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Elon Musk, the World’s Richest Man, Has Been an “Abusive” Bully on Twitter for Years. Now He Owns It

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The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, is set to become the new owner of Twitter after the company’s board agreed to sell the influential social media platform for $44 billion on Monday. Musk, who describes himself as a “free speech absolutist,” tweeted, “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.” We speak with tech industry watchdog Jessica González and Evan “Rabble” Henshaw-Plath, who was part of the team that launched Twitter in 2006, about what the buyout means for the future of digital media and journalism. “Musk or no Musk, Twitter has work to do to ensure that it stops amplifying bigotry, calls to violence, hate speech and conspiracy theories,” says González. Henshaw-Plath says he senses Musk has “no idea what he’s getting into,” and discusses the activist roots of Twitter.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, is set to become the new owner of Twitter, after the company’s board agreed to sell the influential social media platform for $44 billion. The deal is expected to close later this year pending regulatory approval.

The watchdog group Media Matters criticized Musk’s takeover of Twitter, saying it will be a, quote, “victory for disinformation and the people who peddle it.” Media Matters and other groups have expressed concern that Musk will allow Donald Trump to resume using the platform. Twitter permanently banned Trump shortly after the deadly January 6th insurrection. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich also criticized Musk’s move, saying, quote, “Unlike his ambitions to upend transportation and interstellar flight, this one is dangerous. It might well upend democracy,” Reich said.

Musk, who describes himself as a “free speech absolutist,” tweeted, “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”

We’re joined now by two guests. Jessica González is with us, co-CEO of the media advocacy group Free Press. She’s also a founder of the Change the Terms coalition. And we’re joined by Evan Henshaw-Plath, a.k.a. Rabble. He was the first employee and lead engineer of the company that created Twitter. He’s now working on Bluesky, a Twitter-backed project to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. He’s the founder of Planetary, a decentralized social media app, also helped build the global Indymedia network. He’s joining us from Wellington, New Zealand.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Well, Evan Henshaw-Plath, you have been described as Twitter’s first employee — well, at least the employee of the company that started Twitter. Can you respond now to the richest man in the world taking over one of the most powerful social media platforms in the world, that you helped start, Rabble?

EVAN HENSHAW-PLATH: I mean, it’s a bit disturbing, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know where he’s going to take it and what kind of decisions he’s going to make with it. Under the current administration of the company, we’ve had commitments to things like the moderation policies and follow the Santa Clara Principles for better behavior, and we can see where it goes. And Elon Musk has advocated for some things that are big and great, and some things that are really terrible and will harm it. And we simply don’t know anymore where he’s going to take it, but we do know that he has been a bit of an abusive crypto bro on Twitter. And is that the kind of person we want deciding how our public sphere is governed?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned this issue of cryptocurrency. There are some who believe that this is an attempt for him to be able to spread his support of cryptocurrency through an established worldwide structure. What’s your sense of the relationship between his support of cryptocurrencies and Twitter?

EVAN HENSHAW-PLATH: We don’t know. He believes in open source. He believes in open protocols. That is what the Bluesky project has been working on. That’s what we’ve been working on with Planetary. But he also believes in — you know, that it should all be monetized. And in some ways, that’s not a huge change from Parag and Jack, the previous two CEOs, who are also pro-crypto and advocate for cryptocurrency. So, whether or not this means that cryptocurrencies are going to be more deeply integrated into Twitter, we just don’t know. He says he wants to do it, but the current Twitter management also has been exploring it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jessica González of Free Press, what are your concerns? You urged the shareholders of Twitter not to approve this takeover attempt. What are your main concerns about Elon Musk?

JESSICA GONZÁLEZ: Good morning, Juan. My main concern is that Musk has demonstrated no commitment to helping to protect our democracy and civil and human rights. Musk or no Musk, Twitter has work to do to ensure that it stops amplifying bigotry, calls to violence, hate speech and conspiracy theories. It also needs to do much more to protect its users across geographies and across languages. So, while there may be a couple of things to like here around transparency, we’ve seen Musk demonstrate time and again that he doesn’t really have a commitment to protecting our democracy. His number one objective is to protect himself and to advance his own interests.

