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Twitter 2.0 and the revolt of the public

Martin Gurri predicted Musk’s populism

Artillery Row

“Elon Musk is a far right activist,” declared Atlantic Staff Writer Charlie Worzel in a recently published article. Earlier that day, Musk’s Mein Kampf had taken the form of a five word tweet: “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci”. Panic ensued. For all its chaos, the Twitter Hall Putsch appeared to have succeeded. A few hours later, Alexander Vindman, the New York Times bestselling author and Trump impeachment nemesis put the cherry on the outrage cake when he described Musk’s acquisition of the social media platform as being like “Goebbels with a bigger platform”.

In a world of upheaval, one oddly reassuring (if not predictable) constant is this sort of hysterical reaction. Worzel and Vindman’s comments could quite easily be transposed onto reactions to Brexit or Trump. With its tedious self righteousness and hysteria, the platform in recent weeks has been a nostalgic throwback to the discord of 2016: Nazis unleashed. The return of rampant racism. There was even a People’s March equivalent in the aborted attempt to migrate to Mastodon. Bravely Stephen Fry, Twitter’s most famous emigre, used a very naughty word to convey the true horror of the takeover. 

All of this, as always, somewhat misses the point. Musk’s exposure of the systemic rot of censorship at Twitter HQ, which went as far as to collude with the FBI, is arguably far worse than any of his clumsy actions so far as Chief Twit. It is no surprise that these revelations have been met by a sort of appalled silence by elite media. The BBC has only recently flirted with the story. The content moderators on Wikipedia at one point tried to sink the story to the depths of “a nothingburger”. This is quite extraordinary for the scale and extent of the revelations, which perhaps go beyond even the most lurid dreams of the platform’s fiercest critics. Indeed, Musk’s tweets are really a distraction from this main event and its consequences. The Twitter Files are the latest setback in attempts by elite media to assert its worldview, and indeed its authority, in a world that has been changing beyond them for a while. 

Mainstream media’s response to this dilemma has been useless

A setback for elites? Musk is one of the world’s richest men, you might say. Yes, he is quite clearly a narcissist with too much money. He has been shrewd enough to rally a consensus against elite opinion, however, by attempting to transform a platform which had come to represent its worst excesses. His choice of Matt Taibbi, Lee Fang and Bari Weiss to spread the gospel of bad news about Twitter HQ — journalists who are most definitely not “far-right activists” — is a deliberate tactic. Musk is playing on a fissure that erupted after the events of 2016 amongst liberals: between those who recognise the validity of revolt against the establishment, rooted in valid criticisms of globalised liberalism, and those who continue to see it as the irrational forces of bigotry and far right manipulation. The latter was clearly in control at Twitter HQ. 

This struggle against elite opinion is the very story of social media platforms like Twitter. In 2014, Martin Gurri, a former media analyst at the CIA, published his thesis concerning the rise of the “fifth wave” of new digital media proliferated by social media. The core of his argument was that traditional structures of power were being undermined by this new media, most notably in its ability to mobilise action in the real world — everywhere from a public square in Egypt to a Trump rally in Oklahoma.

Both his argument, and even the title of his book Revolt of the Public, appeared almost prophetic of the two populist coups that occurred in 2016 — in which new digital media played a pivotal role in harnessing discontent against an establishment. The architects of these coups (Cummings, Bannon et al) realised this and fully exploited it. The role this new media played — particularly in amplifying “dissident voices” on the right — paved the way for a pervasive liberal reaction of shock and disgust. These elections must have been the result of irrational, algorithmic driven bigotry latent in Western societies, quite possibly even encouraged by nefarious foreign influences on these new digital platforms. 

In light of this, Twitter HQ’s vast systematic censorship should come as no surprise. The paranoia driven by the rise of decentralised news media was clearly felt deeply there. It’s not hard to see that its worldview deemed the rise of Trump, Brexit and even opposition to pandemic health policy as a Pandora’s box of disinformation and “hate”, which sprang open due to the changes in media technology around the start of the last decade. As such, censorship and the micromanaging of opinion was not a matter of conscience; it was the logical conclusion in the battle to return to the status quo after Gurri’s revolt of the public.

