BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York. This is On the Media. You may know Twitter is under new management.
NEWS REPORT Employees have until 5 p.m. today to commit to extremely hardcore work or leave the company.
BROOKE GLADSTONE While US Twitter users are dazed and confused. Bigger things are at stake beyond our shores.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Some sort of intense sense of arrogance. Brashness. Yeah. Might lend itself to bullheaded li pushing to get your rocket in the air. But the priority of building a social space requires engineering for the most vulnerable among us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, with jitters swirling around the Twitterverse, some have set off in search of smaller, more peaceful corners of the Internet.
CLIVE THOMPSON They're kind of like, look, guys, we had this kind of quiet space that was working really well for us. And now there's a ton of new people running around with very different cultural assumptions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York. This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. On Tuesday, Donald Trump announced his third run for the presidency at Mar a Lago in what he'd have called a low energy hour if he hadn't been delivering it.
DONALD TRUMP Our country is being destroyed before your very eyes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This on the heels of a week long defenestration of MAGAism and its leader by the press. 14 candidates endorsed by Trump, who once said that with him in charge would all get tired of winning – lost. Leading to the best midterm result for a president in decades. Since then, the pundits have been asking.
NEWS REPORT Is Trumpism over? I mean, the donors are running away. The Murdoch media are moving away.
NEWS REPORT Donald Trump's moment has come and gone. That window is closed.
NEWS REPORT This is a deeply damaged ex-president like I haven't seen. Now we're talking about him being a mixture of Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson.
NEWS REPORT Trump is a joke. He lost the house, the Senate and the White House. He's lost the popular vote twice.
NEWS REPORT And I'd like to think that the Republican Party is ready to move on from somebody who's been. For this party a three time loser. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But if the GOP is ready to move on from Trump, it'll be tougher to move on from Trumpism. Tom Scocca wrote this week in The New York Times that it's difficult to, quote, declare defeat for a movement that is built around refusing to accept defeat. He said that though some may call Trump a loser. They haven't yet gathered up the courage to find another, less Trumpy way to win. Even so, Trumpism has over is the dominant post midterm political narrative. Of course, political reporters were singing a different tune prior to the vote. Something about an inevitable red wave in a democratic climate that could be described only as bleak. And I mean only.
NEWS REPORT The economy now a top issue in the midterm elections, less than six months away, with Democrats chances looking increasingly bleak.
NEWS REPORT A new poll from ABC News and The Washington Post explains why the midterm landscape is so bleak for Democrats.
NEWS REPORT A final CNN snapshot of the midterm climate and it is beyond bleak for the Democrats as the president and the Democrats remain in complete disarray ahead of the midterms. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Oh, I forgot about Dems in disarray. That was very popular.
JAMES FALLOWS You have to view the New York Times as the outstanding news organization of our era. That is why is with enormous respect for its influence that I've noted, the things where in politics it has seemed to consistently steer US media discussion in an unfortunate direction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE James Fallows has been writing about the jarring gap between reality and the predictions of political reporters for 40 years. He also writes the Substack newsletter, breaking the news.
JAMES FALLOWS As soon as the very first results came in on Election Day, which were from those gerrymandered districts in Florida that Ron DeSantis had set up, and that flipped Republican. The New York Times put out an early edition whose banner headline was GOP Collects Early Wins in Pivotal Vote and the two above the fold stories. One was an explainer saying Allies wonder why America can't fix itself. And the other one was saying Democrats faced intense national headwinds. They were so spring loaded to interpret what was going on that even on election evening as people were voting, in fact, for the best incumbent results in 50 years in midterm elections, they were prepared to interpret this as why can't America fix itself?
BROOKE GLADSTONE As you noted, what happened in reality appeared to be entirely at odds with what the political reporter cadre across the media had been preparing the public for. So how did the coverage of these midterms compared to prior election cycles?
JAMES FALLOWS There are two standards of comparison that I find interesting. One is an admittedly unfair standard, which is how this is going to look in, quote, history, unquote, because it seems already clear that some of the fundamentals of this election, for example, a very strong vote for women based on the Supreme Court's Dobbs ruling and the changed abortion landscape, and a sense that on economics, it wasn't strictly the price of gasoline, which we heard about ad infinitum, but also the job market, which was very strong. Joe Biden's speeches about democracy, which were widely ridiculed by the press, actually seemed to have gotten some traction. And almost all of the election deniers and sort of Trump-weirdos, if I can use that category for a lot of the candidates – they lost. Leading up to the election, it was all prices at the pump, Biden is unpopular. Hangover from Afghanistan which remember a year and a half ago was going to be the end of his presidency. There was a really fundamental mismatch between what seems to have been going on there and what our experts were telling us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm wondering where these narratives come from.
