Lever Time - Elon Musk’s Twitter Is The Opposite Of Free Speech
2:20AM Dec 21, 2022
Hey there and welcome to lever time the flagship podcast from the lever, an independent investigative news outlet. I'm your host, as always, David Sirota on today's show, we're unfortunately going to be talking about Elon Musk. One of the most I find most annoying people in all of the public space. The new Twitter CEO came under fire last week when the platform banned at least eight journalist who had been reporting on his exploits. Today I'm going to be speaking later on in the show with Evan Greer, the director of the organization fight for the future, to unpack what exactly has been happening at Twitter what freedom of expression truly means, and what it means specifically, in the digital age. This week, our paid subscribers will also get a bonus segment called one thing in which the lever reporters discuss the one thing that's been most on their minds. If you want access to overtime premium, you can head over to lever news.com To become a supporting subscriber that gives you access to all of our premium content. And you'll be directly supporting the investigative journalism that we do here at the lever. Speaking of which, if you're looking for other ways to support our work, share our reporting with your friends and family leave this podcast a rating and review on your podcast player. The only way that independent media grows is by word of mouth, and we need all of the help that we can get to combat the inane bullshit that is corporate media. And that is frankly, social media. That's a good segue into our first and well actually the biggest story the story of the week, which as I alluded to, is a tragedy, in my view that it is a big story. We'll talk more about why why I say that, but let me first give you a little bit of background. In late October, Elon Musk, who had previously been famous as the CEO of Tesla, he became the CEO of Twitter, claiming that his reign would be a new era of free speech on the social media platform. He began by firing several of Twitter's top executives he dissolved its board, firing around 50% of its employees. Since then, things have been a shitshow. Over the past month, the self proclaimed free speech absolutist has come under fire for silencing left wing accounts reinstating neo Nazi and fascist accounts and embracing the rhetoric of right wing trolls. This all came to a head last week when Twitter banned the account Elon jet, which had been tweeting the location of Musk's private jet, using public flight information, that's an important point. Elon Musk claimed that the account violated Twitter's revised rules concerning Daxing, which is when someone publishes a person's private or identifying information without their permission. Twitter then went on to ban the accounts of at least eight journalists from Twitter, who'd been reporting on Yuan jet. Just this past weekend, Twitter announced that it will, quote no longer allow free promotion of certain social media platforms on Twitter, which appear to be a direct attack against its competitors like Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon, and others. So we're going to discuss this to join us to start this discussion. With producer Frank, a producer Frank. Hey, David, how's it going? All right, man, how you doing?
Oh, I'm doing all right. You know, a little a little high strung as we're watching, you know, the internet's greatest public split and square implode upon itself. But you know, other than that, pretty good.
Yes. And we're also joined by the levers, social media guy, also one of our writers, Jordan, Jewel. Hey, Jordan. Hey, David. Thanks for having me. So let me just give you my like, take on this, I am incredibly annoyed by this entire topic. Because we're talking about what we're supposedly allowed to talk about, rather than talking about things that are happening in the world. In other words, we're talking about the discourse, rather than the discourse being about things like for instance, extending the child tax credit, or the $850 billion Pentagon budget, or the wars that are happening around the world or any number of actual real things that are horrible happening in the world. So the discourse about the discourse is something that kind of generally annoys me. Now, I'm willing to to agree that there's certainly an issue here with Elon Musk, specifically using Twitter that he bought. Now, censoring people are behaving like a total spaz. But I think part of why I'm so annoyed by this discourse is is that it seems to me and I want to be very clear, I am not excusing this behavior. But it seems to me that the behavior Elon Musk is engaging in is kind of an explicit cartoonish caricature, highly objectionable