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This Was Always the Problem With Twitter

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: David Odisho/Getty Images

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The first successful product rollout of Twitter’s Elon Musk era wasn’t an update to the app or a new way to interact with people online. It was the “Twitter Files,” a multipart, ongoing campaign to discredit Twitter’s previous leadership through a series of authorized leaks to sympathetic media personalities.

The first installments, by Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger, took the form of long Twitter threads describing elements of the flawed, chaotic, and human process of moderating Twitter. On the particulars of the project, I’ll defer to my colleague Eric Levitz, who notes that it is “saturated in hyperbole, marred by omissions of context, and discredited by instances of outright mendacity” but rightly points out that some of the information disclosed in these leaks is “genuinely concerning.” The presentation is strange, and its motives are poorly hidden; the person making this all happen, for whom these reporters and culture warriors are doing work, is the owner of Twitter. But Taibbi’s thread about Twitter’s decision to ban Donald Trump — which calls to mind the sort of insinuating Russiagate #resistance tweeting that drove longtime Russia observers, including Taibbi, absolutely out of their minds a few years ago — ends with a correct observation about the platform: “a million rules were reduced to one: what we say, goes.”

For years, Twitter, alongside its social-media peers, made a point of talking about its products in civic terms, its users as members of a community, and its moderation practices like legal processes. While obviously never denying that it was a commercial operation driven first by the priorities of its owner(s) and executives, it long marketed itself as if it were something else. (Former CEO Dick Costolo favored the “global town square” metaphor, while Jack Dorsey mused that Twitter ought to be a protocol rather than a company.) In Twitter’s early days, the gap between marketing and reality was more silly than sinister. Here was a small but growing start-up insisting somewhat incredibly that it would be the future home for global discourse, 140 characters at a time. It suggested it was “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party” while also referring to speech as “tweets.” The situation didn’t resolve over time; rather, as Twitter actually made good on parts of this plan, it simply became normal. Twitter really did become a significant channel for influence and communication around the world and in the process gradually implicated most of the people who were in the best position to call attention to it, namely journalists and politicians, to whom the platform granted audiences and power and on which they became, to varying degrees, dependent.

None of this was secret, and most of it was obvious — that the big social-media platforms privatized and centralized a bunch of the world’s communication is a widely recognized problem, the sort of broad assessment on which an E.U. regulator and a right-wing venture capitalist might at least superficially agree. Nor is it a mystery why a company like Twitter would seek to minimize its position as a toll-taking, rule-concocting middleman for a world-spanning communications service with an influence over politics, especially in the context of backlash over related contradictions at companies like Facebook. (Recall Mark Zuckerberg talking about Facebook’s role in ensuring “election integrity.”) The responsible path forward, as far as Twitter’s major stakeholders were concerned, was to build a bunch of superstructure around its core absurdities, in the form of rules and processes and teams, and to emphasize the ways in which these systems make users’ interactions with Twitter, and Twitter’s interactions with the world, more predictable or fair or at least comprehensible. (This is not to diminish the efforts of the employees who were tasked with actually moderating the world’s most overextended comments section, some of whom are taking the brunt of the Musk-fueled backlash now.) There was no point at which it would have made commercial sense to pivot to bluntness and remind users of the basic terms of their existence on the platform: You’re here to help us sell ads. Ultimately, it’s up to us what people can post. Our motivations are commercial but also not fully knowable to you because we are people — but, again, we are in charge. 

Twitter’s decade-long masquerade as a piece of public infrastructure ended with its purchase by one sufficiently wealthy and aggrieved power user. Nobody expected this specific outcome, as far as I know, but the problem with Twitter was that it was always within the realm of possibility. Musk might be bad for Twitter, and Musk’s Twitter might be bad for the world, but don’t forget that the company’s previous board took him to court to force him to honor his poorly timed and overpriced offer to buy it (a deal helped along by “Twitter shouldn’t be a company” Dorsey, too). What they said went — this was always the situation.

On Tuesday, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who has made reference to the company’s conceptual tensions before, shared some regrets about his time running the platform. “The biggest mistake I made was continuing to invest in building tools for us to manage the public conversation, versus building tools for the people using Twitter to easily manage it for themselves. This burdened the company with too much power,” he wrote. This is both interesting and exasperating, in part for its timing, but also because, after resigning from his post as CEO, which he held from 2015 until 2021, Dorsey also helped shepherd its sale to Musk, who he pitched as “singular” solution for its future.

This foundational bad faith among social-media firms has helped produce a range of impoverished debates about the platforms themselves, most obviously about the subject of free speech. It’s true, for example, that it was always within Twitter’s rights to delete this post or that one, to “deboost” or simply ban whoever it wanted or thought it needed to, and that the company doesn’t like to draw attention to its ultimate power to do so. It’s also true that Twitter’s moderation decisions can matter a great deal in the world, whether they affect public political speech or prevent a helpless user from being privately threatened. An accusation that Twitter censorship amounts to a violation of “free speech” — another concept with specific legal and civic connotations borrowed to death by the big platforms — remains incorrect but has become harder to wave away as platforms have gained influence. By the time Twitter was making the high-stakes decision to ban a sitting president, it had run out of credible ways to describe, without fully acknowledging, its own power. The right time to start saying “We can do whatever we want” outside the terms of service was more than a decade ago.

Pointing out that “only the government can violate a right to free speech” is also impotent to an interlocutor who is simply calling Twitter’s bluff. What this person really wants is for Twitter’s arbitrary rules to line up with their preferences about who deserves to say what; by wrapping this motivation in an inapplicable or even contemptuous argument about a basic human right, they are just returning Twitter’s favor. Musk enjoys this move himself, accusing Twitter’s old leadership of somehow violating the Constitution while banning users because he feels like it. (There’s a clear echo here of a pre-social-media problem. Traditional news organizations that overemphasize their ability to cover, say, “all the news that’s fit to print,” or that downplay the views of their employees to the point of concealment in an effort to seem unbiased, are forever vulnerable to fantastical and disingenuous conspiracies about what motivates their coverage because they can’t admit that the less insidious ones are plainly true — namely that they’re corporations staffed by a limited number of actual human beings.)

Like discussions about free speech on social platforms, the Twitter Files make a version of the same bogus implication that Twitter has for years: that a sufficiently refined Twitter Corporation could earn the respect and trust of the world by making just the right set of moderation decisions. There was and is no plausible free-speech corporate Twitter, not under the previous leadership and not under Musk, who, in addition to having the final say on what happens on the platform now, is, by virtue of his wealth, among the least accountable people on the planet. The demands of the market, which was the closest thing old Twitter had to an oversight body — again, a situation that was only ever destined to get worse! — might not apply to a scenario in which an ideologically committed owner is able and possibly willing to vaporize massive literal and reputational wealth to make a favorite website truly his.

The Twitter Files, as well as Musk’s routine provocations, seek to emphasize the differences between Twitter then and Twitter now. Twitter has already changed and will change a lot more, and this change will have consequences.  But this war on the past also represents a form of continuity: Musk, in his constant and labored insistence that Twitter isn’t just a company but actually about something bigger, is tripling down on the strategy of its past owners and executives. His favored misdirection is talking about free speech, but on his first day owning the company, he couldn’t resist a reference to a “digital town square.”

As before, it’s helpful to describe Twitter, or any similar institution, in stupidly simple terms — to observe what it plainly is rather than what its stakeholders say it is. Twitter was a social-media and advertising company that achieved more influence than it knew how to handle or that it deserved to steward. Twitter was what its former owners needed it to be. Now, it’s whatever Elon Musk wants.

This Was Always the Problem With Twitter