Could Musk Kill Black Twitter?

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host Jason Johnson. Twitter has long been a public square for America and even the world, and black Twitter allows a collection of thought. Leaders, influencers and entertainers on the site has grown into an imperfect community of its own. The place to debate trade jokes and actually make friends in good times and bad. But since tech billionaire Elon Musk bought the site, many are worried that it’s just a matter of time before Twitter is gentrified with tech pros and Alt-Right bots. So what happens to Black Twitter now?

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S2: It’s certainly possible that the kind of public conversation that black people have driven on Twitter could be less amplified, could be algorithmically marginalized. And that’s one of the real risks.

S1: The future of black Twitter. Coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Black Twitter is a cultural force. Everything from political movements to comedy routines have emanated from the ability of the black and black affiliated Twitter community to make topics trend. On the lighter side, it’s a great place to share memes vent during the annual hashtag Thanksgiving Clapback and debate which character on Insecure was the messiest. But it is also been a place where black people have organized protests and voter drives, shared videos that alerted the nation to police brutality and challenged political and social narratives that are laced with racism or other kinds of bias. But now that tech billionaire Elon Musk owns the site, lots of Twitter users of all races expect that he’ll bring his politics with him. He worked with Donald Trump in the early days of his presidency and laments his absence from the platform. And Musk, Tesla Auto Company, is a target of years of complaints about a racist work environment where slurs and harassment were the norm and he tolerated it. So how could the Musk era affect the future of Twitter and black Twitter in particular? Joining us to talk about it is Omar Wasow. He was a pioneer in building Internet culture and social media back in the nineties and co-founded the Black Planet Social Network. He’s now an assistant professor of politics at Pomona University. Omar Wasow, welcome to the world.

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S2: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: What was your reaction a month ago when you heard that Elon Musk was interested in buying Twitter? And then what was your reaction earlier this week when it was like, okay, look, the stockholders have spoken, this deal has gone through.

S2: So a month ago, it all seemed kind of improbable. And Musk has these flights of fancy where he becomes you know, he gets into Bitcoin, he gets out of Bitcoin. And so I think I assumed this was going to be something that would come and go in a flash and that it was not actually likely to happen. And, you know, Twitter enacted their poison pill policy to prevent a hostile takeover. And it just seemed like this is going to blow over. And then suddenly it didn’t. And now I think my main thought is that he keeps talking about free speech in this very simplistic way. And I worry that he really doesn’t understand what it takes to build the online community and that it’s not just simply about sort of giving everybody a megaphone.

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S1: Omar One of the things that Musk has been saying for years now, which parrots a lot of the alt right and sort of neo-Nazi, you know, conservative communities throughout the United States in the world is he’s a free speech absolutist. He wants to return Twitter to some mythical time where everybody was free to talk. Most people hear that as being or he wants Donald Trump back or Alex Jones. He wants thousands of A.I. racist bots to be attacking comedians and entertainers. What might that mean? And a nonsensical perspective. What could a new, freer speech environment of Twitter look like if it wasn’t an absolute hellscape?

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S2: Let’s start with just some first principles and then get into kind of like, what would that look like? Played out, right? And so so I think if we look at the First Amendment, it is both a commitment to free speech, which is in particular freedom of the press to be protected from regulation by the state. So the first order thing to understand is that free speech in a kind of legal sense is about being protected from state overreach, not from other private actors. Right. But I think it’s also really important to keep in mind that in the First Amendment are terms like freedom of association, right, and freedom of conscience in terms of freedom of religion. And what I think is really missing in how Musk is talking about freedom of speech is that like freedom of speech means you get to, you know, distribute your newsletter. It means you get to talk in the town square. It doesn’t mean I get to go to your home at midnight and shout at you. Right. And in the real world, we have things like property rights that allow me to lock my door, and you can’t come into my house. But in social media, we don’t we don’t really have those same kinds of ways to enforce freedom of association. Right. And so speech and association are really intimately linked online. And unless a platform provides good tools for allowing you to kind of manage, you know, who can come into your feed at any hour, then it’s actually not a robust community of speech. It sort of invites vigilantism. So it’s possible. So now getting back to the kind of the applied stuff, both Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk have talked about trying to, you know, turn Twitter into some kind of underlying protocol or platform on the Internet that would allow for, you know, robust speech. And there is a scenario where it could be, you know, we could instantiate we could we could, like, build black Twitter on some kind of underlying Twitter OS and Trump could build his what appears to be a failed, you know, alternative in truth social also on Twitter OS and that those could exist as two distinct spheres of freedom of association, maybe with some overlap. But with a lot of freedom for people to kind of opt in or out without having to do a lot of work. And right now, it’s a lot of work to kind of manage the people who want to, you know, mob a particular account. And so that kind of vigilantism is invited. It’s possible that they could do the kind of technical fixes that would make it so that you can have the right mix of freedom of speech and freedom of association.

