Twitter’s Secrets Are in the Worst Possible Hands

The social media company’s entire business was content moderation. Its “free speech” king has destroyed it. Now what? PLUS: Come see Spencer talk in Manhattan on Tuesday!

Twitter’s Secrets Are in the Worst Possible Hands
Detail from "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," Francisco de la Goya, 1797-1799

Edited and With Backmatter by Spencer Ackerman

ONE THING TWITTER IS ESPECIALLY GOOD FOR is revealing the innermost thoughts of people who aren’t wise enough to keep their innermost thoughts private. Tech billionaires in particular cannot wait to tell millions of people the dumbest things they’ve ever thought. I like to call it the Elon Musk Rule. One extremely dumb thing Musk has been saying, currently the subject of endless discourse but little insight, is that Twitter is about “free speech.”

Twitter, and I hope this is obvious, is not only not about “free speech,” Twitter is about restricted speech. That’s what social media is. It’s what the word “media” indicates, for chrissakes. It positions itself in a sound triangle between the speaker and the hearer—the “middle,” for you Latin scholars—and amplifies. Selectively.

On Twitter, where anyone can open an account, a tremendous variety of perspectives are possible, but they can’t all coexist, not even on Twitter’s vast plains, and so difficult decisions have to be made about who gets to talk and who doesn’t. A platform that welcomes everybody will never be safe for anybody. Some people are stalkers. Some people like to threaten violent assault and murder. Some people like to post personally identifying information or embarrassing pictures as blackmail or revenge or as incitement to specific acts of violence. Some people like to promote general violence against entire minority groups, and people who belong to those minority groups may also want to use your service.

Every internet platform—Twitter, Facebook, Substack—advertises its limitless capacity for connection when it is trying to build scale. But when it achieves scale, it always has to reckon with the problem of what to do about people who shouldn’t be connected to each other, even if they want to be. Otherwise its growth stagnates and reverses. The product you are selling, Elon, is speech limitation. If you want Twitter to remain a going concern, your job is to be the best darn censor you can be.

OF COURSE, IF YOU DON’T want Twitter to remain a going concern—if you want it to have a third phase in which the interests of its userbase are simply not a priority—you still have a few options, because you have all that data.

Twitter is a minor tool of surveillance capitalism. Facebook and Instagram are far more vital to an advertising-industry panopticon that knows to send your phone a push notification with a Target coupon because it can see you getting coffee from the Starbucks across the street every day. But Twitter nevertheless possesses a huge trove of extraordinarily precious information, especially if properly indexed and searched. Some of its workers have resigned rather than exploit that data; those workers are even more concerned now that Musk is in charge.

Direct messages aren’t end-to-end encrypted the way they are on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Signal, and most other messaging services. Because of its seemingly ephemeral nature, Twitter is regularly used to organize semi-clandestinely, and across the political spectrum. Child molesters, conflict journalists, militant neo-Nazis, dissident protesters, and labor organizers all take advantage of the relentless churn of information on the platform. It is easy to get lost in the shuffle, and that is often to the advantage of people who are seeking a small and specific audience. But that information is only lost to the public. To anyone with “firehose access” to the company’s vast trove of information—that is, all the data that hundreds of millions of users have permitted Twitter to acquire simply by using the service—it’s all there, from Donald Trump’s DMs to your private lists of users.

We've gotten clear indications, from reporting as well as from his own tweets, that Musk does not care, apparently at all, about Twitter’s extant business model. That model is predicated on its users’ production of content advertisers find palatable. Musk fired or pissed off the vast majority of people who worked to keep paid advertisements away from racial slurs, porn, and images of violence. WIRED reports that the team of staffers who kept child sexual assault material (CSAM) off Twitter is now one person in Singapore. After that masterstroke, Musk restored tens of thousands of accounts, some of which had huge numbers of followers, that had been banned for posting hate speech. Immediately, PBS Kids had to cut ties with the company, because ads for its educational cartoons and puppet shows had started appearing next to solicitations for images of their target audience being sexually assaulted. This happened to Dyson, Mazda, and Forbes, too. Musk has given no indication he's concerned with this, beyond bragging to white supremacist Paul Ramsey that he had made removing CSAM “priority #1." (This was in the context of Ramsey praising musk for “nuking pedo accounts” and thus “eliminating much of Antifa Twitter,” two bizarre lies in one tweet.)

