The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, is set to become the new owner of Twitter after the company’s board agreed to sell the influential social media platform for $44 billion on Monday. Musk, who describes himself as a “free speech absolutist,” tweeted, “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.” We speak with tech industry watchdog Jessica González and Evan “Rabble” Henshaw-Plath, who was part of the team that launched Twitter in 2006, about what the buyout means for the future of digital media and journalism. “Musk or no Musk, Twitter has work to do to ensure that it stops amplifying bigotry, calls to violence, hate speech and conspiracy theories,” says González. Henshaw-Plath says he senses Musk has “no idea what he’s getting into,” and discusses the activist roots of Twitter.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.
AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, is set to become the new owner of Twitter, after the company’s board agreed to sell the influential social media platform for $44 billion. The deal is expected closing later this year, subject regulatory approval.
The watchdog group Media Matters criticized Musk’s takeover of Twitter, saying it will be a, quote, “victory for disinformation and the people who peddle it.” Media Matters and other groups have expressed concern that Musk will allow Donald Trump to resume using the platform. Shortly after the January 6th insurrection, Trump was permanently banned by Twitter. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich also criticized Musk’s move, saying, quote, “Unlike his ambitions to upend transportation and interstellar flight, this one is dangerous. It might well upend democracy,” Reich said.
Musk, who describes himself as a “free speech absolutist,” tweeted, “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”
We’re joined now by two guests. Jessica González is with us, co-CEOFree Press, a media advocacy group. She’s also a founder of the Change the Terms coalition. And we’re joined by Evan Henshaw-Plath, a.k.a. Rabble. Rabble was the original employee and lead engineer for the company that founded Twitter. He’s now working on Bluesky, a Twitter-backed project to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. He’s the founder of Planetary, a decentralized social media app, also helped build the global Indymedia network. He’s joining us from Wellington, New Zealand.
We are happy to welcome you both. Democracy Now! Well, Evan Henshaw-Plath, you have been described as Twitter’s first employee — well, at least the employee of the company that started Twitter. Can you answer the question of the richest man in the country taking control of one the most powerful social networking platforms in the world that you helped to start, Rabble?
EVAN HENSHAW–PLATH: I mean, it’s a bit disturbing, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know where he’s going to take it and what kind of decisions he’s going to make with it. Under the current administration of the company, we’ve had commitments to things like the moderation policies and follow the Santa Clara Principles for better behavior, and we can see where it goes. Elon Musk has advocated for both great and terrible things, but also for things that will hurt it. And we simply don’t know anymore where he’s going to take it, but we do know that he has been a bit of an abusive crypto bro on Twitter. Is this the kind of person that we want to govern our public sphere?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ:You also raised the issue of cryptocurrency. Some believe he is trying out to spread his support for cryptocurrency via an established international structure. What’s your sense of the relationship between his support of cryptocurrencies and Twitter?
EVAN HENSHAW–PLATH: We don’t know. He believes in open source. He believes in open protocols. This is what the Bluesky Project has been working on. That’s what we’ve been working on with Planetary. But he also believes in — you know, that it should all be monetized. And in some ways, that’s not a huge change from Parag and Jack, the previous two CEOs, who are also pro-crypto and advocate for cryptocurrency. So, whether or not this means that cryptocurrencies are going to be more deeply integrated into Twitter, we just don’t know. He said he wanted to do it but the current Twitter management has been looking into it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jessica González of Free Press, what are your concerns? You urged Twitter shareholders not to approve this takeover. What are your main concerns with Elon Musk?
JESSICA GONZÁLEZ:Juan, good morning. My main concern is that Musk has not shown any commitment to protecting our democracy and civil rights. Musk or not Musk, Twitter needs to be more responsible for preventing it from glorifying bigotry and hate speech. It must also do more to protect its users across borders and languages. So, while there may be a couple of things to like here around transparency, we’ve seen Musk demonstrate time and again that he doesn’t really have a commitment to protecting our democracy. Musk’s primary goal is to defend himself and advance his interests.