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S1: Ever since it was announced that Elon Musk bought Twitter just a couple of days ago, there have been reports and now documented reports of Democratic candidates, Democratic elected officials and progressive thought leaders magically losing followers and conservative thought leaders and conservative Republicans and activists and concerns all over the world gaining followers. What are the potential consequences of Elon Musk owning Twitter on the idea of representation amplification? Because if suddenly, you know, you have 100,000 fake A.I. bots following Marjorie Taylor GREENE, this gets reported as these people having a lot more influence on public discourse than they organically have.

S2: Yeah, I mean, I think what you raise is, is a really vital and even in some ways bigger issue than the person who’s just a jerk or a vigilante, which is all kinds of ways that social media is can be used to erode trust in everything from our political institutions to science and, you know, things like vaccines. Right. And so we have bad actors who are engaged in campaigns to use these, you know, communications tools for transmitting disinformation, for sowing divisions in societies, for bolstering fringe movements as a way, again, of splintering the democratic societies. And whether it’s, you know, Russia or rogue actors within a particular country. Like, we have a lot of evidence that disinformation campaigns can be quite effective. And in the absence of, again, things like some kind of moderation, it becomes a world where the beast, you know, totally crowds out the truth. And, you know, the essence of the point is that Mark Zuckerberg came in with a I’m a free speech absolutist. And, you know, Jack Dorsey was a free speech absolutist. And at a certain point when there were thousands of people dying every day from COVID, they sort of realized, you know what? Like, maybe we need to have some rules about people propagating, you know, disinformation, medical disinformation, medical lies. Right. And, you know, and so suddenly they started to moderate content in a way that they hadn’t before. And that is the kind of thing where it’s like when you’re talking about life and death, what sorts of rules are you going to apply? And saying everything goes is a principled position, but it’s one that often results in, you know, the agenda, the noise, overwhelming the signal, and in particular the disinformation and the bad actors overwhelming any attempt at elevation of truth and good faith discussion.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on the future of black Twitter with Omar Wasow. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a Word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and liked what you hear, please subscribe, rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing us. And a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking with Omar Wasow about the future of black twitter. So what made you decide to create Black Planet and and what was sort of your goal when you put that together? Because I really think that that was sort of I mean, that was that was proto black Twitter. I mean, it was a place where mostly black people went and and other people try. There was Asian avenue. There was me hint a But Black Planet was really the O.G.. Yeah.

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S2: So I mean, you know, I came of age at a moment where the thing that was most exciting, I mean, if people don’t do would understand this now, but in the early days of the Internet, the, you know, there was Al Gore saying what what it’s going to be is going to be a giant library. It’s going to be the information superhighway. And I just knew that there was like something more exciting in the supper club, the hanging out with other people. And what we saw in the early days of the Internet and the Web were often times very, you know, again, these sort of attempts to build libraries or media for black folk, which is great, but it wasn’t social. And we just thought like, if we could bring the grapevine, the black community to the web, that would we start? That could pop. And and it did. And, you know, and we were a small company up against Betty and AOL and a bunch of other big companies, Microsoft. You know, we just totally jumped to the front of the line in terms of like building a large audience, because at the time, something like America Online cost $20 a month. And we were offering that level of social interaction on the web for free with like state of the art tools and giving people a real platform to express themselves and create. And so at its root, you know, what Black Planet was about was trying to elevate black voices and give people a platform on which they could express themselves and be creative.

