Twenty-three theses on Elon Musk and Twitter
There's a real risk here — but free speech is the solution, not the problem
Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is a Black Hole of Discourse that has engulfed the entire media, and I’m no exception. It touches on so many things — climate, space travel, economics, media — that I couldn’t really work my thoughts into a coherent whole. But it’s my blog and I can be incoherent if I want, so here are some thoughts in scattered epigrammatic style:
The transformation of Elon Musk into a hated figure in American progressive circles is fundamentally odd. We’re talking about a guy whose fortune is built on electric cars and solar panels and whose big aspiration is going to Mars. These are not classically areas where American liberals have clashed with business.
Musk’s own politics seem to have shifted in tandem. In 2021, he made only a few political contributions, all to the RNC or WinRed. But in 2018 he was a classic bipartisan rich guy, maxing out to the DCCC and the RNCC. In the 2016 cycle and earlier, he seems to have given mostly to national Democrats but also to a lot of (mostly Republican) state-level Texas politicians. Back in 2012 Musk was an Obama donor, and Mitt Romney was slamming Tesla as a “loser” company propped up by the Obama administration’s misguided policies.
I think Musk sincerely wants to colonize Mars. For a while now, I’ve been baffled by some of Musk’s comments about the Boring Company’s ability to solve traffic congestion with narrow tunnels. From a traffic engineering perspective, this really does not make any sense, and yet Musk is far too successful to dismiss as an idiot. But to colonize Mars, you really would want to dig a lot of narrow tunnels.
The other day, Musk tweeted, “Underground tunnels are immune to surface weather conditions (subways are a good example), so it wouldn’t matter to Hyperloop if a hurricane was raging on the surface. You wouldn’t even notice.” This is obviously untrue as you can quickly confirm by Googling — subway tunnels are not isolated from the external environment because, among other things, they need ventilation. But if your tunnels were on Mars, you actually would want them to be sealed off from the outside atmosphere.
There are no fossil fuels on Mars, so you couldn’t power a Mars colony with coal, oil, or natural gas. Obviously hydro won’t work either. There is uranium on Mars, though, so a nuclear-powered Mars colony is ultimately feasible. And though Musk does not have a nuclear company (yet), he is pro-nuclear. But you’d need to mine the uranium and refine it first, so an extensive network of solar panels and electric vehicles would be key.
Do you think this whole idea of colonizing Mars is stupid? Good for you. I’m not sure I get it either. But electric cars, solar panels, and reusable rockets are all clearly useful for more earth-bound pursuits, so I’m not complaining. And when thinking about things like growing food on Mars or having enough water, the fundamental problems are pretty similar to the general issue of unlocking energy abundance on Earth in ways that could massively improve our living standards right here.
Twitter users on the whole are younger, richer, better-educated, and more left-wing than the American population as a whole.
Among Democrats, Twitter users are way more left-wing and politically engaged than Democrats as a whole. This Twitter gap, combined with the fact that Musk sincerely loves tweeting, I think explains a lot about the transformation in political perceptions of him.
The Elon Musk Discourse seems to me to largely take place in a universe where the United States is close to enacting a stiff wealth tax and achieving Japanese levels of mass transit ridership. In that universe, Elon Musk — an incredibly rich guy who sells cars for a living and clearly doesn’t like mass transit — would absolutely be a tier-one obstacle to progressive goals.
In the real world, the U.S. transit mode share is something like five percent and falling. Congress just enacted a historically generous federal investment in mass transit, so building national political support for transit spending is actually not a problem. To improve transit we need to actually raise the quality of the investments that we make and improve land use so that when trains are built, there’s a critical mass of people who live near the station.
The concept of “free speech” on Twitter strikes me as inherently problematic due to the platform’s reliance on algorithmic amplification and suppression of certain tweets. There are completely valid and understandable business reasons for operating that way, but free speech is fundamentally about neutrality with regard to content, and the fact is that Twitter is not a neutral platform, not a dumb pipe, and not a utility-type information-disseminator. I would in some sense like them to operate that way, but they don’t. And given that they don’t, the question of what they do and don’t promote is a valid thing to scrutinize.
