed the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary mass-shooting was a “false flag” operation.
Here's what’s disturbing. Musk responded to Cernovich’s tweet about Baker—boosting it to his 88 million followers—and replied, “Sounds pretty bad.” This demonstrated a profound lack of judgment. Assume Musk is aware of Cernovich’s past. Then he awarded credence to a conspiracy theorist. And if he wasn’t familiar with Cernovich, then Musk, willy-nilly, accepted this false characterization, legitimized the disinformation, and passed it on to millions. In either scenario, he irresponsibly targeted Baker (a Twitter employee!) for online right-wing wrath.
In a similar case, Musk, with another tweet, elevated conservative criticism of Twitter’s top lawyer, Vijaya Gadde, and she came under attack on the platform by users who called for her dismissal and hurled racist insults at her.
These two instances are troubling. Can Musk be so easily played by right-wing tweeters? Or is he already with them? The critical question is not Musk’s politics. He’s been a major supporter of the ACLU. This week, he tweeted, “I strongly supported Obama for President, but today’s Democratic Party has been hijacked by extremists.” Another tweet he sent out indicates he currently sees himself as slightly right of center because the left has become too “woke ‘progressive.’”
This diagram is totally out of whack; it doesn't reflect what has happened to the right with the advent of the Tea Party and Donald Trump. Hasn't conservatism become more extreme (and nutty) over the past 14 years? Has Musk not noticed? But whatever side he's on, Musk has demonstrated he can easily be exploited by the bad-faith right. If a single billionaire is going to control such an important venue for public discourse, it would be best were he not a sap for peddlers of disinformation.
Got anything to say about this item—or anything else? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dumbass Comment of the Week
Sometimes this feature should be called Dangerous Comment of the Week. Let’s start with Liz Harrington, Donald Trump’s current spokesperson. My pal Cameron Joseph, an accomplished reporter at Vice, broke the news this week that a few days ago she spoke at a QAnon-affiliated conference. Her presence at this “Patriots Arise” gathering was outrageous enough—an aide to a former president lending legitimacy to a conspiracy cult that claims global elites (including prominent Democrats) are running an international pedophilia ring. But in her speech, Harrington called for arresting the people who stole the 2020 election from Trump. She, of course, didn’t identify who these people are or cite any confirmed evidence. Yet Harrington noted it was necessary to take such action to save the republic: “It’s so important to have accountability and have that trust restored because otherwise you’re going to get more of it. There’s no accountability? Yep. They’re gonna start arresting political opponents. They’re gonna start throwing political dissidents in jail. They’re going to parade people and interrogate you for your free speech.”
The libs are coming for you and intend to throw their political opponents into jail. Pardon me, but who the hell was screaming at rallies, “Lock her up”? Once again, we see classic Trumpist projection—accusing your political opposition of diabolical scheming because that is what you would like to do. Of course, the danger here is that a credible person—credible within this bonkers world—is fueling paranoia. Also appearing at this conference was Michael Peroutka, a Republican running for attorney general in Maryland. He has called for the South to secede and form a biblical nation. Another speaker at the QAnon-fest, Teddy Daniels, who is running for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, said that conservatives can only be civil with liberals once “we beat the crap out of them.” It’s easy to dismiss this stuff as too kooky to regard seriously. But this combination of paranoia, irrationality, fundamentalism, and violent rhetoric—which received the blessing of a key Trump aide—could encourage actual violence.
Now let’s turn from Trump crazies to Putin crazies. On Wednesday, war criminal and Russian leader Vladimir Putin warned that if any other nation intervenes in the Ukraine war, Russia will respond with “instruments...nobody else can boast of, and we will use them if we have to.” This appeared to be a reference to nuclear weapons. And Putin’s puppet-pundits on state media in recent days have been pre-justifying the use of nuclear weapons and almost celebrating the possible destruction to come, as the Daily Beast’s Julia Davis reported. They have portrayed the war in Ukraine as World War III, with Russia combatting NATO, which one commentator described as “today’s collective Hitler.”