JAMES FALLOWS I would enumerate three streams. One is whatever is happened to political polling, that seems as if all the fallibility of polling, whether it's not reaching enough, young people not getting enough answers overall, people not answering honestly, they seem to have cumulated in a number of really large scale errors. There seems also to be a sort of self-sustaining narrative within a number of the political press corps that my good friend Timothy Crouse wrote about 50 years ago when his son.
[BOTH SAY "BOYS ON THE BUS"]
JAMES FALLOWS Yeah, this was actually the election of 1972. And Tim Crouse wrote The Boys in the Bus about the way a narrative would evolve. And I think back then a guy named Walter Mears was the AP correspondent. People would say, okay, what do you think the narrative is after a speech by McGovern or Nixon or whatever, and you'd say, Yeah, the speech was X, and that became kind of the narrative. And we have the modern era of that. I think where certain narratives 'Biden is unpopular,' it's all about 'prices at the pump.' 'Trump is unstoppable.' They became the modern version of the boys on the bus.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That single word analysis has prevailed in all the ensuing elections. 'Al Gore was a liar.' 'George W Bush was a dummy.' 'Hillary Clinton was an emasculating–'.
JAMES FALLOWS –is unlikable. And also her emails.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Oh, and her emails. That was a narrative that the Times made great use of. And I mark that down to fairness bias. It's a kind of both sides-ism, and it's because the legacy press is still upset about being labeled liberal, starting with Richard Nixon all those years ago. Still trying to overcompensate to report two issues as if they're equal when they aren't and never were.
JAMES FALLOWS It's just a matter of observed fact that more people who go into the press as their career are politically liberal than not. You know, why do you go in this line of work and not become a financier and out of self-consciousness of that reality, and also because of relentless criticism from the right of 'oh your liberal bias' a lot of mainstream organizations want to make sure they have on Marjorie Taylor Greene, along with Jamie Raskin, as if these were people of comparable weight in what they're saying. And I think that was especially the case in the 2016 election where it seemed so, quote, certain, unquote, that Hillary Clinton would win. That mainstream outlets wanted to show that they were fearless in criticizing her, thus her emails.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now I'm curious about the narratives that are emerging post midterms. In The New York Times, I saw a really good opinion piece by Tom Scocca, who described the temptation by some reporters to declare that, quote, the strength of the MAGA forces is ebbing at last. The calendar leaf is turning over on the Trump era. I have heard so many times this is the thing that'll sink it. That's the thing that'll get them and so on.
JAMES FALLOWS On the one hand, you're like, I'm setting this up. On the one hand, there are indications of some greater normalization of politics. One might have guessed two weeks ago that if, for example, Kari Lake were losing in Arizona or Dr. Oz or any of these other characters, Blake Masters, there would have been all these widespread protests and election denial and things we saw after Trump's defeat in 2020. And so far we haven't seen that as you and I are talking. So that could be some sign of normalization.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I just think that that is a weariness with Trump and not an exhaustion with Trumpism.
JAMES FALLOWS 'Yes, and' as we say. Yes, and this kind of Trumpism has always, always, always been part of the American makeup ramped up or damped down by different leaders at different stages of history. Obviously, has been ramped up to a truly rancid degree in the last six or eight years, as it was by George Wallace a generation ago and others before that. And so if even Fox is turning its back on Trump and seeing him as sort of past his sell by date, the sentiment will still be there. And the question is whether somebody else will emerge with the same talent at ramping it up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what are the post midterm narratives that you think maybe people ought to take a moment?
JAMES FALLOWS The post midterm narrative I'm against even more strongly is looking instantly to the 2024 lineup. If there were a single thing I could change about the political press corps, it would be to reduce by about 90% the effort, space, assignments, energy, etc. to what is going to happen two years from now or four years from now and switching them instead to what is happening right now. If you look back to any previous presidential election and try to correlate what is said right after the midterms with what happens two years later, there's basically zero correlation between who people think is strong and weak and rising and falling and just just forget about it. And instead, tell us more about what it was that made people vote the way that they did. So, for example, a thought experiment. You recall how after Trump's election, some of our leading newspapers we won't name had what we think of as the guy in the diner crusade of saying, Oh, how did we miss people who voted for Trump by this hair's breadth margin? And we could maybe have not the guy in the diner, but the woman in an office narrative of what it was that shifted the vote as fundamentally that made things not turn out the way all the reporters thought, over the last couple of months. And I'd like to hear from more of the people about the complexities of people's motives in voting, how they did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Talk to me a little bit about the business of prediction. You wrote the book, Breaking the News 26 years ago about how strong this impulse is.