Twitter is also a private company (and absolutely not a monopoly), thus it has no legal or constitutional obligation to be neutral. There is a question of how free is the speech on the platform, but it’s not a question of the legal concept of Americans’ right to freedom of speech.
The fundamental problem with uncensored, algorithmically-amplified speech is that you are de facto putting a thumb on the scale in favor of misinformation. If 99 out of 100 journalists get the story right, then they are all competing with one another for visibility whereas the one guy who makes a mistake ends up with a more distinctive story and will secure above-average engagement.
When the consensus on something is wrong, of course, this fundamental anti-consensus feature of algorithmic social media is great. Back in January and February of 2020 when the expert consensus downplayed the seriousness of Covid-19 and the utility of masks, Twitter’s anti-consensus features helped me to obtain better information.
Situations where the consensus is wrong and outsiders and truth-tellers puncture the bubble are very high-salience and memorable. But most of the time the consensus opinion is both correct and banal (Comet Ping Pong is a restaurant with pretty good pizza), while the dissident view is batshit insane (Comet Ping Pong is the secret headquarters of a cabal of child molesters). An information platform that pairs algorithmic amplification with zero-censorship will relentlessly promote insanity while eroding financial incentives for accurate journalism.
The problem with content moderation as a solution to misinformation is that to do it properly, the company would need to build an entire top-to-bottom stack for gathering and evaluating information on every conceivable topic of interest. That’s really hard! The absolute best, most honest, and most forthright media institutions in the world make errors. They also generally have the humility to only cover a limited range of issue space. The idea that Twitter could effectively ascertain what is true and what is untrue on every topic simultaneously not only in English but also in Arabic and Portuguese is absurd.
In practice, Twitter seems to do exactly what any group of people would do, which is implement its moderation directives in a biased way. It’s a U.S. company whose employees are mostly on the left, so it pays more attention to stuff in English and about the United States and it tends to take a more generous view of left-wing people’s conduct than right-wing people’s conduct.
Most people assume, I think rightly, that a vision of Twitter more oriented toward “free speech” would mean reinstating a bunch of right-wing scumbags.
Many people seem to assume that this would be good for right-wing politics. I am skeptical. Twitter’s decision to clamp down on Nazis while letting the hammer-and-sickle crew run wild does not strike me as providing the Democratic Party with any kind of concrete advantages in political competition. If anything, it’s the opposite. Political movements benefit from policing their own extremes, but that’s difficult to do in practice. The fact that Twitter does it for them is good for Republicans.
The ultimate example of this is Trump. Throughout his presidency other Republicans urged him to tweet less, but he wouldn’t. Then after 1/6, Twitter kicked him off, and that’s been great for Republicans! I thought Joe Biden should have called for his reinstatement as a gesture of bipartisanship in the State of the Union. The last thing Kevin McCarthy wants to do is admit that he likes Trump being offline.
The most plausible worry about Musk buying Twitter is that it’ll be a time-suck. A lot of people describe Twitter as a “hellsite,” but as anyone who follows me knows, I personally really enjoy it. Musk seems to as well. But it’s a huge distraction! I tweet more than I should, Musk tweets more than he should, and basically all high-volume users are using it more than we should. If he actually owns Twitter, then it’s easy to see that becoming a huge distraction from more important pursuits like rockets and electric cars. Let’s colonize Mars!
Tesla does a lot of business in China, both in terms of sales and manufacturing. Companies that do business in China tend to help the PRC export its censorship norms to the West. Elon Musk has been pretty vocal in his criticisms of Covid-19 NPIs in the United States but silent about much more draconian measures implemented in China. He surely doesn’t want to impose the kind of pro-Chinese self-censorship that he practices on the entire Twitter userbase. But he probably doesn’t enjoy imposing it on himself either. Stuff happens.
In general, one should probably worry more about business titans creating a situation of too little free speech rather than too much.