The Media Today

Elon Musk pushes Twitter’s edit button, as Trump’s imitation Twitter flounders

April 7, 2022
22 March 2022, Brandenburg, Gr'nheide: Elon Musk, Tesla CEO, attends the opening of the Tesla factory Berlin Brandenburg. The first European factory in Gr'nheide, designed for 500,000 vehicles per year, is an important pillar of Tesla's future strategy. Photo by: Patrick Pleul/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Two weeks ago, Elon Musk, the world’s richest free-speech absolutist, posted a poll about Twitter, on Twitter, where he is obscenely active in every sense of that term. “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” Musk asked, adding, “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.” Seventy percent of the poll’s two million respondents carefully voted “no.” The next day, Musk asked, “is a new platform needed?” There was no poll option this time.

On Monday, we learned, via a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, that Musk had recently acquired a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter, making him its biggest shareholder. “Oh hi lol,” he tweeted. The type of filing submitted by Musk suggested that he would not be joining Twitter’s board or engaging in any shareholder activism. On Tuesday, we learned that Musk is joining Twitter’s board, and he tweeted that he was “looking forward to working with Parag & Twitter board to make significant improvements to Twitter in coming months,” a reference to Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s CEO. Musk also tweeted another poll, this time asking if Twitter should allow users to edit tweets after posting them (they currently can’t), and Agrawal shared it with the message “the consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.” Nearly three quarters of the poll’s nearly four and a half million respondents carefully voted “yes.”

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Stories involving Twitter and stories involving Elon Musk are reliable grist for professional opinionators, so it was inevitable that this story would blast into the take-sphere like a SpaceX rocket, with tech-watchers scrambling, primarily, to figure out what Musk is up to. Even though Twitter’s share price surged after Musk invested, Bloomberg’s Matt Levine wrote that Musk likely isn’t trying to make a quick buck here (“he has money, and wants to spend some of it on being more annoying on Twitter”); even though the platform has let Musk speak freely for years, Bloomberg’s Tim O’Brien speculated that he might be aiming to “bring Twitter to heel” on free speech. (The Washington Post republished O’Brien’s article, clearly identifying him as working for Bloomberg; Musk tweeted, in response, that the Post is “always good for a laugh.”) O’Brien acknowledged the possibility that Musk’s investment might simply be “performance art.” Casey Newton likened it to “Loki buying an ant farm”; Ranjan Roy suggested that it might be “the shitpost to end all shitposts.” Early this morning, Musk tweeted a meme showing him smoking weed with the caption, “Twitter’s next board meeting is gonna be lit.”

As Newton noted, though, the “mischievous trickster god” framing and general media “hubbub” around Musk’s investment have “served to obscure what has been a tumultuous time at Twitter in general”: in 2020, the activist investor Elliott Management took a 4 percent stake in Twitter with the goal of ousting Jack Dorsey, its cofounder and CEO, and rectifying the platform’s sluggish financials and user growth; Elliott stepped back last year but left behind aggressive goals that continued to go unmet, and Dorsey stepped down as CEO in November to be replaced by Agrawal, a Dorsey confidant who was previously the chief technology officer. Several of the Musk takes speculated that he, too, might be investing with a view to regime change. Some noted that Musk once shared a meme depicting Agrawal as Stalin. Many pointed out that the agreement for Musk to join the board will have the effect of forestalling any hostile takeover bid.

Publicly, though, both Dorsey and Agrawal were effusive in welcoming Musk’s involvement, and as Newton notes, there are reasons to believe that they may not have done so with their teeth gritted. All three men are into cryptocurrency. And they have similar stated views not only around free speech, but also around the belief that social platforms should be decentralized, a potentially radical step that would involve tech companies ceding power over their platforms to users; Dorsey and Musk seem to agree, for example, that users should have more control over the algorithms that shape what content they see in their feeds. Musk could prove to be more of a bulwark for Twitter’s current leadership than a disruptor—or those two functions could actually prove to be the same. The platform has already been working on a plan for decentralization. After Musk tweeted his edit-button poll, and Agrawal mischievously shared it, Twitter claimed that it had already been working on an edit feature, too, and would begin testing it soon.

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The corporate-intrigue aspect of this story is confusing and contingent on Musk’s very public unpredictability—“If I were Parag Agrawal,” Newton concludes, “I’d watch my back”—and we’ll have to wait and see what happens. Journalists will also be watching, with particular interest, how Musk-era Twitter changes, or doesn’t, the way information flows on the platform. (The Verge’s Elizabeth Lopatto suggested that Musk’s involvement could make some journalists more reluctant to use Twitter given his history of feuds with the press; I’ll believe that when I see it.) Any meaningful move toward decentralization would clearly be very consequential. An edit button might be less so, though even that could prove a nightmare for journalists if it allows powerful people to erase the public record of what they said. (Of course, powerful people can delete tweets already, and Musk is on the record, sort of, as supporting a version of the edit button that would be time-limited and allow other users to view changes that have been made.)