definitely. But But kinds of behaviors that we've seen from corporate media outlets for the last 40 5060 years, banning censoring journalists from the discourse that that happens all the time. I mean, there are things that the New York Times will allow to be talked about things that they won't allow to be talked about the Washington Post all you know, guests that cable TV will have on guests, the cable TV have completely blacklisted. We see corporate media outlets all the time refusing to link out to or credit the reporting, or allow for the promotion of their competitors. And, and we've seen corporate media, effectively censor from the public square all sorts of issues that are seriously important. But that can't be talked about in that discourse, because the corporate owners don't want them talked about now, I'm not making a both sides argument here. I think what I'm so annoyed by is the fact that corporate media folks, this is a huge, huge 24/7 scandal, what Elon Musk is doing, that's what it's being portrayed as, and it's certainly bad. It's all bad. But for the the corporate media outlets that led us into the Iraq war with all those lies, that propped up all the lies of the of Wall Street before the financial crisis for all those institutions to suddenly pretend to be, you know, Vanguards of free speech because Elon Musk is behaving like a humongous asshole. It just feels like we're all living inside of a of a giant looking glass. This is all some sort of big kind of Matrix style system designed to not allow us to actually talk about real things. Again, like, for instance, Congress is debating the child tax credit, the end of the Child Tax Credit meant 4 million kids went into poverty. Well, I did a thing on Google News. I went on Google News typed in Child Tax Credit, it got like 99,000 hits. Then I typed in Elon Musk's Twitter in the same time period, it was like, what was it 3 million or 30 million hits? Like, I feel like we're all just playing this guy's game. And we're all inside of a giant game. Either of you. Am I like wrong about this? Am I wrong to be so annoyed by this?
No, I don't think so. I've been trying to reconcile the two because, yeah, you have to admit this does have implications for how people communicate online and how the media can operate online. But also the same time, it's not that important. Like, there are other websites, that was always my, like, dismissal for when people were banned off of Twitter and years prior, you know, the right would take us up as Oh, this there's totally silenced. And, you know, more often than not, they would get a huge deal with substack or they get a book deal or, you know, featured on Fox News prominently during primetime. By no means were they censored they were just you they had their content moderated that's just what the company was doing. So, uh, yeah, like I like I said, I'm trying to reconcile those two things on those points, though, about the media already controlling what we learned. Think back to like Bill Keller, just hiding the NSA story at the request of the government. Like that's a much graver threat to a free and open society than, you know, anything Twitter has done in the past. So and I
agree with you. It's not that two wrongs make a right. All of it is bad. But I'm having trouble becoming like super especially scandalized by some billionaire asshole behaving like a billionaire asshole inside of a system of billionaire assholes. Behaving like billionaire assholes. Right? Like, what we get scandalized about and what we come to accept as normal. This dichotomy is really, really problematic. I mean, there's another way to look at this too, which is that Elon Musk is is a is a human being. And it's easier to become I think some something in the human psyche, makes it easier to become mad and and disgusted with a single person than it does to become mad at a faceless giant corporation. So we live inside of this giant propaganda system that is censoring things all the time, that is effectively shadow banning topics all the time. And that that we accept as that's just regular life, that's just that that's just, that's like the air we breathe. Then some guy comes along and does it as like a cartoon character. I mean, I'm PS if this was performance art, if he was actually doing this as deliberate performance art to make fun of the whole system. It would be genius. I don't think he's actually doing that. I don't think that's what what his point is on. I'm not sure what his point is, I don't know. He's just behaving like an asshole. But I guess my point is, it's easier to become scandalized by one asshole behaving like an asshole, even if he's just doing the things that faceless corporations are doing every single day of our lives.