JAMES FALLOWS I understand why people in our business, the politically-minded media, like predicting things. It's always interesting to think who has the combination of intangibles and luck that might end up with that person being president. That is the fun part of our game. The challenge is that it's both cheating and it's not useful. It's cheating because it reduces everything to an area where people in our business are the supposed experts rather than what are the economic fundamentals, how does this person work with colleagues? What has this person done? What kind of personal characteristics does he or she have? Etc., etc.. So it moves the playing field away from all the vast 3D reality of life to a flattened 1D reality of politics. It's also just not useful, and it's not even as accountable as being a Las Vegas sportsbookie. The sports bookies or the crypto investors, they finally have to cover their losses. You don't have to cover a loss if you are saying Person X is going to be president and that person is not. You just say, Well, any surprising result? Blah, blah, blah. And it's just a surprise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And it's contrary to expectations because it's these political pundits that establish what those expectations are.
JAMES FALLOWS It was like an Olympic ice skating move of landing, a quadruple axel or whatever. The same exact people who, a day before the election were writing about the red wave were the day after the election, saying which many people had expected to turn into a red wave instead. But that's not saying many people, including me, I think in many other fields there would be at least a pause to say, let's recalibrate here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, we once reported on a study that found that the number of appearances that a particular pundit had on television was inversely proportional to how accurate their predictions were. The more wrong they were, the more likely they were to be invited back. No one wants to hear on the one hand. On the other hand, someone saying with great passion, something extreme is just better TV. So when it comes to print, have you seen any publications who have self corrected post midterms?
JAMES FALLOWS Let's take an example of Andrew Sullivan, once my colleague at The Atlantic for a while, and he did very forthrightly do a 'I was wrong' piece after the midterm election saying that all of his woke narrative was excessive and rising crime narrative was excessive, and he hadn't taken either abortion or democracy seriously enough. I've seen a couple of other people do limited versions of that, but institutionally it would be worth it for our colleagues, again speaking you and me and the press to say the kind of after action report you get in medical operations or whatever when there's a problem to say what went wrong here and how can we account to our public for things where we didn't do what we thought we were doing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you're recommending that the press just take a timeout from predicting?
JAMES FALLOWS Yes, I'm saying that I had actually a little little formula, which was for an assignment editor or a writer for every 3 times the impulse comes up to say, let's follow Ron DeSantis. Let's follow the next six people who might be contender in 2024. For every 3 of those impulses, shunt off two of them to a story about the actual world of the now. Of its culture. Of its economics. Of its technology. Of something else. Of its sustainability. Don't predict the future, which you don't know. That is my timeout suggestion. It might be nine out of ten, but I was gently suggesting two out of three.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And the chances of that. Any predictions?
JAMES FALLOWS [LAUGHS] Well done, Brooke. Talk about landing the quadruple axel. I would predict zero out of zero. I hope that in surprising results in results then that many observers did not expect, we'll see a diminution in predictions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much, Jim.
JAMES FALLOWS Brooke, it's a pleasure to talk with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, Twitter in disarray. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Elon Musk acquired Twitter less than a month ago, but according to what I'm reading on Twitter, his debut weeks have been somewhat [CLEARS THROAT] disorganized.
NEWS REPORT The social media giant appearing to be in disarray after as many as half of its employees were laid off.
NEWS REPORT How's this for a first message from your new boss? Elon Musk suggested the company could go into bankruptcy as executives are resigning, advertisers are fleeing and trolls are running rampant.
NEWS REPORT The latest turmoil at Twitter this morning. More than 4000 contract workers were terminated over the weekend. [END CLIP]
ZOË SCHIFFER There's a money story and then a people story and both of those seem to be in crisis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Zoë Schiffer is the managing editor of Platformer, an investigative newsletter on the tech industry in Silicon Valley.
ZOË SCHIFFER One of the first things that happened was he decided to change how verification worked on Twitter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, you no longer had to prove you were the big shot you claimed to be. Just pay eight bucks monthly.
ZOË SCHIFFER We instantly saw brands being impersonated by spoof accounts. We had Eli Lilly, a big pharmaceutical company, with a spoof account saying 'insulin is free.'
BROOKE GLADSTONE Musk dropped the eight buck gambit. He said he's just trying to find ways to pay the bills, but his actions have scared off advertisers who supply 90% of the company's revenue. They like to float their ads in calm waters, and the big ad agencies have put up red flags. So companies like Volkswagen, Pfizer, General Mills and no surprise, Eli Lilly –
ZOË SCHIFFER Are fleeing a platform right now. On the people side of things, we've seen, if anything, even more of a crisis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In addition to laying off half the company and an estimated 80% of the contract workforce.
ZOË SCHIFFER They're increasingly worried that Twitter employees are going to actually sabotage the service. So on the engineering side, they've implemented a complete code freeze. So that's fairly normal, not allowing people to ship code, but right now they're not even allowing people to write code. And they're going through Slack and making lists of people who've been critical of Elon Musk, who've emoji reacted to people who've been critical, and then they're terminating them overnight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Then on Wednesday, Elon Musk sent out the hardcore email.
NEWS REPORT Employees have until 5 p.m. today to commit to extremely hard core work. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE According to Musk, building Twitter 2.0 will mean working long hours at high intensity.
