It’s worth recalling just how fanciful and arbitrary was
decision to ban President
from the site in 2021 after the Jan. 6 riot.
The most newsworthy figure in the world, Mr. Trump was not short of ways to broadcast his claims about the 2020 election. Cable channels carried them live. News organizations dissected them. The things Mr. Trump was saying could be heard everywhere except on Twitter. In the service’s words, he was canned not because he advocated violence (he didn’t), but because of the instransitive fact of “how [his tweets] are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter.”
No less flimsy was its justification, a few months earlier, for blocking tweets linked to a New York Post story about
laptop, on the unsupported, baseless grounds that it consisted of “hacked materials.” It didn’t. It was based on digital data copied off a laptop by an identified, authorized user, and then vetted and verified by reporters for a major American newspaper.
With these two decisions in late 2020 and early 2021, Twitter transformed its brand overnight, to one of a Democratic censorship machine. You can see the results today in a YouGov survey that finds 54% of Republicans support
takeover bid and only 7% of Democrats do.
Unsurprisingly, these decisions now are debated on Twitter itself. Mr. Musk’s takeover bid has been explicitly conditioned as a critique of Twitter’s censorship policies. Golly, names like that of
the $17-million-a-year executive who made the laptop and Trump excommunication decisions, are being bandied.
And because Mr. Musk acknowledged as much in his own tweets, a hostile press corps now blames him when random Twitter users engage in all-too-predictable name calling and abuse aimed at Ms. Gadde and some of her fellow executives. Never mind that such pile-ons are Twitter’s stock in trade. Or maybe the critics want to argue the internet should be abolished, because it facilitates social-media pile-ons?
Illustrated here is Twitter’s besetting problem: the fantasy that we can have an online forum in which, at no cost and with zero effort, anybody can say anything, and yet it can also be kept free of irresponsible, abusive and misinformed speech.
In the context of millions of people tweeting nonsense at all hours, the result is the one we’ve seen: “content moderation” decisions that, in the most important instances, turn out to be arbitrary, capricious and mainly indicative of which political influencers have Twitter management’s ear.
The solution to a fantasy is to stop indulging in it, but somebody has to assert control to get this change done—enter Mr. Musk. He may also have innovations up his sleeve for Twitter’s other problem, a lagging revenue model. But it’s worth noting that he would only have to restore Twitter’s stock market value of 14 months ago to make his private buyout profitable on paper.
In that time, even as investors fled, Twitter still managed to add daily users—up 15%. It still managed to grow revenue. All Mr. Musk has to do now is secure ownership to cause millions of users and potential users to rethink the image Twitter gave itself with its 2020 partisanship displays. In Washington-speak, personnel is policy: Indeed, today’s furor is doing Mr. Musk’s work for him, in changing Twitter’s brand.
One lesson is applicable to today’s CEOs who are pressured to take political stands. By the fatal act of opening its door to being lobbied over content moderation, Twitter turned itself into a political asset for partisans to fight over. In its original iteration as a free-speech platform, it allowed Mr. Trump or anyone to bypass the media and reach millions of voters directly. In its revamped iteration as a content-moderation machine designed to favor some viewpoints over others, it became a tool to suppress voices and information progressives didn’t want Americans to hear.
Those who view Twitter as their woke sword and shield won’t go down without a fight, which is their right, even if it stretches credulity to paint the pot-smoking, climate-change-trumpeting Mr. Musk as a right-wing activist. But of all people to feel aggrieved when caught up in a tasteless Twitter storm, it merits some eye-rolling when such whinges are heard on behalf of Twitter’s own executives. These are the folks who made the highly dubious censorship decisions that played an important role in delivering Twitter to its present crossroads.
offered the right advice decades ago: If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8