Personally, I agree with you that on the faceless corporation, this, you know, censorship and content moderation is happening on a large scale right before our very eyes ad nauseam all the time. I think what sets Elon and Twitter apart is one, he has seemingly unilateral control, which is something that I don't think we see that often one person literally calling all of the shots,
we don't see it, we don't exist. But
it's right in our face, to the fact that Twitter has for the most part become like the largest consolidated public square on the internet. So a lot of the discourse is happening there, as opposed to corporate media, where there are many different cable channels, many different outlets that are all doing these things. Whereas Twitter is kind of the place where people go for the Internet discourse. And then the third part, I think, is that Elon comes with his own group of sycophants and fans, and people that admire him and will would would follow him to the gates of hell. And I think particularly his embrace of extreme right wing rhetoric, and the laundering of these extreme right wing ideologies through this lens of like, like, his radical centrism, or wherever he claims that he is doing, I think, is very dangerous, on this large of a scale, especially for these impressionable young men who tend to be the kind of people that look up to a guy like this, that for me, that's what kind of sets this whole thing apart from what you're sort of laying out, David,
but there's always been that person meaning again, I'm not saying multiple wrongs make a right, but maybe again, this is why I'm not I think, I think his behavior is gross. I think it's terrible. Whatever, insert whatever pejorative, you want the I agree with all that? I'm just saying, I'm less, I guess, shocked by it, because like, I know, the history of father Charles Coughlin. I know, the history of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and, you know, larger than life, right wing radio personalities. I also know like, I think I've said it before like this. If you're scandalized, by shadow banning on Twitter, wait till you find out about how the labor movement has been treated by the entire corporate media sphere over the last 75 or 100 years. Right. Like, what are we actually mad about? Now? I will say I do think, certainly banning reporters. And by the way, not just reporters, reporters are not some special privilege class of people, as much as the you know, elite media folks wants you to believe they are just banning anybody for asking questions, challenging narratives, and the like. That's just grotesque. That's just wrong. I consider myself somebody who supports free speech. I think a lot of those reporters, a lot of folks in media don't like purport to love free speech when they don't actually like the free speech when it comes thrown at them in terms of criticism. But but the point is, people should not be deep platformed for simply asking legit questions. But I think there's also another tragedy in here. And this hasn't been talked about at all, which is that Elon Musk is also simultaneously the CEO of Tesla. And I think there's this inclination now to say, Elon Musk behaving like a total asshole, as CEO of Twitter means that everybody should target and hate a company that has done a huge amount for the cause of reducing carbon emissions. Now, I want to also be clear, Tesla is far from perfect as a company, the way it treats its workers. Some of its corporate practices in the like, it is a big corporation, like lots of other big corporations. But the point is, is that that's a company that actually went into an industry that effectively caused the climate crisis. And it actually disrupted that business model in a very profound way. Now, I'm not even saying that's to the credit of Elon Musk or not, it's hard to know what he was managing what he wasn't. The engineers deserve a lot of that credit, the people who actually launched the company, et cetera, et cetera, set all that aside and say, I think it's upsetting that some guy can go and buy a plaything, a social media site, behave like a total asshole there and kind of undermine potentially the business of a business that has forced the really bad car companies, the car companies that produce massive gas guzzling cars that have ruined the Vironment that the antics on social media can actually hurt a business model that is trying to disrupt one of the most destructive industries on the entire planet. Jordan, what do you think about that?
I sort of agree. Like, I don't know, I just there are so many things that I've seen and read about Tesla. You don't have to agree. No, well, yeah. But I think I think your point about them, disrupting the industry and pointing, pointing out how bad this is, and then inspiring other companies to follow suit. I mean, you've seen a lot of the Superbowl was a perfect example this year. What was the one consistent thing beyond crypto? What was the one consistent thing that was advertised during the Superbowl? I mean, this is the most eyes the biggest ad day of the year, it was electric vehicles. Like that's unthinkable 10 years ago, on the on the banning of journalists thing, I think, what really stood out to me was how he they invented these rules, and then apply them retroactively. And that to me mode, it shows that he's motivated by, you know, petty grudges or some sort of, like, partisan motivation, because for all the people that got banned on Thursday, or Friday night for the jet thing, you know, the Washington Post published last night, a story that showed there was no connection at all beyond the jet account. And what allegedly happened at that gas station to his son, there's no proof that his son was even in that car. And that stalker, who is that person is real. But that person has been stalking Elon Musk for well over a year, I think, a couple years now. And it was motivated by Elon Musk's ex Grimes the singer. So it's it has nothing to do this kid wasn't looking at the Jet account to do it. He just wanted that jet account off because he didn't like him, even though this kid was a fan of him. So he invented a new rule and then banned a bunch of people because of it. Then a few days later, when the Washington Post started to report on that incident, to verify that it actually happened. They banned Taylor Lorenz, the reporter working on that story and was seeking comment and then invented a new rule about how you can't have your account primarily point to other social accounts, because that's that she deleted all her tweets, that was the one tweet she had pinned to her account. So they invented a new rule applied retroactively. And it just shows that they're not really logical or consistent, more thoughtful in their approach here. It is just who does he like today? Who does he not? It reminds me very much of like the Trump administration, they have no real object permanence on how they do things. It's just what I'm mad about today. That's the company direction. I feel bad for the people working there, for sure. I
mean, I but I, but I also would say this, like the if we all live in an in an attention economy. I keep coming back to this. What are we really doing here? Like what is happening here? They are really real things that are happening in the world right now. The Crypto meltdown just happened. Recession may be on on the horizon, we reported as an example, that the largest asset management firm in the world is effectively trying to block regulators from forcing companies to disclose their carbon emissions in the middle of the climate crisis. And none of this can compete for attention with this circus. And I think we have to ask ourselves, who is all of this serving? Like if you're a billionaire right now, and you're looking at what's going on in media culture, right now, if you're looking at Elon Musk, you must be like this fucking rules. This is so awesome, that everybody is paying attention to this shit and not paying attention to me the billionaire systematically fleecing everybody all the time forever.