NEWS REPORT The email directs employees to click 'Yes' if they want to continue working there. Anyone who does not respond will be let go and given three months of severance pay. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The ultimatum led to a wave of resignations. And then on Thursday night.
NEWS REPORT San Francisco based Twitter has closed all offices and suspended badge access until Monday. So the question tonight, will he have enough workers left to keep the place running?
NEWS REPORT A fair amount of pessimism. The top trending hashtag on the site right now is R.I.P. Twitter. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Users tweeted their goodbyes, reminisced about good times, gone by and prepared for the burial. And some wondered yet again what the hell Musk thought he was doing and why.
ZOË SCHIFFER Elon Musk said that he bought Twitter because he is a free speech absolutist. And he thinks that there needs to be a place where everyone on the Internet can speak as freely as possible. So there is deep irony in the fact that we are seeing him crack down so harshly on his own employees who are critiquing him. And I think, you know, for listeners, it's easy to say, well, you know, you can't just criticize your boss online. Like, of course there are consequences. But you have to understand that under Jack Dorsey, Twitter had a culture where it really encouraged people to do exactly that. It wanted employees at every level of company to push back at company executives. And company policies haven't changed. So suddenly people are being fired for policies that they didn't know existed in the first place by a boss who has ostensibly said that the reason he is their boss is because he believes in free speech.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So that was the national Twitter news from Zoë Schiffer, managing editor of Platformer.
Overseas, the situation is rather more dire. Of the staff Musk has already fired. A large number were engineers, human rights specialists and content moderators from Twitter's international desks. Over 90% of the staff in India. Nearly the entire Africa hub. And most of its staff in Mexico. So what does that mean for the more than 260 million Twitter users outside the U.S.? In the Global South, Twitter has often provided a crucial free speech zone. In Egypt during the Arab Spring.
ACTIVIST I will limit a Twitter revolution. And I'm betting on this new trend of revolutions. Hashtag revolutions that are sweeping across the region. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE During the 2017 end SARS movement in Nigeria. Activists protested police brutality.
ACTIVIST Twitter kind of helped Nigerians amplify their voices, something that Nigerian government was not happy about. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Just a couple of satisfied users among very many human rights activists. All these movements, of course, were powered by people putting their lives on the line. But there's no denying that Twitter amplified their efforts then and now. What happens if they lose a tool to be heard? Reporter Avi Asher-Schapiro started reporting his article called How Musk's Twitter Takeover Could Endanger Vulnerable Users. Long before Musk's purchase of Twitter had gone through. Why so early?
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO In countries like India and Turkey, pakistan. Twitter is often in a really tough spot, wedged in between its users and the government and has to make very tough calls. And I knew that if there was a change of the guard at Twitter, if there was a change of priorities, the ground would start shifting in these places.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What was the role that it played in countries like Nigeria and Egypt and India and other parts of the global south? Prior to Musk's acquisition.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO In parts of the world where, you know, let's say the media is owned by all friends of the government, or it's very difficult to organize a protest on the streets without getting arrested. Things like Twitter are really key. I mean, places where you can post anonymously and be critical of the government, places where you can start trends and hashtags around matters of public concern that you might not be able to get the newspapers to pick up on. And the flipside of that is authoritarian governments get this. Right, I mean, there was a crazy story the last couple of years. The Saudi government tried to infiltrate Twitter, recruiting spies within the company to get them to unmask the identities of people who were using Twitter in Saudi Arabia to be critical of the royal family. And that just gives you a sense of the threat here. You know, like you're not going to be able to transform society just from tweets, but it forms part of key infrastructure in places where things, you know, that we might have in the United States, like a relatively free press and the ability to write an op ed or go organize a street protest if if that space is heavily constricted. Twitter becomes much more important. And that's why Twitter is constantly locked in these really high stakes battles in these places.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've noted that Musk hasn't been shy about tweeting everything that's happened since he entered the building, and yet he's yet to weigh in on major free speech and human rights issues.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Every day, Twitter gets hit with dozens, if not hundreds of requests from governments all around the world asking him to do stuff. We want the IP address of a user. We want you to block this tweet. We want you to do this. We want you to do that. That's what it's like running a global social media platform, and they are in the position of having to make a lot of tough calls. That's why at Twitter, they had a human rights team until, you know, Musk took over and fired them, who were tasked with thinking through strategies along these lines and figuring out how the company positioned itself in this very tough situations. To the extent Musk has spoken about this at all, he's said that he wants to hew closely to local laws. But, you know, that doesn't tell you a lot. It just raises a lot of questions. If you know a little bit about how companies deal with local authorities, you know that historically their compliance rate for requests under local law can be quite low. You know, Turkey, for example, you know, they might comply with like 50 to 60% of the requests they get from the Turkish courts, the Turkish government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When you referring to compliance requests, what are you talking about?