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S1: Since the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk, you’ve had a lot of black people, both publicly and privately, saying, We need to start our own thing, we need to go and launch your on. So there’s there’s this push. Everybody’s trying to figure out where they’re going to go, etc., etc.. How much more challenging or less challenging would it be to try and recreate what you had 15, 20 years ago? In today’s environment, could you think something like that could be made again? That has John Legend and LeBron and other people active on it? Or are we in an environment now where there are so many different options, so many different streamers, right, that you’re not going to get that sort of coherent community anymore?

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S2: You know, there’s clearly a hunger for it. You know, this comes up all the time. And so in that sense, I think there is the potential for maybe, you know, OG Black Planet or some new venture to cultivate or nurture that community. But I think the challenge there at least two or three challenges for anybody trying to do that. So one is, you know, between Facebook and TikTok and Snap and Twitter, there’s just not a lot of like unclaimed real estate. And so there’s just the gravitational pull for someone like LeBron to Twitter or Instagram or whatever. It’s just like, you know, I don’t know what his follower count is going to be, but it’s going to be in the millions on any of these services. And so if he wants to reach a large audience like those are the platforms that are going to keep pulling him back. And you see that even with something like these, you know, right wing social networks or anything like that, there are people who go who are on the right, who are media figures, who will, you know, post on whatever it is, gab or something. And then they come back to Twitter because like that’s where they get engagement, right? So so that’s one big challenge is just that like, you know, when we launched it, it wasn’t even clear that social media was the thing, right? I mean, it was called online community then. And we were, you know, just there was like there was a lot more unclaimed real estate that allowed us to thrive. Second challenge is what you might think of as a little bit. If it’s related to the first, I think of it as sort of almost like the Jackie Robinson problem. If you’re Jackie Robinson, you’re going be this portal to the majors, right? And in the end, they’re like the Negro Leagues are going to have a hard time holding on to their the best talent. Right. And so there’s just going to be there’s going to be this kind of like gravitational pull for the celebrities, for the people with platforms to the places where they have the most reach. And that’s going to make it a little bit harder for something like a niche site, whether it’s black or, you know, conservative or whatever, to to to hold on to its audience. And then but but but in favor, there are some technical advantages now versus the past, right? When we when we launched Black Planet, this is sound crazy. But we bought what was at the time it was 1999. We bought a one terabyte drive. Right? And that cost us $250,000, you know, and and it was like that. It was, you know, it was it was a commercial grade and a consumer grade, but that’s $99. Now it’s Costco. Right? And so there’s infrastructure now that makes it possible to, you know, basically, like do kind of Facebook in a box and launch something at a much lower cost, much lower the barriers to entry to start something or much. Slower in that sense. But, you know, the critical thing with any online communities, it’s like a dance floor. And if you can get a critical mass of people on the dance floor, you know, it can it can hum for hours. But if it’s empty, you know, nobody wants to get on and a lot of people will leave. Right. And so any new online community is an empty dance floor. And that’s a really hard thing to kind of like overcome.

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S1: So, Omar, you teach about protests and social movements at Panama University, and I want to talk to you a little bit about what Elon Musk could do to protest movements. I mean, everything from OscarsSoWhite to Black Lives Matter, there have been both serious and cultural protests that have manifest themselves on Twitter and its allow marginalized voices, black people, you know, queer black people, trans people, people with unique diseases to get amplification and get their voices out there that they haven’t been able to do in any other media. What is the potential danger to Twitter as a free space for protest and activism if it’s now under the private control of someone with a very distinct view on policies?