Yeah, but David, that's what the culture war does. And the culture war has been doing that for years and years and years. It just so happens that this past week, the culture war has intersected with Elon Musk and Twitter, which actually I think is an important story. It's a culture war ish story, but an important one, but I agree with you. We're we are regularly talking about bullshit and not talking about the things that matter. But I do disagree with you that I don't think that this Elon story is total bullshit. It's I'm not saying
that. I'm not saying it's total bullshit. What I'm saying is I'm I'm struggling through the fact that it's both a real story. And also the whole thing feels like a performance. It feels like a game. I also think the media has completely gotten into it. You know, one of my favorite lines from from one of the best movies ever made movie called broadcast news. There's this line from Albert Brooks. And he says this jokingly and he's a reporter. And he's saying this he's self aware. He says Let's never forget. We're the real story. Not them. He's talking about we them Media. And I just think the media has now leaned into this. So that now it's taken on a sort of life of its own. It's like a story sort of, sort of duck like disconnected from anything happening in the world. It's it's taken on a circus like quality on its own. So I toggle between it's a really serious story. It's really important for the free speech implications and it is a complete circus. It's like we're all reporting on a on a, in a kind of real way, a serious way on a production put on by PT Barnum. I'm sure we're going to continue talking about this, even though it is bullshit, but it's not bullshit. We're gonna keep struggling through it. Jordan, you will. Thanks so much for taking time with us
today. Thanks for having me.
Okay, we're gonna take a quick break, but we'll be right back with my interview with Evan Greer about what can actually be done to protect free speech online, and not let billionaires continue to control the entire discourse. Welcome back to lever time. For our interview. Today, we're gonna continue unpacking the saga of Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter. To help further contextualize this story and what it portends for the future of free speech on the internet, I spoke with activist and organizer Evan Greer. Evan is the director of fight for the future, a nonprofit organization, which advocates for digital rights and freedom of expression. Hey, Evan, how you doing?
I'm doing good. How are you? Okay,
so you've written extensively about the freedom of expression, digital censorship, and the like on the internet. Elon Musk purchased Twitter, claiming to be a free speech absolutist. But of course, his actions in the last several weeks, as we've been discussing, are starkly inconsistent with those claims. So why don't we start there? Where do you think that inconsistency between his claims and his actions actually come from?