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO I can give you a very specific example. I spoke to a Turkish academic and dissident thinker named Yaman Akdeniz for my story. He often tweet stuff that's critical of the ruling party in Turkey or making connections between businesspeople in the Turkish regime. And people will go to court in Turkey and they will get an order saying that this tweet is defamatory or it breaks some sort of law against public order. And the court will send a note to Twitter saying, hey, we have a ruling here that says that you have to take this down based on our local law. And often in the Turkish case, they would just ignore that order.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that's a good thing.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Well, from Yaman's perspective, it was a great thing. It was, you know, a place where he was able to share important information about matters of public concern in Turkey. He was thankful to Twitter that they had been resistant to this. And he has no idea what it's going to be like in the future. And he's worried these are the kinds of users that it doesn't seem like Musk is considering when he says he's going to hew close to local law. What does that mean for Yaman?
BROOKE GLADSTONE You talked about high stakes battles. I know Twitter's in the middle of a court battle right now to resist censorship orders from the Indian government. And you've said that case is seen as a key global precedent. How come?
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO It's been reported elsewhere that Indian police have been dispatched outside of the homes of Twitter workers in India. In moments when Twitter had been resistant to comply with takedown requests from the Indian government. They were locked into a pretty intense battle where you had Indian authorities saying, hey, these tweets are violating Indian law. And Twitter was thinking, well, these tweets are important matters of public concern or free expression or these are journalists. And they were sort of playing a game of chicken with the Indian authorities to a certain extent. And a couple of months ago, Twitter made the decision to actually take the Indian government to court and say that these blocking orders are violating your own law. So trying to find ways within Indian law to sort of narrow and push back the scope of these requests. And India is one of the largest markets for Twitter. I think there's at least 25 million or more users there. And so for them to go head to head with the government over these blocking orders, it's a risky game. And you could imagine a version of the company without its human rights team or with a different orientation, saying, let's just not fight this out. Let's just take these things down and keep operating in India. Why are we going to all this trouble to defend these users who are tweeting things that are pissing off the Indian government? That's not our battle to fight. People are looking at this case and is Twitter going to continue to push this in the courts? And we couldn't get them to confirm it. You know, we tried to call everyone we knew who is associated with this case, at Twitter in India, and no one would tell us anything. You would think that Elon Musk, who seems so concerned about freedom of speech and likes to talk about freedom of speech a lot in public would take an opportunity here to say where he stands.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about concern over online misinformation and hate speech in upcoming elections? I'm not talking about here. I'm talking about Tunisia in December, Nigeria in February, Turkey in July. These are dangerous times in those countries.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Right. And we've seen that as part of his rush to get costs down, Musk has fired half of the company. Those cuts seem to be taking a disproportionate effect in places outside the United States. So we've seen reports that 90% of the staff in India were fired. The entire Africa hub in Ghana was fired overnight. Twitter doesn't need someone there to run its servers and allow people to use the platform. But if they don't have local staff, if they don't have local content moderators who speak the language, if they don't have people who specialize in managing these relationships with tough governments, if they don't have people whose job it is to be in touch with civil society groups who have their ear to the ground, you know, they're going to be operating blind in a lot of these places, and that can be a big problem. There are coordinated harassment campaigns, disinformation campaigns. If you fire the entire staff in Mexico, which is a place where there's massive trolling problems in Spanish, on Twitter, and they're everyone's gone, who knows how to deal with those and has studied them and looked at them. What do you do? I mean, you're just starting from zero.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's face it. Social media in general has had a long standing problem in the area of human rights. So is it realistic to put that on Musk and his team to solve.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO This is not a problem that starts or ends with Elon Musk. But I think that these companies have been forced to some extent to integrate some human rights thinking into their decision making over time. They have brought on pretty serious people to think about these trade offs. And there are huge trade offs here, right. I mean, do you operate in a country where, you know, you'll be asked to turn over sensitive information about your users? Do you open an office there and open up your staff to being held hostage by a government that is trying to pressure you into doing something? I mean, these are the kinds of decisions you have to make. Obviously, there are other equities in the room when they think about these things. These are publicly traded companies need to make money, but they were making these considerations. And I think that by just eliminating the team and never talking about the human rights issues, you know, that's definitely a pretty problematic starting point. Is Musk going to be able to solve the free expression issues in the semi authoritarian places where Twitter operates by sheer force of will or even by hiring 10 million human rights lawyers? Like, no, there is, you know, tremendous opportunities to do good and do harm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We've seen a lot of people worrying whether Twitter will even continue to exist. What happens if it doesn't? What happens to the activists and activism that relies on it?
