Elon Musk becomes largest shareholder of Twitter, refuses to join board. Twitter shareholders sue Musk. Advantage: Musk.
“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” mused one of Twitter’s founders long, long ago, obviously living in a galaxy far, far away: “I was wrong about that.”
“I think the internet is broken,” is what he says today, back here on planet earth. “And it’s a lot more obvious to a lot of people that it’s broken.”
In fact, what has been revealed in the dark underbelly of social media, is but the dark underbelly of humanity itself, though that is hardly a comfort. Twitter, and social media in general, have become toxic virtual spaces where advertising barely chokes out a steam of vituperations and negativity.
It’s death by algorithm. In our dystopian modern media landscape, the very worst of what corporate media offers constantly floats to the surface. The more heinous, shocking, narrative-driving, hyperbolic, and/or rage-inducing the headline, the more ad-clicks.
As a wise man once observed about our time and probably others: More money, more problems.
Given what social media has become- or considering some of the earlier crimes of Myspace and Craigslist, what it probably always was- that sentiment could be revised to suit: More connectivity, more problems.
We human beings are a diverse and divergent bunch. Moral absolutes war with subjective morality. One culture’s sacrilege is another’s sacredly held belief. What one person finds uplifting and inspiring, someone 10,000 miles away- or perhaps next door- might find shocking, appalling and immoral.
All families have values, all people have values: But there are as many variations on moral values systems as there are stars in the heavens.
Social media has revealed many things; the diversity of the human family, the relative performance of various political and social systems of organization- see, The Black Book of Communism.
Social media has also revealed and amplified some of the terrible angels of our nature. Violence, bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and others; like the arms race, these weaknesses are humanity’s greatest shame.
Like the AI chatbot which eventually had to be shut down because it was corrupted by user input. After interacting with social media users, the bot became abusive, threatening and violent.
Garbage in, garbage out.
Worse, intentional sabotage is having a detrimental effect on our anonymous and digital town square. We have no idea how many people really are actually hateful, potentially violent lunatics and how many are basically carbon-based malware and information warfare.
Some percentage of what is tearing apart rational discourse and social cohesion- on social media, anyway- is almost certainly interference by trolls, America’s geopolitical rivals sowing discord, and twelve-year olds.
Russia, and to an even larger extent, China, both have massive content farms. Saturating the media marketplace with stories they want, and burying stories they don’t, isn’t even the half of it.
The Chinese Communist Party has been caught using information warfare techniques on India and Taiwan. These actions are meant to sow internal discord, undermine faith in institutions and political parties and generally weaken an opponent- all from behind a desk in Beijing.
In 2016, Russia famously attempted to meddle in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Not only has Russia attempted to do so on any number of other occasions in addition to 2016, other countries- friendly and unfriendly- have done the same.
One of the things Russian trolls are proven to have done in 2016 to sow discord in advance of the election was to set up dueling protests. Same city, same place, same time; set up two events- one for each “side”- and watch the clash from anywhere on earth via laptop.
Into the miasma, social media giants are in deep trouble.
A bit of overextension here, a bit of playing God there; the next thing you know, social media companies stand accused of everything from election interference to knowingly promoting an unhealthy atmosphere for vulnerable young people, who are being launched into a mental health crisis by an online world full of tabloid journalism and sensationalist claims each more outlandish than the next.
It’s no wonder social media giants have failed us: Social media companies are now and always have been run by people, who are in 2022, as ever they were, fallible, malleable, egocentric and elitist.
Other countries are looking in askance at social media companies and the toll they’ve taken on U.S. elections. You can bet world leaders aren’t anxious to have the outcome of their next election decided by Mark Zuckerberg, never mind the next five elections.
Plus, people are pulling the rip cord on social media.
Already, only 1 in 5 Americans use Twitter. And as Elon Musk not-so-gently pointed out to Twitter execs recently, Twitter’s “top” accounts barely produce any content.
“Is Twitter dying?” Musk pondered publicly this week, on Twitter to his 80 million close friends and followers.
Maybe not dying, not exactly, but not exactly thriving, either.
It hasn’t escaped notice that Facebook isn’t doing so hot these days, either. It hasn’t gone the way of Myspace- not yet- but the name change isn’t a good sign. There have been other bad signs as well.
Companies- LUSH Bath Bombs for one- are beginning to delete or limit some of their social media accounts- Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in particular, “until these platforms can provide a safer environment for their users”.
Other organizations- like the New York Times- are issuing newly clarified guidelines for employees, allowing anyone who feels they need to disconnect from the mental health hazard of social media the professional freedom to do so.
Can any of this be fixed?
There are two camps: More censorship will fix everything versus less censorship will fix everything.
Now that Elon Musk has thrown his hat very much into the ring of the Twitterverse by acquiring such a large share of stock, the fomenting brew of social media is really churning.
Musk has mostly demonstrated himself to be an advocate for less censorship; the current management of Twitter is very openly in favor of more.
After buying the stock, and after Twitter CEO’s announced Musk’s imminent addition to the board, Musk apparently backed out, leaving the door open to speculation that he might be planning a hostile takeover instead.
In the battle for the soul of Twitter, if indeed that is what this is, the most recent development also seems to indicate a hostile takeover of some kind. Musk is being sued by Twitter investors for failure to disclose the size of his stake in a timely manner.
Team More Censorship and Team Less Censorship seem to be having a very public battle, on Twitter and in real time.
As is the case most of the time, both sides are wrong and reducing the matter to a false dichotomy makes the whole question intangible and farcical.
Neither more censorship nor less will fix everything because it isn’t social media that’s broken.
Well, social media is broken, or rather the algorithms are broken and the business model needs updating. It’s a design flaw and an execution flaw.
But even if there were an unassailable system for making social media a welcoming, safe place for everyone- full of rainbows and sunshine and unicorns, where never is heard a discouraging word- it still wouldn’t fix everything.
As usual, the problem isn’t Frankenstein’s monster; the problem is Dr. Frankenstein.
We have met the enemy and he is us. Humanity’s biggest threat isn’t the monstrous hydra of social media we’ve created, and which is now trying very hard to kill us.
Our biggest threat is ourselves, we are the creators of this particular monster. We’ve created others to the same effect; when this one is no more, we will build another and another.
That is, unless we address the real issues at the heart of why social media is rotting our brains and our communities. Poverty, scarcity, violence, lack of education, food insecurity, injustice and the many paths to it, along with the twin terrors of greed and exploitation- small scale and systemic: Until humankind addresses these underlying issues, nothing can “save” social media.
Not even Elon Musk.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)