I’ve been debating with myself whether a free-speech absolutist wanting an edit button makes sense (editing your words is a form of speech) or doesn’t (we’ve heard a lot lately about the supposed specter of self-censorship). The obvious answer—it depends how you use the edit button—points to the much broader issue here: that free speech is messy and involves trade-offs. In practice, pure free-speech absolutism is rare, with most people drawing a line somewhere, either out of principle or brazen self-interest; various observers have noted that Musk is no exception, with The Atlantic’s Marina Koren arguing that his version of free speech “seems to be one in which only powerful people can say what they please and escape any negative consequences.” (When a college student started a Twitter account to track Musk’s private plane, Musk tried and failed to buy him off, before blocking him.) Twitter’s leadership has stressed its own commitment to free speech, but has recently taken more steps to moderate content, most notably when it banned Donald Trump from the platform following the insurrection. Speculation has already swelled that Musk might use his board perch to pressure Twitter to let Trump back on. Trump fans certainly hope so. (Twitter has maintained that board members don’t get to make policy.)

Trump’s entire political career has been built on the notion that powerful people can say what they please and escape negative consequences, which brings us to Truth Social, the imitation Twitter—with “truths” and “retruths” taking the place of tweets and retweets—that Trump recently launched after being banned from the real thing. The new platform has billed itself as a staunchly pro-free-speech corner of the internet, though here, too, users are forbidden to “disparage, tarnish or otherwise harm” the site’s backers. It has also been off to a rocky start. The launch, in February, was bedeviled by technical gremlins, with many prospective users waitlisted, and things haven’t got much better since then. We learned this week that at least three top executives have already left Truth Social. Trump is reportedly livid about the mess, and hasn’t posted in weeks.

Putting the cartoonish, only-in-Trumpworld dysfunction to one side, various experts have argued that Truth Social is built on a fatal conceptual flaw; as Kara Alaimo, of Hofstra University, put it in an op-ed for CNN this week, “any social network set up by a figure as polarizing as Trump is practically guaranteed to fail” because “the value of a social network to a user depends in large part on how many other people are using it.” Even dedicated Trump fans like to debate and/or troll and/or harass their perceived opponents, who aren’t generally on Truth Social, but might very well be on Twitter. Which brings us back to Musk. Twitter letting Trump back on, were that to happen, might be the final nail in Truth Social’s rapidly closing coffin. Even if it doesn’t, though, the latter platform’s travails only reinforce the importance of Twitter’s approach to speech, as one of the few platforms capable of convening a broad public conversation. Rightly or (probably) wrongly, powerful people like journalists spend a lot of time on Twitter. It’s often said that discourse on the platform isn’t “real life,” but it has a habit of spilling over into our politics and media. Musk’s impact on that could really matter, even if he does mostly shitpost.

As I’ve written before in a different context, if the boundary separating Twitter and the outside world is porous, so is the line between trolling and not. Perhaps the most telling theory of Musk’s involvement with Twitter concerns his long-running feud with the SEC, which went after Musk when he tweeted, in contravention of its regulations, that he had secured funding to take Tesla, his electric-car company, private; Musk settled and agreed to let lawyers vet future sensitive tweets, but he has tried to reverse this requirement and has also been very open about his contempt for the SEC, tweeting at one point that the “E” stands for “Elon’s.” (You can guess for yourself what the “S” and “C” might stand for in such a formulation.) As Ranjan Roy put it, Musk’s Twitter involvement might be “both about the lulz and legal jiujitsu”; how, after all, “does the SEC go after his ability to tweet when he…owns Twitter?” Again, Musk’s motives are unclear, and we’ll have to see what happens next. It is abundantly clear, though, that the free-speech wars are all about power.

Below, more on Twitter:

  • Wait a SEC: Musk’s Twitter involvement could increase his problems with the SEC since, as Bloomberg’s Matt Robinson put it, he disclosed his stake “days later than regulations allow and because he revealed it in a filing typically reserved for passive investments,” then quickly ascended to the board. (Musk submitted the correct type of filing the day the board announcement was made.) Keith Higgins, who ran the SEC’s corporate filings unit during the Obama administration, told Robinson that while minor delays might not typically cause the SEC to bring a case, missing deadlines can trigger enforcement action if paired with other suspected rules violations.
  • Moderation: Also on Tuesday, Twitter outlined new moderation policies around content linked to the war in Ukraine. The platform said that it would “stop amplifying government accounts from countries that ‘limit access to the open internet while they’re engaged in armed conflict,’” the New York Times’ Erin Woo writes—a policy that, in practice, only applies to Russia. “Twitter also said it would require the removal of any tweets posted by state or government accounts that included video or images of prisoners of war,” as well as similar tweets from regular users that it determines were posted with “abusive intent.”
  • “A bad change”: In the past, if a third-party website (such as that of a news organization) embedded a tweet that was subsequently deleted, the text of the tweet would still appear on that site. Thanks to a policy change at Twitter, that’s no longer the case, with deleted tweets now appearing as a blank box in their embedded form, leaving a hole in many a news story; Twitter said that it wanted to “better respect” deletion decisions, but the change also affects tweets from accounts that have been suspended, not least Trump’s. Nilay Patel, editor in chief of The Verge, decried the change as “the right policy *in a vacuum*,” but bad from the point of view of journalistic sourcing.
  • Ouch: Lulu Cheng Meservey, the VP of communications at the newsletter platform Substack, tweeted out a job advertisement this week, adding that “if you’re a Twitter employee who’s considering resigning because you’re worried about Elon Musk pushing for less regulated speech… please do not come work here.” Alex Pareene parodied the tweet—in his Substack newsletter: “Not to brag, but I think I’m pretty good at my job, which is why so many people understand that our company is about conflating the concept of free and open debate with being a braying jackass all the time.”

Other notable stories:

  • The liberal media critic Eric Boehlert has died following a bicycle collision. He was fifty-seven. Boehlert wrote for publications including Rolling Stone, Billboard, Salon, and Media Matters for America before founding his own newsletter, Press Run; in his final edition, which ran on Monday, Boehlert asked why the press is “rooting against Biden,” blasting major outlets for their “relentlessly dour economic coverage” even in the face of strong jobs reports. Will Bunch, a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer who knew Boehlert, described him to the Washington Post as “a relentless pit bull in the public arena in calling out misinformation or shoddy work in the media, whether it was his bête noire, Fox News, or often at mainstream outlets like the New York Times.”
  • After various Republican senators mocked Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson for refusing, in response to their culture-war-bait questions, to define the word “woman” during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, HuffPost’s Arthur Delaney and Jennifer Bendery asked the same question of various Republican senators and found that “some wouldn’t—or couldn’t—give a definition” either. John Cornyn said that he was “not going to indulge” the question. Lindsey Graham cited “the birds and the bees stuff—it’s been a while, but I think I remember the general gist of the differences.” Thom Tillis said that he has a “more of a traditional view of what a woman is,” adding, when pushed, “my wife.”
  • According to the Wall Street Journal’s Alexandra Bruell and Keach Hagey, a new version of proposed legislation that would allow news organizations to negotiate collective deals with Big Tech is circulating in Congress; the amended proposal would force tech companies to come to the table by allowing publishers to invoke a mandatory arbitration process that is often used in baseball, but would only apply to news outlets with fewer than fifteen hundred employees. The proposal, Bruell and Hagey note, “somewhat resembles” a controversial Australian law that Bill Grueskin recently dissected for CJR.
  • Pinterest will ban various strains of climate misinformation from its platform, including denialism and misleading content around extreme-weather events. While YouTube already blocked advertisers from spreading climate misinformation, Pinterest “is the first major platform to ban climate change denial and similar falsehoods produced by regular users,” Scott Nover writes for Quartz. The company’s announcement “likely signals that misinformation about environmental risks is the next frontier of content moderation.”
  • For the first edition of his new weekly media column, Recode’s Peter Kafka assesses the New York Times’ “old white Democrats problem.” The paper has “succeeded wildly” at attracting subscribers, but “has not succeeded at transforming the kind of people” who pay for it, he notes. Subscriber demographics are “top of mind for the Times’s business team—who won’t say that publicly but discuss it often internally,” sources told Kafka.
  • First Look Media laid off around twenty staffers, five of them from The Intercept. In an email to staff, Michael Bloom, First Look’s CEO, blamed the impact of the pandemic, but staffers pushed back, saying that responsibility lies with management. “The email from Bloom verges on offensive,” an editor told the Daily Beast. “Don’t gaslight journalists.”
  • On Saturday, the Gridiron Club held its first dinner for DC bigwigs since covid hit in 2020. Now more than a dozen guests who attended have covid, including a half-dozen journalists, two cabinet members, and two congressmen. The Post has more.
  • A wild fox on Capitol Hill bit several people, including a congressman and the Politico reporter Ximena Bustillo. The fox was put down and subsequently found to have rabies.
  • And Bloomberg’s Joshua Green scored a rare interview with Dr. Oz—in a restroom.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.