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Look, it's really hard to know the implications of what's going on right now, but the ability for the world's richest man to buy the rails and wires of such a massive communications apparatus that is used by millions of people around the world and then unilaterally make changes to it, I think is an important reminder of what it means for our communications infrastructure to be, you know, up for sale to the highest bidder, which it is. One of the things, as I was reporting this piece actually and I was talking to especially like civil society groups that deal with Twitter a lot. What a lot of these people were telling me. It was like we sometimes forget that Twitter or Facebook aren't the government. Like when we're dealing with them, we're lobbying them, we're like trying to get a meeting or can you change this policy like, oh, please, can you invest more in this? It felt almost like the advocacy they were doing on tech platforms resembled advocacy they would do for a state. And but the fact of the matter is, like, you know, these are private institutions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But they function often like public utilities.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Yeah. And that's what I think the Musk thing is a great inflection point for people to think about that. I mean, Elon Musk can shut it down tomorrow. He can take everyone's direct messages. He could publish them on the Internet. You know, he could give a list of all the users in Saudi Arabia. He could give them directly to the state. You know, he can do whatever he wants. Right. And hopefully he begins to consider some of these questions more carefully. Doing this job well requires a tremendous amount of empathy because it requires you to put yourself in positions you would never be in. Right. Elon Musk will never be in the position where he is facing a harassment campaign that puts his life in danger and he needs someone to help it like he's got bodyguards. Right. Some sort of intense sense of self arrogance. Brashness. Yeah. It might lend itself to being an industrialist and pushing aside contrarians to get your rocket in the air. But the priority of building a social space requires engineering for the most vulnerable among us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Avi, thank you very much.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Thank you, Brooke. It was fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Avi Asher-Schapiro covers tech for the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Coming up, a search for a Twitter alternative. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. At the base of the Statue of Liberty, there's a poem that bears some famous lines. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless tempest tossed to me. Today, they could easily address a distinctly different huddled mass in search of a more specialized refuge. That refuge could be Mastodon. Originally created by a German programmer named Eugen Rockko in 2016. While the two platforms share a general resemblance, the similarity is merely skin deep. For example, what we think of as a tweet button on Mastodon is called a toot. Although, as of this week, Toot has been retired, being too easily employed in double entendres. So the button now just says publish. And also what you post can be a lot longer. And to join Mastodon means joining a group that acts as your home base. That group is called a server or an instance. There's no universal group with all users. Plus, Mastodon's original source code is publicly available and changeable. All this because Mastodon just doesn't want to be like Twitter. But why? I hear you cry. Does any of this matter to those of us who really couldn't care less about Twitter, much less Mastodon? Well, Clive Thompson, tech journalist and author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, Offered in Medium a kind of explainer.
CLIVE THOMPSON We're accustomed to a social network being just one site that you go to. And this is not like that. These are all thousands of sites that are, quote unquote, federated. They can kind of talk to each other. You know, anyone on any server can generally more or less talk to people on other servers. The other piece of lingo is they call this the Feder-verse the Federated Universe, right. There's actually a bunch of things out there in this federated universe, Mastodons, only one piece of software. But because it's so much like Twitter, it's kind of the one that's taken off recently.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The federation aspect of this is one of the big differences. Each server or instance makes its own rules.
CLIVE THOMPSON You're exactly right. They'll each set up rules saying, Hey, guys, here is what we consider to be good behavior. You can't be a racist idiot. You can't say stuff that we consider to be misogynist by the people on this community. If you do that, we have the right to kick you off the server and there are other servers are like, yeah, we don't have any rules, you can kind of say whatever you want. So it's almost like belonging to a neighborhood where there's neighborhood rules, right? But the really interesting thing is that if someone comes to me and starts harassing me in DMS or in replies to me, I can mute or block just that one person. And I can also decide, Hey, you know, the server that person is on is filled with dirtbags. So I'm going to block that whole server. I don't want to see anything they do. I don't want them saying what I said. And that's great. But there's this extra layer where an entire server could decide there's a bunch of other servers over there that are just filled with terrible people. Let's put a block from our entire neighborhood to there. So nothing that anyone does on our server can be seen by them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote an article explaining that Mastodon is compared to not just Twitter, but almost all other social media sites. It's explicitly anti-viral. It prioritizes friction. Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. Tik Tok. They want big viral surges to push things to get more popular. How does Mastodon push against virality and why.
CLIVE THOMPSON If you think about Twitter, a lot of the way it's architected is designed to sort of encourage massive joint attention of millions of people on some hot meme or joke or person that has just blowing up right now. Millions of people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE –trending, trending
CLIVE THOMPSON It's trending –exactly. It's like we're all looking at it. We're all talking about it the way that Twitter does that is it has a couple of tools. It has an algorithm that says if a tweet is starting to take off, let's push it to the top of other people's feeds. It's a rich get richer phenomenon. And there's other things like the, quote, tweet button, you know, allows me to go. Someone just said this saying, here's what I think about it. Now, neither of those things exist in the traditional Mastodon software. For example, the feed, it's just ranked in reverse chronology. So whatever you're looking at is just what happened at this moment. And it goes backwards in time, downwards.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But not allowing, quote, tweets, that's pretty controversial. I still don't understand why.