So, when we hear Musk saying, “I’m a free speech absolutist. Everything goes,” that means also that hate and harassment goes, the kind hate and harassment that shouts down women and people of color. That’s not actually how we achieve the balance of free speech. Moreover, Musk has also really not lived up to his self-proclaimed free speech absolutist values. In fact, he called on the Chinese government to censor folks who were criticizing Tesla. So, this is not the sort of steady, reliable hand that we want making decisions about how our communications infrastructure works.

AMY GOODMAN: Jessica, can you explain the Fix the Feed campaign that you are now involved with? You’ve just announced this campaign.

JESSICA GONZÁLEZ: Why, yes, I’d love to. Thank you, Amy. So, I am working with over five dozen partners in the Change the Terms coalition. This is a coalition that was built by and serving women and people of color, who are more likely to face hate and harassment campaigns online. Ahead of the midterms, we are calling on not just Twitter but also TikTok, YouTube, Meta and other social media platforms to stop amplifying conspiracy theories, election interference and disinformation that is targeted at women, people of color and others on the margins. We’re calling on them to do that across languages. We’ve seen time and again that social media, as poorly as they’re moderating content in English, it’s even worse in Spanish and other non-English languages. And we’re calling on them to be much more transparent about their content moderation practices.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Evan, I wanted to ask you: This whole issue of the responsibility of these platforms for content moderation versus the imperative to protect free speech, how do you feel that a Musk-led Twitter will resolve this issue? Because, clearly, there are major, major problems. There’s government attempts now to hold the platforms responsible for their content, and threats of more legislation in that vein. What’s your sense of how Musk will deal with this?

EVAN HENSHAW-PLATH: My sense is that Musk actually has no idea what he’s getting into. He has no idea of the complexity of it. And he sees just a few examples of it, and so he says, “Ban the box, and verify real names,” without understanding the harm that will do and the fact that it doesn’t improve the quality of conversation. He doesn’t know the perspective of people who are marginalized, because, you know, he’s the son of a man who owned an emerald mine in South Africa. He hasn’t experienced what people who experience systemic attacks on these platforms face.

And so, yes, he’s been — lots of critics and everything else, but what he doesn’t realize is that these moderation systems and these moderation problems, they make mistakes. It’s hard. There’s a process by which it needs to be improved. But simply removing moderation, that doesn’t help the problem. That’s actually going to make the entire space much more toxic. And we’ll see whether or not he even actually wants to do that, given the fact that when it’s criticizing him, he has no problem silencing speech.

AMY GOODMAN: Rabble, I wanted to ask you about the early roots of Twitter. Let’s go back to 2004, if you would say TXTMob was an early root of Twitter, helping to organize the protests against the Republican National Convention that were taking place here in New York City, also used during the Democratic convention of that year in Boston. Can you go back then and then just give us a trajectory of what Twitter came out of?

EVAN HENSHAW-PLATH: Sure. So, the company that created Twitter was originally a podcasting company called Odeo. And a bunch of us who had been active as media activists within Indymedia and in collaboration with Democracy Now! had built a text alert system called TXTMob. Groups of people could text either news or updates to each other in the streets in the protests. And so, that was very successful in 2004 for the protests, and we used it again for the May 1st immigrant rights general strike.

And because we were building that and working at it out of the office, the rest of the Odeo team got excited about it, and we taught Jack Dorsey how to send SMSes. And the entire team spent a week using TXTMob and then did an analysis of what worked and didn’t work in that system. And that and looking at blogging and looking at status update systems that people had played with were sort of combined together to create Twitter.

And so, the activist roots behind Twitter were very much part of it. The entire team that created Twitter spent an entire week just using the activist platforms to understand how they work, and then did a design analysis of how to make them better. And that political vision and that energy is part of why Twitter is such an effective organizing tool.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and has it disheartened you to see what has happened in the years since, the fact that now celebrities can basically buy Twitter followers or that bots can have such enormous influence on people’s thinking of what’s real and not, given the fact that the entire business model came out of a resistance and a pro-democracy movement?

EVAN HENSHAW-PLATH: You know, there are parts of it that I am incredibly proud of and stunned by — the way in which Black Lives Matter has used it for organizing, the way in which people in the Arab Spring used it to communicate their movement to the outside world — and there’s things that are completely depressing.