Nation-state actors appear to be weaponizing Twitter’s new ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ approach to content moderation, as well. Chinese citizens fed up with the intersection of the CCP's Zero COVID policy and their surveillance panopticon have begun to issue calls for Xi Jinping to resign. Accordingly, tweets about this month's protests are getting buried under carefully keyworded porn posts and ads for escort services that security analysts say are coming from accounts linked to the CCP. Security analysts focusing on China used to work at Twitter, but they don’t any more.

MUSK SLINGS A LOT OF BULLSHIT—his fight with Apple over Apple’s threats to remove Twitter from the app store appears to have been entirely fabricated—but Twitter was never going to become 8chan, hounded into unusability by activists targeting its hosts and network providers. Given its vast collection of extraordinarily sensitive user data and the way it’s used by governments to disseminate important information, many powerful people appear to have ambitions for Twitter beyond its becoming a cesspit of unspeakable images and bootlegs of Marvel movies.

Some of those people are: Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who personally owns more than a quarter of Twitter’s outside equity, according to the company’s SEC filings; the Qatari Sovereign Wealth fund (five percent); and Dubai-based VyCapital (seven percent ). There is also a significant Chinese investment through Binance. Where Twitter’s foreign equity is not owned directly by despots, it tends to be in countries where equity in an American company is not purchased without a despot’s consent.

Pre-Elon, Twitter had painfully and extremely slowly come around to a broad idea of content moderation. It obeyed all the laws of the United States, where it is headquartered and publicly traded, but it did not always cooperate with warrantless requests from United States law enforcement, or with requests for bulk data. As Spencer tweeted at Elon, the documents leaked by Edward Snowden do not identify Twitter as a partner in the NSA's PRISM internet surveillance. But it's been nine years, and in its current state, Twitter aspires to penury. Maybe stuff has changed.

When Twitter declined to follow the laws of other countries, it sometimes did so thoughtfully, and took its lumps, allowing dissidents to set up proxies through encrypted services. It banned far-right accounts that trafficked in overt race hate, but its moderation, focused on that sweet spot of scale, ensured that several token fascists who were reasonably polite in their deploration of minority groups kept their accounts. If you could dodge a ban long enough to take advantage of Twitter’s unique ability to insinuate itself into cable TV newsrooms, you were protected. Advertisers had less standing to complain about your tweets if you were saying the same things on cable television, which is much more strictly regulated by its constituent networks than Twitter.

Under Elon, it's more like a free-for-all. Yet at the same time, Musk has shifted so much of his own debt onto the company that he owes significantly more in annual interest payments than the revenue Twitter generates in a year. A lot of the material now being broadcast on the service carries the kind of liability that transcends laws meant to protect tech platforms from malicious users. That's one reason the imaginary Apple feud was so plausible. By jettisoning the vast majority of his content moderation apparatus, Musk has made Twitter radioactive to every other business that uses the internet, and he needs those businesses for Twitter to function at all, not just to make money.

It can’t have been a surprise or a disappointment to the Qatari Sovereign Wealth Fund or to the Saudi royal family that Musk is an idiot. He spends most of his free time living the Elon Musk Rule. They were still happy to give him huge sums of money to buy an enormously powerful social tool for several times its asking price. It seems reasonable to conclude that what they wanted was not a new business venture, but for the man who holds the keys to Twitter’s data trove to owe them a favor.

SPENCER HERE. THAT WAS HOT, RIGHT? WELL, THIS WILL BE TOO: this coming Tuesday, December 6, at 7 p.m., I'll be at the McNally-Jackson at the South Street Seaport talking with Lyle Jeremy Rubin about PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY, his Forever Wars memoir. A synopsis:

In Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body, Rubin narrates his own undoing, the profound disillusionment that took hold of him on bases in the U.S. and Afghanistan. He both examines his own failings as a participant in a prescribed masculinity and the failings of American empire, examining the racialized and class hierarchies and culture of conquest that constitute the machinery of U.S. imperialism. The result is a searing analysis and the story of one man’s personal and political conversion, told in beautiful prose by an essayist, historian, and veteran transformed.

I know I booted the date in the last edition of FOREVER WARS, but this is the correct time/place—7pm ET on Tuesday. I hope to see you there, and please note that McNally-Jackson wants you to RSVP.

SAN FRANCISCO COUNCIL VOTES TO GIVE POLICE KILLER ROBOTS. I hope San Franciscans know they're about to be involved in a Verhoeven-esque experiment, because when police get these robots, they find opportunities to use them. A measure by the city's Board of Supervisors to require police "to physically attempt alternative force options or de-escalation tactics before deploying a robot…narrowly failed," the San Francisco Gate reported. The Associated Press write-thru of the board vote cites the police saying they get their robots through a "federal grant program," which more than likely a reference to a family of—you guessed it—counterterrorism-predicated cop slush funds run by the Department of Homeland Security.