CLIVE THOMPSON Well, the creator of Mastodon and the early community of users thought that, quote, tweeting on Twitter had led to too much negative, quote, tweeting of the form of like, wow, would you look at this stupid crap? This person just said.
BROOKE GLADSTONE By sardonically pointing to it, you're actually promoting stupid crap.
CLIVE THOMPSON Adding to the like nasty, corrosive quality of a lot of Twitter discourse. That's how they saw it, right? And so they were like, let's just not do that. Early users of Mastodon were often people that sort of fled Twitter because they were being harassed there. And they regarded a lot of these viral surges as being related to the harassment that they'd seen. So where Twitter tries to make things go fast, the design of Mastodon and kind of the norms of the community were to make things go more slowly. But it can be quite weird for someone to come from Twitter and look at what's happening. I've literally had journalists show up on Mastodon and ask me, who are the Musk followers? You know, where's the hot conversations? I'm like, guys, you know, there really aren't any. There are definitely are people that have more followers and others, but they don't loom large in people's feeds the way they do in Twitter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But are there conversations? Can you learn lots of stuff.
CLIVE THOMPSON Oh, my goodness. Yes. In fact, in the last kind of week that a lot of people have flooded on to Mastodon, it has really transformed. I'm getting much better quality conversations on Mastodon than I am on Twitter and that maybe I've had on Twitter in years, frankly. And I think it's do a little bit to some of these differences in the way things work. People are more encouraged just to sort of talk about ideas and not as incentivized to say something that is, you know, going to go viral. One of the things about antiviral design, once people sort of orient themselves and go, well, this space is not exclusively for sort of self-promotion and trying to make things take off. It kind of changes what you want to say in the first place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So even with all these features designed to prevent Mastodon from becoming what Twitter is and has been at its worst, can Mastodon really immunize itself against the plagues of traditional social media, like harassment and hate speech and trolls?
CLIVE THOMPSON Yeah, it's a really good question. There was this famous moment when a bunch of common Nazis decided that all these early adopters of Mastodon came from Twitter because they wanted to get away from racial harassment. There was a lot of queer and trans communities that were trying to get away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the trolls said, 'Let's just follow them over there.'
CLIVE THOMPSON Exactly. Exactly. And what the trolls discovered was that once they got up in people's grills, a couple of servers said, all right, we're blocking you and the people running those servers. They talk to each other, right? I'm a participant in helping run my server. And we will talk to people that run other servers to find out how are things going, what problems you're running into. We'll sort of trade stories of terribly behaved other servers, and we will jointly block them all. And this is exactly what happened to the influx of Nazis was that very rapidly they discovered that every other server had just unilaterally blocked them and they were sort of in the corner of the Feder-verse just talking to themselves. But, you know, there's a lot of vulnerabilities, too. Twitter had some of the world's top engineers working hard on security. If you have thousands of people who are kind of like me or only slightly more technically sophisticated than me running their servers, the security isn't going to be nowhere near as good. And so there is probably going to be, I would imagine, a lot of trolls and even nation states hacking into Mastodon instances if they think there are people on those servers whose information they want to steal or they want to screw with. When I saw that there's a journalist instance, I thought, Well, that's great, but it's also kind of a honeypot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wait a second. Is Mastodon collecting data that can be hacked into? Or are we just talking about the substance of people's posts?
CLIVE THOMPSON Well, direct messages, one person to another on Mastodon, which are putatively private but could easily be stolen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Most people wouldn't say who their anonymous sources are in those contexts.
CLIVE THOMPSON You would hope so. But people say a lot of stuff in DMS and then there's just, you know, login information, passwords, stuff like that could be reused in other places.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So tell me more about the downsides then.
CLIVE THOMPSON There are some big downsides to this kind of anti-viral culture. One of them is that, you know, for all of the sort of bad stuff that we've seen from big viral surges on Twitter, there's also really good stuff, right? Like some of the biggest issues of our day, like Black Lives Matter or MeToo. These are issues that have been ignored by the mainstream media for a really, really long time. And it was these mechanisms of virality that a lot of these issues came to the fore, to the mainstream. Right. I don't think there would have been as robust a conversation about misogyny in the workplace, about the treatment of black Americans by police if it weren't for these viral searches. There's also some fantastic black academics who have been thinking about the problems that are caused by not having something like, quote, tweets, for example. Jonathan Flowers just wrote this fantastic series of tweets and series of posts on Mastodon saying, look, black Twitter was incredibly important for black communities all across the world. And in America. It relied heavily on, quote, tweeting, because that tapped into this sort of call and response culture that was generations old.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I know that there's a real push to get Mastodon to do, quote, tweets or quote toots
CLIVE THOMPSON Quote, boosts. And one of the problems is, of course, because it is federated, because I'm running a copy of Mastodon on my server and there's thousands of other people running them. The only way to get everyone to have quote boosts would be for everyone to update their software in exactly the same way. It's not clear that everyone would want to do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE However, Twitter, though a dumpster fire is not dead, nor are all the other virally driven social media platforms. I mean, they're still there. Does Mastodon have to be one?
