While the deal is not yet final, Elon Musk is buying Twitter and he’s promising to make changes to the platform, most notably by lessening the censorship that goes on behind the scenes.
While those of us who doomscroll the hellscape that is the bird app have seen some signs of life in response to Musk’s pledge — long-banned accounts being reinstated, dormant users returning, people on the right finally getting their blue checks — it increasingly seems like those still in charge want to leave as much of a mess for the next owner to clean up as possible.
An example of such began showing itself last week when podcaster Eliza Bleu sent her first op-ed to a friend and asked her to share it. When the friend opened the message, she was greeted with a warning stating “Message hidden due to suspicious content.”
So much for being a place “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. Our business and revenue will always follow that mission in ways that improve – and do not detract from – a free and global conversation.”
Bleu’s inaugural op-ed was about Twitter, but that doesn’t seem to be what triggered the algorithm, or person masquerading as an algorithm, as the article was more specifically about how Musk’s changes could help lessen child predators’ ability to use the app to share media showing sexual abuse. It was not a broadside against Twitter’s current modus operandi. It was not a call for digital anarchy. It wasn’t even that pro-Musk. Nonetheless, whatever algorithmic changes that have been rolled out in recent days caught her message.
And she’s not alone. This also happened to me when I attempted to share a link to an article I wrote in 2014 about becoming pro-life. Granted, I was knowingly engaging in thoughtcrime given the leak of Justice Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson, and Twitter would love nothing more than to silence opposition and cow any wavering justices into submission. Regardless, this is what my friends saw:
While my friends, as well as Bleu’s, were able to view the message, this development is reminiscent of Twitter’s reaction to The New York Post’s reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop. At the time, users could not only not tweet a link to the piece, they couldn’t even direct message it, content warning or otherwise. Jack Dorsey may have called that decision a mistake, but some of the coders behind the scenes evidently do not share that opinion, even today.
When announcing his acquisition of the company, Musk wrote, “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.” Today, with these subtle changes, Twitter is now still trying to not only limit debate but prevent friends from sharing their work with one another.
Look, we’re all free not to use Twitter. Honestly, the world would be a better place if none of us did, but Musk’s observation that it’s become the digital town square is accurate. And while physical town squares also feature content moderation in the form of various local laws, there’s no way to totally silence us as Twitter does. If one were to go old school and write a message on a piece of posterboard with a Sharpie, it would take some time for the police to remove us from our chosen corner of the square, assuming we’d actually broken a law.
When it comes to social media, there are no such laws, or even norms, which are supposedly all the rage these days. Instead, it’s totally dependent on the whims of the Wizards of Oz, pulling strings behind the curtain. And Twitter’s wizards are obviously pulling as many strings as possible ahead of the sale, hoping to create a Byzantine mess so large that it’s impossible to clean up. Elon, though, can fix it.
If he were feeling truly philanthropic, he’d immediately delete Twitter in its entirety upon completion of the sale. That’s unlikely to happen given that his goal is to not only free up the platform, but also make it profitable. Musk may be after more conversation, and he’s obviously not trying to destroy it.
But since the rot is still deep within the company, seeking to control which conversations get to happen even now, Musk must channel one such banned user, roll in on day one, and tell a whole lot of employees, “You’re fired.” If he truly wants a digital town square, it’s the only way to remove the chains that a bunch of lefty nerds are trying to keep us in.