Pondering the future of the war during a television appearance, Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT, remarked, “Personally, I think that the most realistic way [ahead] is the way of World War III, based on knowing us and our leader, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, knowing how everything works around here. It’s impossible—there is no chance—that we will give up.” She added that the possibility that “everything will end with a nuclear strike, to me, is more probable than the other outcome. This is to my horror, on one hand, but on the other hand, with the understanding that it is what it is.” At this point, Vladimir Solovyov, another well-known Russian commentator, interrupted her: “But we will go to heaven, while they will simply croak.” Simonyan added, “We’re all going to die someday.” It’s been said the Russian national character is imbued with a deep sense of fatalism. But such open talk of nuclear annihilation—and encouraging Russian citizens to accept this as inevitable and not such a bad thing—is absurd, extremely dangerous, and dumb. Simonyan, representing all of Putin’s lapdogs in the Russian media, wins this week.
The workers in the Our Land mailroom were overwhelmed by the response to my article on Rudy Giuliani’s appearance on The Masked Singer—which I cited as a perfect example of the trivialization of public discourse that Neil Postman decried in his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Apparently, this touched a nerve. Neighbor and friend Jenny Apostol forwarded a Charles Dickens quote from Hard Times: “People must be amused.” Terri Smith wrote: “I was utterly appalled when I saw the clips of Rudy. Those dim bulb women dancing and celebrating the traitor made it even worse. Thank goodness for [comedian] Ken Jeong walking out.”
Loraine Kephart wrote:
Give me three good lines to confront enjoyers of this misplaced humor. I can't walk off the set. Have you brought this point to national media?
Three lines? Democracy. Democracy. Democracy. As for alerting the media, this was no secret.
Donna Halper sent in this note:
Absolutely loved your Neil Postman-themed piece. Neil was my cultural hero and to this day, I assign Amusing Ourselves to Death to my Media Analysis students (there was a 20th anniversary 2nd edition in 2005, and I helped his son with it). Is there a link to your piece anywhere? I'd love to share it with members of the Media Ecology Association, many of whom knew and/or studied with Postman.
Because this article resonated so strongly, we subsequently posted a version of it on the Mother Jones website. Here’s a link you can share.
William Riley had a question:
Who made the decision to put this Big Liar on the show? What was he/she thinking? And why are we being softened up by our corporate masters for Hungarian-style democracy?
It must have been a bunch of producers and network execs. I doubt this was part of any plan to lead the nation into authoritarianism. What drove the decision—which is true for most television programming—was likely ratings. I’d like to know if there was any discussion among the decision makers regarding Giuliani’s role in the attempted overturning of an American election.
Holly Hertel had a bigger-picture take:
There's something problematic I've been cogitating on for a long time that doesn't get much attention (and I understand why this is so). There are just too many people in the world. I've heard that humans evolved to have just about 25 people in their village and a two-days-walk before getting to the next village. So we're hardwired for only this many people to be in our sphere at any given time. Today, we whiz by hundreds of people as we drive to work. We encounter many more as we shop for our groceries. Personal space is no longer possible when we get on a crowded elevator. How then do we deal with more people than our poor nervous systems have evolved for? I contend that this is one reason why we distract ourselves with "stuff." Maybe the digital thing is a place where, although there's a lot going on, we at least have enough feeling of control to be able to turn the channel or eat a sandwich while being bombarded with media.
Chuck Stead sent in a field report from the wilds of Jersey:
As a professor of Environmental Studies, I have to share that my incoming students (mostly suburban kids from north Jersey schools) are overwhelmingly undereducated. The Masked Singer episode they saw as nothing significant. They passed it off as trivial. When I reminded them that Rudy was a key figure in Trump's campaign to steal the election, they were stunned. But what stunned me was they didn't know who Rudy was to begin with. Mostly, they listen to their own apps and stream entertainment. And these are Environmental Studies students!!! Teaching is a challenge. Last year when we returned to the classroom from Covid, one of my students asked how the term “witch hunt” had gotten associated with politics. In talking about this I made a reference to McCarthyism and their faces went blank. So I put aside the planned lecture and launched into a half hour on Joe McCarthy and all that. Fortunately, they were intrigued so I assigned a reading and they actually took to it. But honestly, we are living in a time when the party of nonsense is working to shut down CRT in fear of their youth actually learning from our genuine past, so my teaching them about McCarthyism could well be cited as my making them feel ashamed for being a member of this republic! And yes, I did have a colleague question why I was talking about McCarthyism.
