Wednesday, April 27, 2022

How the Elites Lost the Twitter War

From David Auerbach, at UnHerd, "Elon Musk has sided with the rabble":

Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is a litmus test of where you stand in the online ecosystem. To some, it means a dawn of “free speech” on a platform that has increasingly cracked down on unwanted views. To others, it means the takeover of a valuable public forum by a capricious and unaccountable oligarch.

Triumphalism and horror abound, but both responses are a distraction. While it is difficult to predict exactly what Musk will do with Twitter (he has announced his intention to soften content moderation and make the algorithm open-source, but only time can tell on both), what his purchase represents is considerably clearer: it is a major flashpoint in the shift from a centralised culture of public elites to a more decentralised, chaotic, and devolved world.

In this context, debates about free speech and accountability miss the point. There was nowhere near this much panic when Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post in 2013. Nor, for that matter, do people worry about the fact that Warner Bros Discovery owns CNN or that Comcast owns MSNBC. So why all the hoopla about Musk?

There are two reasons for the excitement. The first is related to Musk himself: his perceived character and affiliations. Elite media and progressive circles tend to regard him as more dangerous than Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos not because he is richer or more powerful, but because he is more culturally aligned with various deplorables, from crypto-bros to MAGA-heads to Joe Rogan.

This perception helps to explain the fretting over Musk’s claim to be a “free speech absolutist”, which human rights groups have warned could usher in a torrent of online hate. But whether or not you think unrestricted free speech is a good thing, it is unlikely to be put into practice. There is widespread agreement that unmoderated public forums are completely unmanageable due to trolling and abuse, and any administrator of any social media platform will have to engage in some filtering or censoring. The worry is about what kinds of speech he will and won’t let through.

The second reason relates to Twitter’s tenuous role in preserving an established national elite in an age in which the very idea of such an elite is dying. Twitter has in recent years, just like the internet itself, bifurcated into two broad strata: a national “overculture” of elites — academic, celebrity, political, or journalistic — and a more shadowy, disparate “underculture” of often-pseudonymous hoi polloi, who increasingly define themselves in opposition to the traditional elites.

For many years now, the undercultures of Reddit, 4chan, and other online forums have made the idea of a respectable, professionalised online discourse more difficult to maintain. And the ability of the underculture to mobilise masses of anonymous users to push against the elevated voices of the overculture has shaken the established media culture to the bone.

This dynamic was on display last week in the conflict between Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz and the formerly anonymous Libs of TikTok Twitter account...

Keep reading.