You know, sort of the byline for Indymedia was that you should be the media. And at the time, that seemed like a radical statement. Now that we have people being their own media, we see that there’s a whole 'nother set of problems that we need to face. And it didn't change who people were, although we have used it to change the world. Unfortunately, it empowered a bunch of people who had views that were right-wing, authoritarian, racist, homophobic views that had been silenced by the mainstream media, a whole bunch of conspiracy theories. And if we give everybody a microphone, we need better tools to counteract that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask Jessica González about President Trump, who was famously thrown off Twitter after the January 6th insurrection. He has said he has no plans to rejoin Twitter. But your thoughts on that? And just overall, Musk saying that — he has used the platform to say that shelter-in-place orders because of COVID were fascist. He also once tweeted that the coronavirus panic is dumb. Does this make you concerned about — there’s nothing wrong with saying those things if he has those opinions, but this whole issue that Media Matters and others are raising of going down a path of misinformation that has massive effect around the world?

JESSICA GONZÁLEZ: Yes, I’m concerned, Amy. Listen, individuals have the right to say whatever they want, right? But when you combine that with power, money, presence, that’s something we ought to be concerned about. Can Musk take over Twitter and do what he wants with it? Sure, he can. But he shouldn’t. And it could be very dangerous for our democracy. The fact that he has regularly spread COVID disinformation is extremely concerning. In my opinion, Twitter has a responsibility to protect public health and safety. And if the person running Twitter is a regular purveyor of false information, that gives me great pause.

As for Donald Trump, I don’t trust for a minute that he wouldn’t jump right back on Twitter if he could. I think Twitter made the right decision to take him down. He was inciting violence. He was using the platform to amplify conspiracy theories and bigotry. That was the right move. I don’t think he should return to Twitter. We saw study after study, after he was taken down, that disinformation went down markedly after he left the platform. So, I hope that he will remain off Twitter. And that’s yet to be known.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you, Jessica, just quickly, if you could — Joe Biden nominated Gigi Sohn to fill the fifth and tie-breaking seat at the Federal Communications Commission in October, but she hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate. What is your sense of what’s going on there?

JESSICA GONZÁLEZ: Well, Gigi has been targeted by a right-wing smear campaign, plain and simple. They’ve been drumming up false information about Gigi, painting her in a really cruel light. I know Gigi personally. She’s a good friend of mine. She’s a responsible steward of the public interest, and I hope the Senate will confirm her without further delay. This is really slowing down our ability to pass important policies to get people online, to ensure the internet is affordable, and to reinstate net neutrality principles.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Evan, what do you make of Elon Musk’s statement that he would like to make Twitter’s algorithm open source?

EVAN HENSHAW-PLATH: I’m an advocate of open source. I think that opening up the algorithm, so that outside people can analyze how it works and understand it, will be powerful for users and powerful for researchers. The fact that it’s been a black box has been a major problem.

Whether or not that really improves things is a good question, because part of the reason companies don’t publish their algorithms for their timelines and for who they connect to is that opens up people to game the system even more effectively. And so, the minute you know exactly how it works, you’ll tweak the way in which you publish stuff to do that. And normal users, who aren’t trying to manipulate the system, won’t be able to see that and won’t be able to take advantage of the loopholes, whereas people who have intentional teams set up to figure out how to manipulate these things, either for advertising or disinformation, they’re going to be able to use that information about the algorithm to more effectively dominate the platform. And that’s a major problem and something that we need to address.

One thing, when Trump was elected, I actually sat down with Jack Dorsey, and we had a conversation about deleting the account in 2016. And my answer, what I said to him, was, “You should have deleted the account before he ran for president, when he was doing abusive things there.” If you did it after that, the stock market and investors were going to claim that he was not following fiduciary responsibility, and so the market was going to overwrite him if he deleted it. And that’s why I think he had to wait until it got too bad, 'til the insurrection. And that's the problem with running public spaces on the market.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Evan, is it accurate to say you were the first employee of Twitter?

EVAN HENSHAW-PLATH: Yeah, I was the first employee of Odeo and involved with creating Twitter. Twitter, the company, was actually created about a year after Twitter, the service, was launched.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Evan Henshaw-Plath, a.k.a. Rabble, founding member of Twitter, and Jessica González, co-CEO of Free Press, founder of the Change the Terms coalition.

Coming up next, we go to Steven Donziger. He has just been freed from house arrest after almost 1,000 days. Back in 30 seconds.

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