Chuck, I salute you for doing all you can to spread knowledge.
Richard Hutton had a discouraging message:
Using my family as an example; most only watch Fox News, believe Trump wasn’t that bad, and are concerned about what is being taught in school and vote Republican. We are so far down the rabbit hole I fear it is too late to reverse course. We are doomed.
Oh boy, Richard. Try to keep in mind that a majority of Americans did not vote for Trump. Maybe there’s a chance.
Harlan Holmes caught an error:
In what was a great piece on the relevance of Neil Postman’s vision, the purported link you gave to Barack Obama’s speech actually brought up this: https://www.businessinsider.com/rudy-giuliani-called-on-trump-supporters-for-trial-by-combat-2021-1.
Oops. That’s what happens when the copy editor is out sick. You can watch Obama’s speech here.
Joseph Rachel and Sarah Manire had something else on their collective mind:
Something I do not really understand is how the dire situation in Ukraine is different from the dire situation in the Balkans several years ago. The latter prompted the US, and NATO, to intervene to put an end to the carnage. Why is this apparently not a solution now? Why is the West so reluctant to send planes to protect the Ukrainians, even as we are rushing equipment and ammo to them? Is the reason for the current hesitation the concern that Putin will escalate to nuclear warfare, whereas in the Balkans that was not an issue? This clearly says to the world that any country or individual with nuclear capacity can successfully blackmail the United States without firing a shot directly at the United States.
That is right. As I’ve noted before, a madman (or war criminal) with nuclear weapons is harder to stop than one without. See the above item. Putin and his propagandists are talking openly about using nuclear weapons. Is that just a bluff? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Consequently, possible nuclear escalation must be a factor in decision-making, and that does limit options.
Lynette Sheffield had a complaint about a recent issue:
Only ONE Dumbass Comment of the Week?
Lynette, sometimes that’s all I have strength for.
“What are you cooking?”
“An Impossible Burger, Moxie. Nothing for you. It’s not meat.”
“Not meat? Are you sure? Looks and smells like meat.”
“Yeah, not meat.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I think we have an ad here.”
“What’s my cut?”
Read Recent Issues of Our Land
April 26, 2022: Trump’s lust for revenge spreads through the GOP; The Batman mopes; the Peruvian origins of punk rock; and more.
April 23, 2022: Amusing ourselves to autocracy; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Special OAN edition); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
April 19, 2022: Why the hell isn’t Jared Kushner’s $2 billion Saudi payment a big scandal?; Severance’s wonderful finale; a podcast about the Ukraine war and the US-Russia intelligence wars; and more.
April 5, 2022: The power of the thug; a joke about Trump; Ben Affleck’s moves in Deep Water; and more.
April 2, 2022: How Donald Trump just helped Putin’s barbaric and illegal war; good Trump news; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Mike Pence, Lauren Boebert, and Donald Trump Jr.); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
March 29, 2022: Why you should worry that Ginni Thomas is bonkers; The Adam Project and movie-world time travel; The Sea The Sea, an indie-pop-folk duo, shimmers; and more.
March 22, 2022: John le Carré’s farewell gift to us; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Emergency Edition); the former Kremlin official who spoke out; a disappointing
Suspicion;“Kyiv Calling”; and more.
March 19, 2022: How Trump and his crew boost Putin’s disinformation; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Candace Owens, Jesse Waters, Lara Logan, Herschel Walker, Elon Musk, and others); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
March 15, 2022: Tucker Carlson, Vladimir Putin, and me; why you should watch Severance; and more.
March 12, 2002: Putin, Ukraine, nuclear war, and Trump; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Madison Cawthorn, again!); the Mailbag, MoxieCam™; and more.
March 8, 2022: The progressive dilemma in Ukraine; rehabbing West Side Story; does Inventing Anna target or celebrate Instagram culture?; and more.
Got suggestions, comments, complaints, tips related to any of the above, or anything else? Email me at email@example.com.