The real question brought to the fore by Musk’s takeover, is how best to tame the rise of this new media, and how to incorporate the revolt of the public into accepted and legitimate political discourse. Nearly a decade on, it is still not clear how to manage the rise of decentralised media competing for attention through platforms largely driven by algorithms. In solving this dilemma, there is skin in the game for both liberals and conservatives. The latter will observe that criticism of the “liberal establishment all too often has a habit of descending into trope and farce (think anti-woke and the rise of the right wing thinkfluencer) whilst liberals have seen the reputation of their beloved outlets, most notably the New York Times, hollowed out. 

The only certainty, confirmed by the latest revelations in the Twitter files, is that liberal leaning mainstream media’s response to this dilemma has been useless. In attempting to recover control of the narrative through initiatives like “fact checking” units, absurd marketing ploys to scare an audience through paywalls and now even de-facto censorship, it has further haemorrhaged trust. The revelations of the Twitter files are the latest chapter in this sorry saga of elite opinion to reassert its authority. 

Maybe weirdos and Muskites can do a better job managing digitised news

In light of this, the Twitter Files are only likely to accelerate this long term distrust in elite media. Across the political spectrum, it’s now no longer a “low status opinion” to openly admit that you do not trust the “mainstream media”. Prior to the exposure of the Twitter Files, Matt Taibbi and Douglas Murray managed to convince a barely anti-establishment audience at the prestigious Munk Debate in Toronto of precisely this. Even the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, one of the most established voices in mainstream liberal thought, was unable that night to prevent a historic vote swing against the reputation of news organisations, which still command billions of pounds in the effort to impose their worldview onto the public. 

Musk’s open mockery of public health officials is at the rearguard of this long-term decline of public trust, not just in the media, but in the establishment blob it often appears all too ready to defend. Musk knows this, and his shitposting against the likes of Fauci is more tedious than sinister. Nonetheless, acquiring the platform amidst this exodus of trust in established media is a shrewd manoeuvre. 

Musk has been compared to a Caesar figure, willing to listen to the will of the people. Really, he is an opportunist that has more in common with one of the bourgeois revolutionaries that emerged from the chaos of the French Revolution. Having turned his takeover into a chaotic spectacle, he now looks set to step down and let the brains of his Empire quietly oversee Twitter 2.0. Eyes will be on them — not least because steering the platform beyond the mess he inherited may provide some clue as to how to consolidate the revolt of the public into an established, well-managed media landscape of decentralised, anti-elitist voices.

With news now almost exclusively consumed via phones and apps, and news media audiences firmly divided along politically partisan grounds, can we move beyond a descent into an era of “post-journalism”, in which media outlets survive by essentially preaching to the choir? If there is a solution to be modelled, one hope is that it is now firmly out of the hands of the liberal corporate blob that was Twitter HQ. Maybe weirdos, Muskites and the sort of people who don’t fare well in an organisation run by human resources types can do a better job of managing digitised news content on a social media platform. Now the bird has been uncaged, its flight is well worth watching. 

Some may argue that the very nature of social media platforms makes this impossible. Perhaps the revolt of the public is less a historical event, more a paradigm shift in the way we consume information. Perhaps it is doomed to make democracies inherently bad-tempered and unstable. That said, there is a case to be made by some on the right, accelerated by the Twitter Files, that their worldview continues to lose out in the frightened reaction to this paradigm shift. The issues that drove the revolt of the public to express its discontent on the new digital platforms are still far from resolved: unstable levels of migration, stagnant wages, a distrust in politicians, a sclerotic establishment blob incapable of managing change in an uncertain future. These are problems, in one form or another, that affect most of the countries in which Twitter and other social media have come to play a role in shaping the discourse. The better job the platform does in digesting these legitimate concerns into reality, the louder may come the hysteria from the usual suspects. That is a problem that cannot be solved by an algorithm. 

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