Well, yes. For any given task, give me a choice between a 23-year-old wokester and practically anyone else and I’ll take door number two.
I’d much rather have Elon Musk making the rules than some 23-year-old who can’t take the joke on Babylon Beeswax or whatever the f*** that is. I mean, this is a generation that doesn’t know what the word “violence” means. They think violence means “anything I don’t like.” Their standard of free speech is “I’m uncomfortable.” That’s not where the standard is, right?
Civics doesn’t exist anymore. They don’t know what the — free speech, what the f*** does that mean? “It hurt my feelings.” That’s what matters to them. That’s what I worry about.
Watch the exchange between him and MSNBC host Ali Velshi below and you’ll realize that what they want from Twitter is something that’s probably impossible. On the one hand, we all yearn to control what we see in our social media feeds. We “follow” people whose opinion we value to be alerted instantly when they post new content. We block or mute certain others to keep their content out of our feeds. We all crave the ability to curate.
On the other hand, Maher and Velshi want a marketplace of ideas in which people’s beliefs are challenged. That’s the point of Maher’s show, as Velshi points out. It’s one of the few spaces on American television where people with different perspectives engage in something resembling actual conversation. That’s what social media should be!
How many social media users want that, though?
The power of curation is the power to exclude. I’d guess the average political junkie devotes 80-90 percent of his “follows” to people who are likeminded. Twitter is chiefly a news-sharing medium, after all, and people who share your political priorities are more likely to call attention to news you find relevant. Nearly all of the content the average Twitter user misses isn’t due to censorship by the company’s moderators, it’s due to their own personal follow/mute/block curation habits.
How does that problem get solved? If Maher could wave his magic wand and un-woke Twitter’s censorship practices, how would he address the fact that people will continue to silo themselves off, by and large, from different opinions? This is where the “town square” analogy to social media breaks down: There are so many users in this particular town square that the sheer din would make the platforms unusable if not for each user’s ability to exclude nearly everyone by default and hear only the voices they want to hear. Short of Musk instituting some new rule in which right-wingers have to ensure that at least a third of their “follows” are left-wing and vice versa, the fundamental “echo chamber” problem will abide.
Last week the WSJ published an op-ed calling for a bottom-up solution to Twitter’s content moderation problem. Make it as bespoke as possible, the authors recommended:
One way to do this is through simple opt-in buttons. Mr. Musk could keep in place all of Twitter’s offensive-speech protocols, but give every user the ability to opt in or out of them. If a user doesn’t want to see hate speech, there’s no reason he should have to. The same goes for constitutionally protected sexually explicit material.
A more ambitious option would be to harness artificial intelligence and develop an individualized filtering mode. Each user would decide for himself whether to remove certain posts, and an AI algorithm would learn from his choices, creating a personalized filter. If Michael flags racial epithets or Laura deletes certain images, Twitter’s algorithms would be trained not to show them such epithets in future. They’d be free to change their minds and could adjust their settings accordingly. Mr. Musk could poke fun at other Big Tech platforms for employing an outmoded centralized censorship model that is a relic of broadcast media when the technology now exists to run personalized AI models.
The authors admit that this might make the echo chamber problem worse “but if we’re stuck with such echo chambers, better that they be ones of our own creation rather than imposed on us by a central authority.” Well, yes — but. An echo chamber moderated by a central authority is dangerous because it may deny you access to worthy opinions that conflict with that authority’s biases, but those biases might also expose you to worthy opinions on the other side that you haven’t considered. A self-imposed echo chamber maximizes personal freedom but risks making you a prisoner of your own biases, cut off from useful information that might challenge your beliefs. Which explains how we seem to have arrived at a place in politics where everyone operates off a different set of facts perfectly calibrated to support their own views.
If you maximize freedom, you sacrifice some pluralism. If you maximize pluralism, you sacrifice some freedom. Either way, you end up ill-informed in some respects. And so I restate my fondest ambition for Twitter after it’s acquired by Elon Musk: That he shut the platform down, realizing that it does more harm than good.
But failing that, there’s probably another way he can improve it. And it may serve his bottom line, which is no small thing in this acquisition even for the wealthiest man in the world:
(1) Musk taking Twitter private allows him to do weird/cool/terrible/etc stuff that isn’t primarily or even secondarily about earnings
(2) Musk relying on more financing requires him to propose a plausible biz plan that shows money will be earned https://t.co/eoIZxcbUpr
— Derek Thompson (@DKThomp) May 2, 2022
Musk reportedly wanted more than the $13 billion in loans that banks have already provided him for the purchase but they refused due to the company’s “limited cash flow.” If he needs to raise more revenue from Twitter, he should try to monetize virality, a phenomenon that tends to amplify the most pernicious or provocative stuff on the site. If people want to tweet at each other, replying in conversational form, they should be allowed to do that for free. But maybe they’d have to pay a quarter or whatever to quote-tweet someone, a dime to retweet them, etc. That would limit the amount of essentially performative content that gets created on the platform. But maybe it would also kill demand, denying users the dopamine hit from seeing their stuff go viral. How many Twitter users are so committed to owning the other side that they’ll actually pay money to do it?
Here’s Maher, cheering the imminent downfall of the woke hivemind on the platform. Exit quotation from the WSJ op-ed, succinctly stating the problem: “Twitter and others smuggle viewpoint discrimination into supposedly neutral content-moderation categories—primarily misinformation, incitement and hate speech. Stopping that should be Mr. Musk’s first priority.”