Yeah, for sure. And I mean, if we're going to have an honest conversation about this, we have to start with recognizing that it's not just Elon Musk, who exhibits this hypocrisy, right, many of the folks that are screaming the loudest about free speech in US Congress, and, you know, in kind of the punditry in the US are also folks that are actively trying to criminalize speech about abortion, who are actively passing laws in the states that criminalize online sharing of content about gender affirming care for trans folks. So there's definitely, you know, a broad kind of swath of hypocrisy around this issue where, you know, folks are not so much committed to the principles of free speech, but really, they're working the refs. And I think that's the way to look at this is that a lot of these debates about content moderation are not actually about principles, but very much about how do I get my side to win? How do I make sure that my sides voices are heard and censor the voices of the other side? And frankly, that's not limited to just the far right, that's a problem that I think has cut across the political spectrum. And for those of us that have been working on issues around free expression, and tech accountability and content moderation for years, it can be very frustrating to see what's actually a really difficult problem to solve in terms of what types of policies actually do lead to the most number of people having the most ability to express themselves. That's a very different question than, you know, what musk, I think, thought he was doing when he bought Twitter, which is, well, let's just get rid of all the rules, and then we'll have more speech. That's not actually how it works in practice. And I think he has speed run of free speech, absolutism has come to a kind of spectacular crash here, which I know we'll get into in a minute.
Yeah, I mean, I want to echo your point about this, Elon Musk being a kind of singular toxic, cartoonish caricature version of a larger phenomenon and problem. I mean, the kind of censorship or shadow banning that I am most concerned with, frankly, is less the very explicit I'm banning a journalist and everybody can see me being a complete asshole right out in front like that. That's the kind of censorship that at least people can see. I worry a lot about the algorithm as an example. What is the algorithm prioritize not prioritize? How does that actually really control the so called discourse in the world? And I just want to ask you, I mean, I'm concerned I've been concerned with with the algorithm, and I use that as a stand in for all these different subtle ways that the conversation that the discourse that information is manipulated, how knowing that that is operating in so many different ways. What can be done about that? And why are why are we rarely ever talking about that? Why? Why are we always running towards the shiny or grotesque thing? Like Elon Musk?
Yeah, for sure. And I think this is it. exactly what we need to be talking about, because it's what actually points us toward real solutions. It's really, really difficult to regulate speech, it comes with tremendous trade offs and consequences. That's why we have the First Amendment. That's why so many people kind of have this core value around free expression. But where we can have a meaningful intervention here is around the surveillance, the thing that makes Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and Instagram, uniquely different from even like Fox News, or the kind of propaganda networks of the past is not the speech. It's not the number of people speaking, it's the surveillance, it's the ability to collect people's data, and use that to power algorithmic recommendations to kind of shove information directly into the minds of the people who are most susceptible to it. And also to kind of just like, amplify and suppress content, not based on the value of that content, but just based on how clicky it is, right. And so, and we have so little transparency into how those kind of blackbox algorithms work. And there's been unfortunately, I think, also net Finally, some folks have started talking about the algorithm. But then there's this idea of like, let's just ban algorithms and like that's, you know, also a fool's errand. And in the United States, like it or not, most algorithmic recommendation systems are likely protected by the First Amendment platforms again, like it or not kind of have a First Amendment right to pick and choose what content they amplify and what content they suppress. And so again, it's really difficult to regulate the speech that comes out, but you can regulate the surveillance that goes in. And by cutting off the stream of data, that platforms kind of vacuum up and use to manipulate public information, we can have a positive intervention that reduces some of the harm that we see coming from kind of big tech monopolies and their business practices, without the kind of huge collateral damage to human rights, and particularly to marginalize people that we see when governments attempt to dictate the speech rules on these platforms.
That's a fascinating point, because of course, the algorithms are fueled by the data, the algorithms respond to the data you're talking about, for instance, I mean, just rudimentary example, who's clicking on what in what geography is what the algorithm needs to know, in order to serve that geography and those users more of that content or certain kinds of content. Now, I want to go back to Musk for a second, you wrote a piece for Time magazine in early November, in which you wrote, quote, it's fair to say that Ilan purchased Twitter because he believes social media platforms are too heavy handed and arbitrary, in how they apply their content, moderation and speech policies. And you right, I actually agree with him about that. Tell us a little, a little bit of detail about what specific aspects you agreed with him on when you wrote that?