So, when we hear Musk saying, “I’m a free speech absolutist. Everything goes,” that means also that hate and harassment goes, the kind hate and harassment that shouts down women and people of color. That’s not actually how we achieve the balance of free speech. Musk has not lived up his self-proclaimed absolutist free speech values. He even called on China to censor anyone who was critical of Tesla. This is not the type of steady, reliable hands that we want to make decisions about our communications infrastructure.
AMY GOODMAN:Jessica, could you please explain the Fix the Feed campaign you are currently involved in? You’ve just announced this campaign.
JESSICA GONZÁLEZ: Why, yes, I’d love to. Amy, thank you. So, I am currently working with more than fifty partners in the Change the Terms coalition. This coalition was founded by and serves women and people of colour, who are more vulnerable to harassment and hate online. We are asking Twitter, TikTok and Meta to stop spreading conspiracy theories, election interference, and disinformation targeting women, people of colour, and others at the margins, ahead of the midterm elections. We’re calling on them to do that across languages. We’ve seen time and again that social media, as poorly as they’re moderating content in English, it’s even worse in Spanish and other non-English languages. And we’re calling on them to be much more transparent about their content moderation practices.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ:Evan, I wanted you to answer the following question: What do you think the Musk-led Twitter will do to resolve this issue? There are serious, major problems. There’s government attempts now to hold the platforms responsible for their content, and threats of more legislation in that vein. What’s your sense of how Musk will deal with this?
EVAN HENSHAW–PLATH: My sense is that Musk actually has no idea what he’s getting into. Musk doesn’t understand the complexity of it. And he sees just a few examples of it, and so he says, “Ban the box, and verify real names,” without understanding the harm that will do and the fact that it doesn’t improve the quality of conversation. He doesn’t know the perspective of people who are marginalized, because, you know, he’s the son of a man who owned an emerald mine in South Africa. He hasn’t experienced what people who experience systemic attacks on these platforms face.
And so, yes, he’s been — lots of critics and everything else, but what he doesn’t realize is that these moderation systems and these moderation problems, they make mistakes. It’s hard. There’s a process by which it needs to be improved. But simply removing moderation, that doesn’t help the problem. That’s actually going to make the entire space much more toxic. And we’ll see whether or not he even actually wants to do that, given the fact that when it’s criticizing him, he has no problem silencing speech.
AMY GOODMAN:Rabble, I would like to ask you about the origins of Twitter. Let’s go back to 2004, if you would say TXTMob was an early root of Twitter, helping to organize the protests against the Republican National Convention that were taking place here in New York City, also used during the Democratic convention of that year in Boston. Can you just go back and give us a timeline of where Twitter originated?
EVAN HENSHAW–PLATH: Sure. It is true. Twitter was created from an Odeo podcasting company. A few of us were also active in Indymedia and collaboration with them as media activists. Democracy Now!TXTMob is a text alert system that had been developed by TXTMob. During the protests, groups of people could send updates or news to each other by texting. This was very successful in 2004 at the protests. We used it again for May’s immigrant rights general strikes.
We were working out of the office to build it, so the Odeo team was excited and taught Jack Dorsey how SMSes work. And the entire team spent a week using TXTMob and then did an analysis of what worked and didn’t work in that system. This, along with looking at blogging and examining status update systems that people had used, were all combined to create Twitter.
So, the activist roots of Twitter were an integral part of it. The entire team who created Twitter spent a week studying the activist platforms and then devising a design analysis that would improve them. This political vision and that kind of energy is why Twitter is so effective at organizing people.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and has it disheartened you to see what has happened in the years since, the fact that now celebrities can basically buy Twitter followers or that bots can have such enormous influence on people’s thinking of what’s real and not, given the fact that the entire business model came out of a resistance and a pro-democracy movement?
EVAN HENSHAW–PLATH: You know, there are parts of it that I am incredibly proud of and stunned by — the way in which Black Lives Matter has used it for organizing, the way in which people in the Arab Spring used it to communicate their movement to the outside world — and there’s things that are completely depressing.
