RatS 21: Taibbi – Twitter’s Chickens Come Home to Roost

(29/04/22 Update below) We had thought about posting on this one but, given the paywall, we had decided against. Now we’ve decided for it. With Elon Musk having arranged to buy Twitter, and given our post yesterday on Twitter Fun, it seems worthwhile.

People are going nuts at the prospect of Musk controlling Twitter. They’ve been going nuts since it became clear a couple weeks ago that Musk was eyeing the company. It is appalling. One doesn’t have be a fan of Musk to be disgusted by the manipulative, hypocritical and, most importantly and nauseatingly, censorious twaddle that would-be-respectable journalists are currently spewing.

When this business started, Matt Taibbi wrote a great piece hammering the media coverage. It is paywalled, but a decent portion is open (and 7-day free trial, and you should subscribe, etc.). Here are a few excerpts.

Elon Musk has reportedly attempted to purchase Twitter, and I have no idea whether his influence on the company would be positive or not.

I do know, however, what other media figures think Musk’s influence on Twitter will be. They think it will be bad — very bad, bad! How none of them see what a self-own this is is beyond me. After spending the last six years practically turgid with joy as other unaccountable billionaires tweaked the speech landscape in their favor, they’re suddenly howling over the mere rumor that a less censorious fat cat might get to sit in one of the big chairs. O the inhumanity!

A few of the more prominent Musk critics are claiming merely to be upset at the prospect of wealthy individuals controlling speech. As more than one person has pointed out, this is a bizarre thing to be worrying about all of the sudden, since it’s been the absolute reality in America for a while.

Probably the funniest effort along those lines was this passage:

We need regulation… to prevent rich people from controlling our channels of communication.

That was Ellen Pao, former CEO of Reddit, railing against Musk in the pages of… the Washington Post! A newspaper owned by Jeff Bezos complaining about rich people controlling “channels of communication” just might be the never-released punchline of Monty Python’s classic “Funniest Joke in the World” skit.

However, they didn’t stop there. Media figures everywhere are openly complaining that they dislike the Musk move because they’re terrified he will censor people less.

In every newsroom I’ve ever been around, there’s always one sad hack who’s hated by other reporters but hangs on to a job because he whispers things to management and is good at writing pro-war editorials or fawning profiles of Ari Fleischer or Idi Amin or other such distasteful media tasks. Even that person would never have been willing to publicly say something as gross as, “For democracy to survive, it needs more censorship”! A professional journalist who opposed free speech was not long ago considered a logical impossibility, because the whole idea of a free press depended upon the absolute right to be an unpopular pain in the ass.

Things are different now, of course, because the bulk of journalists no longer see themselves as outsiders who challenge official pieties, but rather as people who live inside the rope-lines and defend those pieties. I’m guessing this latest news is arousing special horror because the current version of Twitter is the professional journalist’s idea of Utopia: a place where Donald Trump doesn’t exist, everyone with unorthodox thoughts is warning-labeled (“age-restricted” content seems to be a popular recent scam), and the Current Thing is constantly hyped to the moronic max. The site used to be fun, funny, and a great tool for exchanging information. Now it feels like what the world would be if the eight most vile people in Brooklyn were put in charge of all human life, a giant, hyper-pretentious Thought-Starbucks.

Read the whole thing, and then scream.

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UPDATE (29/04/22): Taibbi’s Follow-up Post

Predictably, with the announcement of the intended sale of Twitter to Musk, Taibbi has written a follow-up, Savor the Great Musk Panic. Taibbi pounds hard; the subtitle is

On drinking the delicious tears of blue-check hypocrites, who’ve suddenly discovered the perils of a privatized speech landscape.

Taibbi’s follow-up is again paywalled, with a decent chunk open to the public. Here are a couple excerpts.

The hypocrisy of America’s self-appointed culture-protectors this week is breathtaking. They really seem not to realize that what they’ve been seeking for years isn’t an end to speech abuses, but a monopoly on them. They see Musk as a traitor to his class, threatening to upend what they see as a natural order that in recent years placed bluenose squads in deserved roles as vanguards and truth-arbiters. Whether or not Musk ever upends anything is a different question, but critics believe he will, and now they’re panicking, in tones of maximum sanctimony.

I spent a good part of the last four years warning that asking unaccountable billionaires to meddle more in speech would result in exactly such a table-turning episode, in which the political mainstream’s cocky censor squad would wake up one day to find the wrong tycoon in charge, at which point they would cry foul and howl suddenly about the evils of oligarchy. For failing to cheer their vision of enlightened censorship, colleagues denounced me as a reactionary pervert in the employ of (pick one) Trump/Assad/Putin. So it’s hard to do anything but chuckle at their anguish this week.

The true ribbon-cutting event of the content moderation era, of course, was a move that thrilled blue-checks everywhere: the expulsion of red-faced Infowars yutz Alex Jones from Facebook, Apple, YouTube, Spotify, and other platforms.