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S2: Part of the incredible strength of Twitter has been the way in which it allows certain kinds of public conversations, particularly for communities like the black community, where there’s this, you know, sort of it’s a tight community in the real world. And then when they bring that power to the Internet, it allows the community to really punch way above its weight in terms of amplifying the concerns of African-Americans to a global audience. And that’s so central to Twitter that it’s hard for me to imagine that Musk and whoever he brings on is his team would be foolish enough to crush that capacity for hashtag activism. But it’s certainly possible and it’s certainly possible that the kind of public conversation that black people have driven on Twitter could be less amplified, could be algorithmically marginalized. And that’s one of the real risks, you know, and Musk has said, I want to open source the algorithm and make these things more transparent, but just because it’s open source doesn’t mean it’s not biased in some way. So I think there are risks for a lot of groups that have thrived on Twitter to date in this transition. And, you know, these things feel to me so central to the platform that it’s hard to imagine they won’t continue to be central to the platform, but we don’t know.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. We come back more with Omar Wasow about what’s next for Twitter and black Twitter. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking with Omar Wasow about the future of black Twitter. So we’re jumping ahead a year. And my understanding is that if Elon Musk takes over, it won’t be for another six or seven months. It might not technically be until 2023. What are some government solutions? Are there government solutions to reining in social media? And I ask this because last week Barack Obama gives this big speech at Stanford about misinformation and he talked about Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act. And for the audience to understand that Section 230 is basically says that a site can’t be held responsible for the information that other people post on it. So if you’re running the Cleveland Plain Dealer and you do an article about Tamir Rice and a whole bunch of people put racist stuff in the comments, you can’t sue the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It’s not their fault, right? Like they can’t control who’s writing in the comment section. Do you think if Twitter goes down into full health site that people will look at Section 230? Is there anything a government or outside agency could do if the site becomes problematic?

S2: So two quick thoughts on that. So first is it’s important to remember that, of course, that Twitter sits in this slightly strange space as both a private company. So, you know, it’s like The New York Times or like Slate, right? That like we want to be very cautious about thinking about how it might it speech rights might get regulated. And at the same time, you’re exactly right that whether it’s in the United States or the EU, there are significant regulations that if it is a place that is, you know, in case of the EU, you know, propagating hate speech like that’s potentially a world of hurt for Twitter and that regulatory environment in other countries is also, you know, whether it’s the EU or India or some other place that might have very specific codes, it’s not going to be possible to just let it be a free for all without any potential consequence, because it is this sort of very high profile Times Square that is both private, but in a way also public, you know, given that it’s the place where, you know, public officials make pronouncements. And so I think it absolutely will have to walk a fine line in terms of thinking about, you know, what are the ways. I mean, you even saw Musk tweet about this recently saying, you know, when I say I’m a free speech absolutist, I mean legal speech. Right. So suddenly he’s he’s circumscribing that a little bit. And then I think there’s also a possibility that Musk is a world class product manager. He overstates his claims a lot in terms of like what what’s going to come out and whether it’s the Tesla or some the things. But with Space X and Tesla, he has produced, you know, kind of world class products. And and so it’s not out of the question that there’s another scenario, which is that it doesn’t converge to a health side, but that there is this, you know, everything from the edit button to better blocking tools to that that like actually the product development of Twitter gets better and we end up in a scenario where it doesn’t fall to regulators that it actually Twitter kind of does fulfill its potential. I want to be clear, I’m very skeptical of that scenario, but it’s not entirely out of the question that Twitter, with its own technologies, could simultaneously kind of broaden the range of voices while also allowing there to be more effective moderation.

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S1: So one of the things that’s been a real concern for a lot of people, certainly in my space, is me and a lot of other friends of mine who are black journalists and our tax groups and everything else like that. I’ve had several chat groups and I’m in move off Twitter and go on signal because there’s a fear that our private information that DMS we’ve gotten from sources and things like that. When Twitter was a publicly traded company, I mean, why is Jack Dorsey care about, you know, some activist reaching out to me? But we know that Elon Musk is a troll. We know the Elon Musk for being the first wealthiest man on the planet has gone after individuals. We know that he’s cancelled some of these Tesla order because he didn’t like a blog post, that he’s threatened people. He sent private investigators after people. So there’s a real fear now that all of our DMS and all of our private information, that political information could be used by him. Is that a realistic fear? Is that something he could actually do or are people being paranoid?