The Indymedia byline was, you know, that you should be the medium. That seemed radical at the time. Now that we have people being their own media, we see that there’s a whole ‘nother set of problems that we need to face. And it didn’t change who people were, although we have used it to change the world. It enabled a bunch people with views that were right-wing and authoritarian, racist and homophobic that had been suppressed by the mainstream media. There was also a whole lot of conspiracy theories. We need better tools to counter that if we give everyone a microphone.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask Jessica González about President Trump, who was famously thrown off Twitter after the January 6th insurrection. He has stated that he doesn’t plan to rejoin Twitter. What are your thoughts? And just overall, Musk saying that — he has used the platform to say that shelter-in-place orders because of COVIDThey were fascist. He once tweeted that coronavirus panic is stupid. Does this make you concerned about — there’s nothing wrong with saying those things if he has those opinions, but this whole issue that Media Matters and others are raising of going down a path of misinformation that has massive effect around the world?
JESSICA GONZÁLEZ: Yes, I’m concerned, Amy. Listen, everyone has the right to say what they want. But when you combine that with power, money, presence, that’s something we ought to be concerned about. Musk can take control of Twitter and do whatever he wants with it. He can. But he shouldn’t. It could be dangerous for democracy. He has been spreading the word regularly COVIDDisinformation is extremely alarming. Twitter has a responsibility to ensure public safety and health. I am also concerned if Twitter’s owner is a frequent source of false information.
As for Donald Trump, I don’t trust for a minute that he wouldn’t jump right back on Twitter if he could. I think Twitter was right to take him down. He was inciting violence. He was using the platform as a way to spread conspiracy theories and bigotry. This was the right move. I don’t think he should return to Twitter. After he was removed, we saw that disinformation fell markedly. I hope he will stay off Twitter. And that’s yet to be known.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you, Jessica, just quickly, if you could — Joe Biden nominated Gigi Sohn to fill the fifth and tie-breaking seat at the Federal Communications Commission in October, but she hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate. What is your sense of what’s going on there?
JESSICA GONZÁLEZ:Gigi has been the target of a right-wing smear program. They’ve been drumming up false information about Gigi, painting her in a really cruel light. Gigi is a friend of mine. She’s a good friend of mine. She’s a responsible steward of the public interest, and I hope the Senate will confirm her without further delay. This is seriously slowing down our ability pass important policies to get people on the internet, to make it affordable, and to restore net neutrality principles.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Evan, what do you make of Elon Musk’s statement that he would like to make Twitter’s algorithm open source?
EVAN HENSHAW–PLATH: I’m an advocate of open source. I believe that the algorithm should be made available to anyone who wants to understand and analyze it. The fact that it’s been a black box has been a major problem.
Whether or not that really improves things is a good question, because part of the reason companies don’t publish their algorithms for their timelines and for who they connect to is that opens up people to game the system even more effectively. And so, the minute you know exactly how it works, you’ll tweak the way in which you publish stuff to do that. And normal users, who aren’t trying to manipulate the system, won’t be able to see that and won’t be able to take advantage of the loopholes, whereas people who have intentional teams set up to figure out how to manipulate these things, either for advertising or disinformation, they’re going to be able to use that information about the algorithm to more effectively dominate the platform. And that’s a major problem and something that we need to address.
One thing is that I actually had a conversation with Jack Dorsey about deleting the account after Trump was elected. And my answer, what I said to him, was, “You should have deleted the account before he ran for president, when he was doing abusive things there.” If you did it after that, the stock market and investors were going to claim that he was not following fiduciary responsibility, and so the market was going to overwrite him if he deleted it. And that’s why I think he had to wait until it got too bad, ’til the insurrection. And that’s the problem with running public spaces on the market.
AMY GOODMAN:Evan, would it be accurate to say that you were the original employee of Twitter?
EVAN HENSHAW–PLATH:Yes, I was actually the first employee of Odeo. I was also involved in creating Twitter. Twitter, the company was actually founded about a year after Twitter was launched.
AMY GOODMAN:Evan Henshaw-Plath a.k.a. Rabble, founding member of Twitter, and Jessica González, co-CEOFree Press founder of the Change the Terms coalition.
Next, we will be talking to Steven Donziger. After nearly 1,000 days, he was released from house arrest. In 30 seconds, he will be back.