Virtually everyone who had an opinion on this matter focused on how much of a jerk they thought Alex Jones was, and how much he deserved banishing. Only a handful took the wider view, wondering about the precedent of oligopolistic tech executives acting in concert to remove speech. Perhaps, a few wondered, it was not a good idea to have a star-chamber of billionaires deciding in secret what is and is not appropriate media.

For years, these folks had every chance to campaign for another, fairer way of dealing with online speech. Not only did they not do that, they specifically endorsed the model of opaque, billionaire-controlled, monopolistic star-chamber platforms, because they wanted to retain the power to smear and censor people they didn’t like on a mass scale. Moreover in just four years they went from drawing the line at Alex Jones to being unable to take a joke in the Babylon Bee. Now it might be blowback time and they’re sad. Could a less sympathetic group of people even be imagined? Is it wrong to find their angst hilarious? It doesn’t feel wrong. Enjoy the ride, knuckleheads, you built this roller-coaster.

13 Replies to “RatS 21: Taibbi – Twitter’s Chickens Come Home to Roost”

  1. “world-be-respectable” – should that be “would-be-respectable”?

    Unlike Twitter, your blog has an “edit” button…

  2. As much as I agree to Taibbi’s defence of Musk (at least this is how I interpret his intent from the excerpts stated in Marty’s post), I find his singling out of Ellen Pao’s quote debatable, to say the least. A rich person from mainland China, Jack Ma, has owned (or “controlled”, allowing for perhaps a small leap of faith) the South China Morning Post since 2015. Yet the grand old dame produced AFAIK mostly decent coverage of the 2019 Hong Kong protests… up to some point when the tides shifted; see the piece in the Atlantic by Timothy MacLaughlin from that time. In my view, the tides shifted editorially (Yonden Lhatoo barging in, as per MacL) and, most of all, politically (that HK is not what it used to be will be a trite statement to most readers here). Now the SCMP is now going on and on reporting on the aftermath, the sentencing and convicting of protesters for rioting, while it had been a core point made in and around the protests – and, incidentally, one maintained to this day in the Wikipedia articles on it – that they were not to be declared to be riots. (The term “riot” has legal implications in HK but that angle was not the only, and I think not even the most important, issue for the protesters.)

    While it is perhaps hard to swallow (not the least to myself) to say we learn from China: here, I think, is an opportunity to see why jumping to a conclusion, as Taibbi did in framing the quote by Pao, is too simple. Editorial integrity and the wider political and societal environment (and there is something amiss about both in the US, and in the wider West too) count in as well.

    1. Thanks, Christian.

      I don’t read Taibbi as defending Musk at all. I think Taibbi is simply attacking Musk’s attackers, for being censorious and for being hypocrites. It seems to me Pao’s statement is hilariously hypocritical and well deserves being highlighted and whacked.

  3. I’ve never sent nor read a tweet (except when quoted by someone else – usually Marty) but perhaps that makes it easier to see, perhaps as Taibbi is doing, the irony in one wealthy person bemoaning the idea that another wealthy person is allowed to say what they think.

    As a wise man (possibly Marty, but I’m not 100% sure) once said: freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.

    There are perhaps two main issues here: quality journalism requires time and other resources, yet with governments effectively cutting budgets, the advertising dollar grows in influence substantially and secondly, that “fact checking” also takes a fair measure of time, which, when combined with the speed with which some “news” may be able to be published puts any fact-checker (even a good one, and there are a few still around) at an immediate disadvantage.

    The solution? No idea. Switching off doesn’t seem to work, as much as I try.

    1. Thanks, RF. I think a fair criticism of Taibbi is that he doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions, and there are definitely problems that require solutions. (Which may not exist.) But it’s not his thing, and he’s not trying to preach solutions. For the most part, he’s simply trying to be a reporter, but he’s finding it more difficult to do, and his colleagues with less stature even more so.

      I think that’s why he hates these people so much. It’s not just that they are hypocrites, and sell-outs, but it’s that they side with the forces of surveillance and censorship, making it very difficult for anyone who is not a sell-out to continue. The classic, glaring example, of course, is big shot journalists’ indifference to, if not outright contempt for, Assange.

      Which is everyone’s reminder that Michael Rowland and Patricia Karvelas are pieces of shit.

  4. Yeah it certainly has been quite weird. The news coverage of pretty much anything in Australia is weird, and often blissfully unaware or deliberately ignorant of context.

    1. Pretty much always. Paper-thin and a memory no longer than a week. I’ve updated my post with excerpts from Taibbi’s follow-up post. He is rightfully disgusted by (the American version of) these people.

      1. On memory in newspapers: When I used to read newspapers – in the last century – I tried my hand at poetry. I composed a poem that consisted on the p. 1 headline of the newspaper over 10 consecutive days; I was interested in surrealist poetry.

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