ORHAN PAMUK'S NEW NOVEL NIGHTS OF PLAGUE IS EXQUISITE. Longtime readers of FOREVER WARS may remember that I'm on a quest to be an Orhan Pamuk Guy. Want to hear me talk about My Name Is Red? You can do so on my friend Mimi Chan's podcast. Nights of Plague, Pamuk's latest, is his pandemic novel, though he started writing it in 2016. In 1901, a Black Death outbreak ravages the fictional, sweet-smelling eastern-Mediterranean island of Migheria, threatening not only Mingheria's political bonds to the Ottoman Empire but the social compact amongst its Orthodox and Muslim residents. I'm not going to write a better review-essay than James Wood, so read his, but look at what Pamuk is serving:

A dark and fathomless dejection ruled the city now, its companion a silent despair. Back in the early days of the outbreak, the city's prominent Muslims and wealthy Greeks had reacted to the belated introduction of quarantine measures with a mixture of anger, pride, and even indifference. [redacting a spoiler] People in those kinds of neighborhoods blamed the plague "squarely" on the Governor and the Ottoman state's incompetence. After quarantine was introduced, they had not only sought to flee the plague, but their "despotic and idiotic" governor too. Their anger had given them hope, and proven restorative enough to allow them to make plans for their escape and survival. But now it seemed to Doctor Nuri that even the hope in people had been extinguished by the plague's merciless and implacable advance. Personal bonds had weekend, friendships had suffered, and the compulsion to learn more about what was going on, and to find new rumors to rage at, had also begun to fade. People had enough fear, pain, and anguish of their own to contend with. They wouldn't even notice if their neighbor died anymore.  

It's Pamuk—self-described in a cheeky postmodern insert as a "history enthusiast"—so naturally he finds a contemporaneous reason to dispatch an Ottoman voyage to China. That feels like Pamuk pointing past the west that has preoccupied much of his earlier work. I finished Nights of Plague just as Americans were beginning to learn about the protests in multiple Chinese cities against Zero COVID. It was impossible not to approach the protests through Pamuk's prism.

IF YOU'VE READ VINCENT BEVINS' THE JAKARTA METHOD, you may remember how in both Indonesia and Brazil, right-wing cadre violence found an origin myth as vengeance for imaginary left-wing violence against military heroes. I had that in mind when I read this "policy analysis" about antifa from the Center for Security Policy, the birther/Reaganite Frank Gaffney's think tank, which bridges neoconservatism and MAGA. They find a way to say antifascists will be the problem in the wake of the Club Q massacre.

The Colorado Springs attack will be seen as justifying Antifa’s approach to aggressively targeting protestors at these kinds of drag show protest events, as they interpret lawful protests as equivalent to, and likely to provoke, actual violence against LGBT individuals. It’s reasonable to expect that Antifa groups will increase armed demonstrations of force at such events.

Yes, the danger here is that antifascists, and not the people talking about murdering queer and trans people, are armed and motivated to commit violence. But more important than refuting the narrative on offer of the aggressor as beleaguered victim is to recognize the alibi it maintains for right-wing violence against the marginalized. The Oathkeepers' Stewart Rhodes, just convicted of seditious conspiracy for January 6, used an imaginary antifa swarm at the Capitol as an attempted defense for conducting an actual one. Note as well in this piece about Rhodes' testimony how frequently antifascists are used as an excuse for the development of a right-wing militia.

RIP RAY PRITCHETT. I was saddened to see the man I usually called Galrahn—he would answer his phone "Attackerman!" when I called—has passed away. So much of the 2000s seem like a fever dream to me now, but back in the blogosphere of that era, Ray was an enormously influential blogger about the Navy, a service he had zero experience in. I learned so much about the Navy, naval warfare theory, and contending schools of naval thought from Ray and his Information Dissemination. In 2012, David Axe even wrote a WIRED piece introducing the audience to Ray.

On the strength of long, analytical articles written with an almost Spock-like emotional detachment, Information Dissemination quickly attracted a core readership in the Navy and naval policy circles. Early on, Pritchett's topics included the usual maritime grist: piracy, budgets, shipbuilding. But he addressed them with fearless disregard for many readers' limited attention spans. Many posts included charts, tables, links to budget documents and detailed lists of ship deployments. The detail could be exhausting, but it was also a refreshing change compared to the shrinking column inches in print journals.

You can also read eulogies for Galrahn from Rob Farley and from Commander Salamander. RIP Galrahn, gone far too young.