CLIVE THOMPSON This is really on point. A lot of people have been arguing long before me that Mastodon and the other services on the Federverse are not even supposed to be replicas or substitutes for Twitter. They have an intentionally different way of encouraging conversation. Personally, I hope that Twitter doesn't go anywhere. Sure, it's a dumpster fire, but it has some amazing, amazing things that come from shoving everyone into this one room and having these weird range of conversations. I think that's powerful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, part of the reason traditional social media promote engagement, which is often expressed in ugly interactions, is that those interactions prompt clicks and views that drive up ad revenue. How does Mastodon make money?
CLIVE THOMPSON It doesn't make money at all. It is software that individuals run to provide a service for themselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is it like Wikipedia? Can you contribute to Mastodon?
CLIVE THOMPSON Mastodon again, is just software that I and a bunch of friends run. We have a bill for a server every month and we have to cover that bill. And so we just sort of pass the hat and we have a Patreon. There's much larger servers that have it more formalized. They're like, Okay, if you want to be part of the server, you kind of have to kid in this amount, you know, a month so we can pay not just for the server cost, but for someone to run it and make sure it works very, very different from a regular social network like Twitter where there's a central place that has to pay for employees. This is like the little, you know, anarchist gatherings. And I say anarchist in the positive sense, like not lack of rulw, but self-rule.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm curious why you got on Mastodon. You said it prioritizes friction. The producer of this segment, Becca, had a great phrase. She said it's like old school communication using just a quarter cup of Silicon Valley to make it palatable. Do you think people will enjoy it?
CLIVE THOMPSON I originally got a mastodon because, you know, I was interested to see what this new Federverse was like. And I joined, like, a server filled with open source software nerds. Okay, this is cool. Like, we can go really deep in nerdy without me bothering my Twitter followers who have no interest in hearing me talk about Linux drivers for antique webcams. I was attracted to the idea of this sort of self run non-corporate world, and I could see that people were behaving differently and I wanted to understand why. Now the question is, is this attractive to enough people that a lot would want to do it? If you'd asked me three weeks ago before Elon Musk started driving people in a panic away from Twitter, I would have said, I don't think a lot of people are going to want to interact in the way that, you know, Mastodon's, community and technological affordances allow you to do. But lo and behold, there are just tons of folks now who've joined Mastodon that I'm following, and they're from every walk of life. Someone posted something on Mastodon saying, I don't know, man. People keep on saying Mastodon is hard to join. But I just got a note from my retired mother saying, Oh, yeah, I just followed you on the elephant site, you know?
BROOKE GLADSTONE But let's acknowledge that Twitter isn't even close to the most popular social media site. It's now Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat. That said, why do you think a migration from Twitter is worth paying attention to, even if you've never used Twitter and will never use Mastodon?
CLIVE THOMPSON It does matter for the following reason. Twitter has, for better and for worse, become kind of a fulcrum for various aspects of civic discussion and civic debate. It's designed to be really fast. It's designed to be really easy. It's text heavy. There's definitely pictures and videos, but Twitter is fundamentally one of the last big social media that heavily prioritizes text and writing. That gives it scalability and speed. That's why Twitter has had this outsized force in public debate. Partly also, you know, there's a lot of journalists, there's a lot of celebrities there. But I honestly think it's because of this text based discursive format. And I'm not the first person to point this out. In fact, there was a great tweetstorm by Taylor Lorenz of The Washington Post a while ago saying exactly this.
So even if you don't use Twitter, that's why it matters, because it has that outsized influence. The really interesting thing is that the long term users of Mastodon on the Federverse are not entirely thrilled with this new migration because they're kind of like, Look, guys, we had this kind of quiet space that was working really well for us. And now there's a ton of new people running around with very different cultural assumptions vary from behaviors. They're a little worried that the conventions and the culture of Twitter, including some of that thirst for morality, will be injected into the DNA of the culture of people using Mastodon. Because, of course, it isn't just technology. It's culture how people want to behave and spaces change when people's cultural expectations change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Clive, thank you very much.
CLIVE THOMPSON I'm glad to be here. That was a lot of fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Clive Thompson is a tech journalist whose work appears in the New York Times magazine, Wired and Smithsonian. His most recent book is Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World.
You can find On the Media on Mastodon by searching @email@example.com.
And that's the show! On the Media is produced by Michael Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clarke-Callender, Candice Wang and Suzanne Gaber with help from Temi George. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano, Mike Kuchman and Sam Beir. Katya Rogers is our executive producer.
On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone. And please check out our new series, The Divided Dial on the OTM podcast. I'm pretty sure you won't be sorry.