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Why Elon Musk is Making Me Get Back on Facebook
The best day on Twitter is the first day on Twitter.
Every day after, the toxic stew of abuse, hatred, attention-hacking, and brain drain worsens. It’s also safe to say that if Elon Musk is successful in his bizarre, half-hearted attempt to buy Twitter, life on the platform is going to get much, much worse. While spouting nebulous bromides about “free speech,” Musk spent the last few weeks promising to undo the steps Twitter took to curb abuse and hate speech. He even promised to immediately end Donald Trump’s lifetime Twitter ban. As you may remember, Trump used Twitter to spread the Big Lie, invite people to the fateful rally in D.C, encouraged them to march on the Capitol, and then egged them on.
Many responded to Musk’s potential ownership of what is arguably the world’s most important platform for media and politics with understandable concern. Tens of thousands reportedly quit Twitter the day Musk’s offer to buy the company was accepted. A coalition of groups including Accountable Tech, Media Matters, and others launched a “Stop the Deal” campaign, pledging to “utilize all points of leverage, including legal and regulatory mechanisms, strategic engagement with key stakeholders like advertisers and investors, and ongoing grassroots education and mobilization.”
I don’t begrudge anyone for abandoning Twitter; and I appreciate these groups and others pressuring and mobilizing against Twitter and Musk. If they can convince Musk or the Twitter board to walk away, these groups will have done their job. The campaign at least prevents Twitter’s transformation from pretty bad to damn awful. However, the fact Trump will likely be back on Twitter (not to mention Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube) no matter who owns the company raises real questions about the progressive approach to the prevalence of misinformation, bigotry, and MAGA extremism on social media.
The Strategy to Date
The Russians and Donald Trump exploited the loopholes in Facebook’s algorithm and content moderation policies to tip the 2016 election. Ever since, progressives maintain a frenzied, never-ending, rarely fruitful game of whack-a-mole with social media platforms. Using public pressure, advertising boycotts, and good old-fashioned shame, we tried to get Facebook et al to live up to their own values and policies. Despite prohibitions against hate speech, white supremacy and misogyny run rampant. Despite pledges to stop the spread of disinformation, conspiracy theories and theorists remained on the platform. Periodically, the platforms bow to public pressure and ban or suspend people like Steve Bannon and Alex Jones. Vice President Harris even made banning Trump from Twitter an important part of her presidential campaign. The companies — especially Facebook — did the absolute bare minimum while still appeasing Trump to avoid regulatory and legal scrutiny.
Until January 6th, the victories were few and far between. After the violence at the Capitol was fomented on Twitter, organized on Facebook, and based on lies spread on YouTube, the companies bowed to public pressure and removed Trump. This was supposed to be the Big Win. There is no question the world was a better, less chaotic place sans Trump narrating world events with his signature brand of cynical hate. But Trump didn’t lose power or standing. In fact, one could argue that his standing in the Republican Party is as strong as ever.
Even though some of the most prominent MAGA extremists are banned, folks like Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino, and Candace Owens dominate Facebook and Twitter. Their posts often receive exponentially more engagement and reach than the content from leading Democrats and traditional news organizations.
Content Moderation to Content Amplification
The flaw in a content moderation/pressure strategy is that it ultimately depends on major corporations and tech moguls to do the right thing. There is no real track record of success in modern history relying on the munificence of the very rich. In Battling the Big Lie, I write about how Facebook consistently bowed to bad faith criticism from the Right Wing. Many of their actions were borne from fear of accusations of “liberal bias,” but their primary rationale for cozying up to Trump, allowing misinformation to run rampant, and refusing to fact check ads was financial. Hate is good business and 99 out of 100 times, companies will do what is in their own interests. Democracy and morality be damned.
Since our ability to convince Facebook and Twitter to reduce the amount of toxic, damaging content on their platform is limited at best, we need a new strategy. Our focus going forward should be on promoting progressive content, not trying to remove MAGA extremist content. We need to focus more on elevating progressive voices.
Quitting Twitter was never an option for me. As someone who works in the media space, I am professionally obligated to be on the platform to follow the news, engage with others, and of course relentlessly (and awkwardly) promote my podcasts, newsletters, and books. If you want to influence the political debate among the decision-makers and the chroniclers, Twitter is a must. I am not just staying on Twitter, I am also (re)joining Facebook. Last week, I started a Facebook page to promote progressive news and messaging. This is a drop in the bucket, but I argue in this newsletter and Battling the Big Lie that grassroots distributed messaging is the only to compete against the Right-Wing Media machine. It’s time to put my money where my mouth is.
For all of the prominence of Twitter among political activists, Facebook is by far the most important political battleground. According to Pew Research, nearly 70 percent of American adults use Facebook and 49 percent of Facebook users visit the site multiple times a day. Perhaps, most alarmingly 36 percent use Facebook as a regular source of news.
This means that a huge swath of the country is getting their news from a platform that is dominated by MAGA messaging. In my view, Democrats have no choice but to engage aggressively on Facebook. If you want to follow my new page, you can do so here.