S2: Oh, I think that’s a very realistic fear. And and to be clear, it’s not just him, but maybe him, you know, subject to some leverage from, you know, the very important client country for Tesla. Right. So it’s like maybe China says, you know, we’re going to threaten Tesla in some way with regulations and that puts pressure on private Twitter to in some ways be more accommodating to, you know, requests for information on on Twitter. And, you know, there may be things like know. Where is data stored? Right. Maybe currently it’s stored in the U.S. and maybe like there’s data that now is can only be stored in an authoritarian country for those particular users. That might not affect you or me, but it would certainly be a concern if I were living in an authoritarian country. So so I think, you know, the old rule, which we all learned, again, as kind of OGs in the Internet, which is like, you know, never send an email that you wouldn’t want on the front page of the New York Times, I think is the same here that that you should assume, whether it’s private Twitter, potentially releasing information or behaving in a vindictive way or, you know, that it’s like it gets hacked and, you know, none of that should be thought of as secure or private. I think the other kind of really big idea here is that we’ve got something that’s so important in some ways to our public discourse. It feels like it should be a utility or some kind of thing that is essentially like publicly provided rather than privately owned. Right. And it’s like and I think it’s just in some ways it defies our categories, right? We don’t want The New York Times to be run by the federal government because it’s like we value its independence. But when something is as big and global and it’s always foundational to public discourse, it’s weird that it’s going to be. A single is in the hands of an individual. And, you know, whatever that person’s whims are, you know, we’re all subject to. And I just don’t I don’t think we have a you know, it’s not a too big to fail model, but it’s something like it just sort of sits in a category where private institution doesn’t quite capture its role and private owner doesn’t capture like it’s not the same as Bezos owning The Washington Post. It really is something distinct.

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S1: I want to make sure, because I think what you’re tapping into is one of the thoughts I want to make sure that we leave people with, which is I talk about cyclical history a lot, the 1820s and 1920s. We’re now in the 2020s. We are now in our version of the robber baron phase. Right. And history says that the next 40 years will not go particularly well. Twenties to the forties, the 1820s, 19 2240s. What are our options here as we see more and more of our ability to communicate and interact with each other controlled by stateless individuals, they have no loyalty to anything and they’re not all benevolent. Right. Jack Dorsey was kind of benign neglect, like he let Twitter run. We don’t know anything about Jack Dorsey. Right. But we know who Elon Musk is and we know that the purchase of Twitter was not because it makes money. It was an ego thing. What do we do as a society, as a globe where we’re seeing increasingly power in these small hands? Is there a way to fight back? You know, what’s our response to to our modern robber baron age? And all those people are behind a keyboard.

S2: If we think in just very broad strokes, like the world just keeps getting wealthier on the whole, right? I mean, there’s profound inequality, but there’s this kind of growing wealth and even in for the poorest increasing wealth, particularly in places like China. And so, like, that’s broadly a good trend. But what you’re keen on is that there are these individuals who increasingly have power kind of akin to a state. It becomes hard to even make sense of what the you know, obviously we can do things like tax wealth, but it’s not clear we have the kind of anti-monopoly sort of logic when an individual is so powerful that they can weigh disproportionately the sort of way more voice or way more influence than other people. Right. There’s something deeply anti-democratic about that level of potential power influence. At the same time, coming back to your question about solutions and maybe a little bit of optimism, you know, the history of social networks is often that there’s just enormous churn and it’s slowed down a lot sort of once Facebook came along. Right. And so Facebook is still clearly enormously influential, but it’s much less influential than it was, you know, five or ten years ago. Right. And it’s like the kind of the joke among younger people is Facebook is for old people. Right. And we’ve seen the emergence of Tik Tok as a site that is or an app that is you know, is has taken a lot of the energy from a site like Facebook. And so, you know, when you painted a plausible scenario of a kind of Twitter that becomes more hostile, more more potentially dangerous as a place to kind of have private conversations, I think it’s not out of the question that over the long run, Twitter, you know, could have had its moment in the sun and then become something of an also ran. And, you know, so whether we’re talking about like America Online or going way back, you know, services like Prodigy or there’s just there’s just been all of this churn over time in these platforms. Or we think about, you know, in other domains, you know, Microsoft was dominant as an operating system, you know, sued by the federal government for monopolies and now is thought of as, you know, kind of a second or third tier player in something like mobile. Right. So I think it’s not out of the question that if Musk really misplace his hand, that, you know, Twitter has an enormous amount of lock in and that it’s got this critical mass of journalists and, you know, you know, kind of public thinkers and celebrities and people who are shaping the conversation are on Twitter. But that lock in is not isn’t is no, there’s no guarantee that that sustains. And so it’s easy for me to imagine that a decade from now, you know, people may migrate to something else.

S1: Omar Wasow is the co-founder of Black Planet and a professor at Pomona University in California. Thank you so much for joining us today on a word.

S2: Thank you so much for having me. A real pleasure for me to.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Alicia montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for Word.