the money game

Elon Musk Will Never Touch That Grass

Photo: Carina Johansen/NTB/AFP via Getty Images

Spend enough time getting sucked into the micro-dramas of Twitter and someone will eventually tell you to go touch grass — log off, go spend some time in nature, contemplate what’s actually important to you. And since the bad days of 2014 or so, when Gamergate trolls (and eventually nation-states) became more sophisticated in their use of Twitter as a harassment tool, there’s been an element of touch grass in the way that Twitter has been run.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in content moderation. Take a step back from the actual policies or algorithms that go into how abuse is censored or sidelined, and the point of it is to do two things: acknowledge the power that a racist slur or a hate campaign could have on people, and to manipulate the platform so that this power is lessened. The way that it works is to see the interests of Twitter as subordinated to the interests of its users, who live in the real world. Spend enough time staring at a computer screen, diving deeper into conspiracies and the petty problems of people you don’t know, and it can be extremely easy to forget that there are actual people involved. Content moderation is a touch grass mentality, a way of saying that whatever anger or bullshit is out there, it’s not all worth it.

It’s now been a week since Elon Musk has taken over Twitter, and one thing that’s clear about his reign is that he will never, ever touch grass. On Friday, the platform became a flood of blue heart emojis as about half of the company’s employees found out that they were now out of a job. But there is no reason to think the Musk rampage is going to stop here. There was no clear reason why the firing had to have happened on November 4, just days before the midterm elections, except as a way to maximize impact. It wasn’t even a week ago that Musk met with seven different civic groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP, some of whom are actively encouraging advertisers to walk away from Twitter — and now he’s using that as a reason to throw up his hands and go UGH at advertisers bolting. (As of its most recent quarter as a public company, Twitter was doing fine.)

This is a pretext. He’s been telling the world what he’s going to do to Twitter for months. He tried to calm advertisers by telling them Twitter won’t turn into a hellscape — a term that doesn’t actually mean anything. Now that he’s neutralized his own company’s workforce, which he ostensibly viewed as his opposition, the timeline has only become more chaotic, and Musk has already laid out the blame for everyone but himself — the guy who owns it.

This is familiar territory for Musk. He loves to position himself as the underdog, and he’s exceptionally good at it. In his current incarnation as Twitter’s new owner, this means that his bedfellows are now more explicitly political than ever. He has boosted people like Tom Fitton, who heads a conservative think tank called Judicial Watch despite the fact that he’s not a lawyer, in claiming that Musk is some lone freedom fighter working against an organized left flank. This only makes sense in the not-real world of Twitter. Put it all in the context of his obsession with blue check marks as a status symbol and it’s clear that, for Musk, the goal is not just to make Twitter more relevant, but to rearrange things so that the world of the social network eclipses the outside world. In the future Elon Musk is building, touching grass won’t calm the turmoil caused by what’s happening on the platform. The Old Twitter is gone. No wonder why the people still in Musk’s employ sound like they’ve lost something even bigger than a job.

What was Old Twitter? Biz Stone, one of the company’s co-founders, called the its internal culture “people first,” and the tweets today show that the people who worked there up until today used to think so, too. (Co-founder and former chief executive Jack Dorsey has been silent so far). It would probably be too much of a stretch to say that the company had a civic bend to it — it was responsible to shareholders, after all — but it at least the teams believed they were working to make sure users were treated like humans. Now that Musk is in charge, he has likely killed that culture by laying off about half of the company.

One person who wasn’t shown the door was Yoel Roth, the company’s head of safety and integrity. (He hasn’t returned an email seeking comment.) He’s emerged as, for now, one of the most powerful executives in the new Twitter. Roth isn’t the kind of Muskworld figure you’d expect to see with so much sway over the company. People who know him say he doesn’t go out of his way for recognition, and that he is deeply concerned about the way that data is used by large companies like Twitter. The conflict for him working at a company like Twitter has always been apparent, and part of the reason why he had gravitated toward the tough job of reining the content in, according to people who knew him. “Graduate students who take jobs in digital media companies, where the dominant model is surveillance, are always under real stress,” said Joseph Turow, one of Roth’s former professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication. “When they’re in graduate school, they get all these messages, often, which they buy, about the dangers of societal surveillance by companies and some of the downsides of all this in deeply philosophical ways. And then they actually have to make a living.” His 2016 graduate thesis from the University of Pennsylvania is on the way that Grindr used data on gay men. Roth has previously tweeted criticisms against Donald Trump and knocked down one of Musk’s favorite bugbears, that the platform is lousy with bots.

Musk’s support for Roth is clear. The centibillionaire has retweeted Roth a few times and backed him when trolls have criticized him. For his part, Roth has sought to assure users that the company is trying to keep the platform relatively free from manipulation until at least after the election. Still, he has been instrumental in designing some of Twitter’s key policies around content moderation that appear to be likely targets by Musk, such as a crisis information policy that went into effect in May. “Being a leader includes a recognition of the responsibility that you have to lift up a lot of people and to keep people, even in challenging times, on the same page and motivated for the right values,” said Eddie Perez, a former director and product manager at Twitter who oversaw election issues, who’s now a board member of OSET Technologies. “And my sense of Yoel is that he was very mindful of that leadership role.”

The next big test for Roth is next week’s election. Here we will see what influence Twitter really has, and the degree to which Musk has control over the information landscape. Perez said that it was only until last year that election integrity, in a group called Social Health, was more than an “ad-hoc” part of Twitter’s content moderation groups. “Twitter is very much at a turning point,” Perez said. “It’s not clear that Elon Musk really understands that social-media platforms today are the landscape of major information warfare.”

Touch Grass? He Will Not