Yeah, for sure. And this is something to where it's incredibly frustrating to me that we've actually allowed kind of right wing trolls like Elon Musk to claim this mantle around free speech and around kind of content moderation being applied in an unfair manner, because the reality is that we actually have data to tell us what kind of is going on with content moderation globally. And what we know is that conservatives are not the most censored people on social media, the most censored people on social media are predominantly Arab and Muslim folks who live outside the US whose speech is routinely caught up in automated anti terrorism filters that are basically labeling everyday religious speech, like perhaps a quote from the Koran, or speech about local politics as terrorism and automatically removing it before that human moderator has even looked at it. The the other group that we know has been effectively chased off of almost every major platform is sex workers and adult content creators. And so I think it's really important because what I see when folks like musk start saying, Oh, we're going to unban all the accounts, even folks on the left seem to assume like, oh, most of those accounts are probably right wing jerks, when in the reality is a huge number of those accounts, could be Palestinian activists, sex workers, folks that have been doing work around racial justice who've had their accounts unfairly locked or banned. But we're almost accepting the right wing narrative that conservatives and you know, powerful white men are somehow the most depressed people on social media, when that's just not the case. And so I think it's really important that we don't see that ground and that we recognize that actually, when content moderation rules are applied at scale arbitrarily by large for profit corporations that do not have a racial justice analysis, or a gender justice analysis. They are making arbitrary decisions all the time, that disproportionately impact marginalized people. And we need to kind of take that into account. That doesn't mean that we just throw up our hands and say, well, there should be no car Content moderation. But it means that we need to be real about the trade offs. And we need to recognize that when we demand that platforms remove more content more quickly, when we say broad things like I want platforms to remove all violent content, quote, unquote, we need to think about what that actually means. And what the end result of that is, because platforms are going to be making judgment calls. And what we know is that that often backfires on activist social movements that I think many on the left are many progressives are many who care about human rights would not want to be silenced and censored. So we need to be real about those trade offs, you can believe that it's worth it. You know, there's so much right wing organizing and violence on social media, we should shut it down. But you need to acknowledge that doing so will come with collateral damage to the social movements that you care about. And you can believe that trade off is worth it. But we need to be real about the fact that there is a trade off there. What bothers me is when people want to pretend that there's just a magical lever we can pull that will censor all the bad stuff and leave up all the good stuff, that lever doesn't exist. And so we need to have a more real conversation about what content moderation looks like and what practices we can put in place. Again, not to ensure maximum speech for everyone. But how do we ensure the most number of people have the most freedom to speak? Those are two very different questions and come with different answers. Now, some
of the pushback that you've seen from Elon Musk's fans are kind of an equivalency. It's sort of this idea that, well, look, Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. Rupert Murdoch runs Fox News. One question I would ask for you is, how do you see Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter as significantly different from and more dangerous than a the head of Amazon buying one of the most influential newspapers in the country, the newspaper of the capital city, or Rupert Murdoch running a giant media empire. Now, to be clear, I think we can stipulate none of these phenomena are good. They're all dangerous, like oligarchy is controlling the entire information. ecosystem that we live inside of, is not good. The greatest movie ever made. Citizen Kane tried to warn us about this many, many, many, many decades ago, the network tried to warn us about it again. So just stipulating that none of it is good. What do you see as a as the fundamental difference, if any, between the kind of Bezos Murdoch, traditional media empire play, and Elon Musk buying a social media platform? Yeah, in
a lot of ways I see them as as kind of all part of the same web, right? This is about powerful people and elites who have always had a vested interest in controlling discourse and can shaping narratives. And so I see them as kind of all related. That said, I think there are core differences, you know, there is no Black Twitter on Fox News, right? There is no, you know, massive community of LGBTQ young people who are using the Washington Post is like a place where they hang out and organize. Right. And so there are concrete differences between a kind of centralized, you know, newspaper, magazine, TV network, and a social media network that has been for better or for worse, a kind of a home, I saw someone tweet, you know, this hasn't just been a health site, it's been a hell home. And you know, it's true, you know, it's we have built our, our digital homes and offices and businesses on land that we don't own. And we're really kind of starting to recognize the, you know, just how tenuous that is, I think, for the media ecosystem for activists, for artists and creators. And you know, so and I think for musk, this is very much about the culture war, he's made that pretty clear, right? It's about vengeance politics, and it's about this sense of, you know, well, we're gonna go get the other side. And, you know, those kinds of ideas are just sort of antithetical to the type of demeanor that one needs to run a social media website that actually works. And I think, you know, in some way, like, I probably wouldn't be very good at running a social media website, either I'm too opinionated. Right? And I think it is. It's a real challenge. And it requires a tremendous amount of deliberation. You know, which is why I think in the end, this is also why Twitter and things like it, I hope are not the future of social media. Because in the end, whether it's controlled by a benevolent billionaire or a, you know, an evil billionaire, or even a benevolent kind of big nonprofit bureaucracy or something like that, as long as we're building our digital infrastructure on kind of land that we don't own, it's not going to be sustainable and it's always going to be susceptible to censorship, surveillance, and other types of human rights crackdowns.
