Musings on Musk, and Content Moderation

Creative Commons photo of Elon Musk.

Everyone greatly overestimates the power of Elon Musk, even though he’s the richest person in the world, and everyone overestimates the importance of Twitter. If you think Musk, with his $44 billion deal to buy Twitter is a free speech savior riding in to “fix” Twitter, and tick off the “woke” progressives, you’re overestimating Musk’s power and Twitter’s. If you think Musk buying Twitter is the equivalent of effectively handing over a “vital” “public square” to a madman billionaire, and you’re announcing your departure from Twitter, then you’re overestimating Musk’s power and Twitter’s.

The amount of either idol worship or doomsdaying I’m seeing, depending on your perspective (typically binary) on Musk and Twitter, is truly remarkable for how awful those “takes” are. The simple fact is, everyone believes in content moderation; the question isn’t about that, but rather about to which degree. Musk, who I don’t think has actually thought through the issue that well, or is particularly knowledgeable on the issue given his public pronouncements, also believes in content moderation surely, because I doubt we are going to see animal crush videos, for example, even though that’s in keeping with First Amendment law, which Musk cited as his guiding principle.

Everyone, conservatives, MAGA types, liberals, progressives, they all believe in moderation. The partisans of those groups usually use moderation to mean controlling their enemies and the “other.” But nobody wants to be on Twitter, or any other site on the internet, that doesn’t utilize some form of content moderation. Even the spam bots alone would make any site unusable if there wasn’t “content moderation” of those, much less the human being-drive material.

And more specifically to the point about Twitter’s “power.” Twitter is not a public space, and it is not vital to safeguarding democracy. In an American context, let’s not forget that very few Americans are even on Twitter, much less those who are actively using Twitter. Only 22 percent of Americans say they use Twitter, according to Pew Research, and of those, a much smaller percentage are active, and make up the majority of the tweets. Compare that 22 percent to the 69 percent who use Facebook, as a comparison.

Another aspect of this debate I find mind-numbing are those on Twitter who somehow get viral Tweets for throwing out platitudes such as, “Pfft, Musk just bought Twitter for $44 billion when he could have solved homelessness.”

I don’t want to be flippant here, because I obviously think those who say that genuinely want to end homelessness, but are they not thinking through those platitudes? In 2021, the federal government of the United States directed $51 billion to homelessness and housing programs, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness calculations. That’s just at the federal level. Consider the states, and just one example from California: They devoted $10.7 billion to 50 housing and homelessness-related programs across 15 state entities in its 2021-22 budget. And of course, there are the nonprofits and other philanthropic efforts, some of which receive federal, state, and local grants, but in philanthropic dollars, that’s billions of dollars in addition to the federal, state, and local money used to combat homelessness.

In other words, if throwing $44 billion at American homelessness was the simple solution to ending American homelessness, then we would have “solved” American homelessness many decades ago. Problems, such as homelessness, are more complicated than a mere accounting allocation. Or to put it another way, problems in American society are more than just a matter of money and the political will to allocate the money. We should celebrate, in a small measure, that homelessness has trended down over the previous decade nationally, and in a number of states, and among a number of key populations (like veterans), but it’s clearly not just a money and political will nexus issue.

And at a more basic level, Musk having $44 billion and directing it at something like Twitter instead of homelessness is not the binary situation people think it is. If Musk burned his $44 billion instead of buying Twitter, I think its relationship to “solving” homelessness would be the same. To put it more simply, the existence of billionaires like Musk, and what they decide to do with their billions, is not detrimental to us solving these problems. They can coexist, because humans are capital-generators. Capital, contrary to popular belief, is not a zero-sum game, and is not a pie-game, wherein the billionaire took half the pie, so only one half is left. There are endless pies.

If anything, our problem isn’t that of money allocation, or political will, but barriers to unlocking the potential of human ingenuity and accessing those “endless pies.”

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