So Let's move towards a future or envisioning a future because we've just, I think, articulated what the problem is. I think a lot of people understand inherently the problem with billionaires controlling the content creation machine. And now billionaires, obviously controlling the platforms upon which content is distributed Twitter as a platform, the Washington Post as a content creation machine. So then the question is, okay, what can be done? Some people talk about, you know, quote, nationalizing Twitter, I don't exactly know what that means. There's talk about regulation. I know Europe has done some regulation, when it comes to comes to content neutrality, and the like. So practically speaking, in the name of protecting free speech, access to speech by the most number of people, but also understanding that content moderation is necessary, and not having it be in the hands of, you know, one, all powerful, Dr. Evil style billionaire, what are some practical things policy was that could be put in place,
I think the biggest one is around competition. And we've had several antitrust bills here in the United States, that attempt to crack down on some of the anti competitive practices that big tech companies have engaged in for years, that are part of why we don't have a sort of immediate obvious, you know, everyone's sort of scrambling and saying, like, are you going to mastodon? Are you going to post or like, where are you going, there isn't just like, an obvious place to go. And part of that is because the largest tech companies have for years engaged in practices that actively make it hard for you to leave, that they often will buy up or copy startups or new companies that come along to kill them off before they gain network effect. And so that is one of the places where we can actually have a regulatory intervention, to crack down on some of those anti competitive practices. And that's not going to magically suddenly fix everything that's wrong with the Internet. But it can help set us on a path where, you know, a few years from now, we could have something like Mastodon or something like matrix or something like blue sky that actually takes off and could become an actual meaningful Twitter replacement. Where kind of, you know, we can have, you know, the actual type of digital public square that Musk claimed he was, you know, going to build by buying this platform.
Can I just can I just add, when I hear people saying, well, you I'm gonna go to Mastodon, I'm gonna go to this social media site, that one, there isn't one Twitter replacement. Maybe that's part of the solution. Maybe there shouldn't be just one, right?
No, absolutely. I completely agree. And this is why I think again, you know, so there's the policy of, you know, antitrust cracking down and anti competitive practices, data privacy legislation to cut down on kind of the the exponential kind of monopoly abusive, once you get big enough, and you have all the data, it's really, really hard to compete with that. So that's on the policy side, on the actual tech side, I think, you know, it's also important that we look at, you know, how do we create communities that can be insular, but also interoperate? Right, and this is, you know, in some ways, you know, what Mastodon is, or that the fediverse is, is you can create your own Mastodon server, think of it like email, you can set up an email account on, you know, Gmail, if that's the most popular thing, or on protonmail, which is more privacy protective, but either way, you can email your friends, and they can email you and you can kind of find each other. And, you know, so we can have social media that's more like that. But I think you're right, too, is like, since Twitter has gotten, you know, more of a dumpster fire than it used to be. I'm in more of signal chats with just like, you know, a group of 25 people who have something specific to talk about, and like, yeah, maybe not every single one of our thoughts needs to be posted on to like the main feed for all perpetuity. And in some ways, I hope, you know, my, my optimistic hope, coming out of all of this is that it at least creates enough of a rupture in what has, you know, sort of, until recently been a somewhat stagnant or calcified conversation around big tech power and content, moderation and speech, that maybe just like shakes things up a little bit, and does get us to think about, you know, what do we actually want, you know, how do we actually want the internet to function? What kinds of communities online and spaces online, do we need? Which ones already exist, which ones need to be built, which ones need to be improved? What policies need to be changed to enable them? You know, these are the foundational conversations that we need to be having. And I think in order to have them we sort of need to move past this like cyclical back and forth of like, No, you're censoring us. No, you're censoring us. Like we need to get past that and actually build infrastructure that functions for public discussion for social movements for artists and activists, etc.
Now, you mentioned anti trust and there's some thing happening right now, right now there are two bipartisan antitrust bills languishing in Congress aimed at limiting the power of some of these huge tech companies. There's the American innovation and choice online Act, which would bar tech platforms from giving preferential treatment to their own products. There's also the open app markets Act, which would prevent companies that operate digital app stores, from restricting which developers can sell their products. Now, as we record this interview on Monday, we're waiting to see if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will bring these bills to the Senate floor for a vote, though we've reported the lever that Chuck Schumer has very deep ties to the tech industry. So in a sense, it's not a surprise that this is the particular guy who's been stalling the legislation, even if these bills are passed, which again, right now, as of the moment that we're talking, it's a big if, how much would they actually do to address the issues that we're now seeing at Twitter, or at least across the technology landscape that we're talking about?
Yeah, for sure. And, you know, just to put an even finer point on it, basically, at this point, if these bills either go into the omnibus spending package that's expected to come out any minute now, or or they're probably done for the year. And as you said, if they are done for the year, this is absolutely kind of, we need to lay this at the feet of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, he's already kind of trying to blame it on McConnell, I'm sure he'll try to say, Oh, the votes just weren't there. That's bunk. These bills every it has been an open secret in Washington DC, that these bills had enough bipartisan support that if he had put them on the floor at any time, over the last number of months, they would have passed overwhelmingly, nobody wants to go on the record, you know, voting against the bills on behalf of their friend, Mark Zuckerberg, like that's not how politics works in Washington, DC. But we are here now, because the tech companies spent more than $100 million lobbying against these bills. And that tells you something about how scared the tech companies were of these bills. And that tells you something about the fact that these bills actually are quite strong, you know, we had fight for the future spend a lot of time opposing bad legislation that would make things worse in the name of making things better. For once these were actually two good bills that would move the ball forward. And again, they're not going to magically solve everything that's wrong. But by cracking down on some of those anti competitive practices, you start to create more of a level playing field for developers, for software developers for alternatives that are coming along. And you start to kind of chip away at the calcification, that again, you know, it's not an overnight fix, but it's a structural change, that kind of puts us on a path toward a future more like the one we were just talking about where people have meaningful choices to go online and find spaces with content moderation rules and privacy practices that work for them in their community. And you know, that sounds like a bit of a fairy tale right now. But it could be within reach, but it is going to take regulatory interventions is not going to happen all by itself. As much as you know, the folks might want it to it is going to require you know, this is the problem with monopolies, you know, are self reinforcing, and they require interventions to break. Evan Greer
is an activist organizer and director of the digital rights advocacy group fight for the future. You can find me on Twitter at Evan underscore Greer for as long as that account exists and for as long as Twitter exists. Evan, thanks so much for being with
us. Thanks, David. Great to be on.
That's it for today's show. As a reminder, our paid subscribers who get lever time premium, they get to hear our bonus segment. One thing in which the levers reporters discussed the one thing what's been most on their minds this week.
This weekend, it was pretty hard to not spend a lot of time watching Elon Musk's just wild meltdown on Twitter. And you know, his latest effort to cost himself a lot of money. That one was, was you know, pretty much all over the place. It was unavoidable. But it was it was definitely a spectacle that you kind of had to watch.
And please be sure to like, subscribe and write a review for lever time on your favorite podcast app. One last favor to ask. If you liked this podcast and our reporting. Please tell your friends and family about the lever and the work we're doing here forward are emails to them, encourage them to subscribe. The only way independent media grows is by word of mouth. So we need all the help we can get to continue doing the work that we're doing. Until next time, I'm David Sirota keep rocking the boat