Twitter Was Toxic Long Before Musk Took Over

Plus: Hate speech is free speech, tax gap is stable, and more...


Does Elon Musk know what he's doing? Every move "chief twit" Elon Musk has made since purchasing Twitter has been closely and widely scrutinized—with a lot of folks quickly jumping to the conclusion that Twitter is now doomed.

Musk has been making a lot of eyebrow-raising moves. He dissolved Twitter's current board and became its sole director. (It's "just temporary," he tweeted.) He shared a conspiracy theory about the attack on Nancy Pelosi's husband. And The Verge reported on Sunday that Musk is planning on charging people $20 per month to keep the blue check mark that signifies verified status.

Some of these moves are defensible; others are not. But no matter what Musk does, people seem hellbent on crying catastrophe. For instance, a lot of folks are now insisting that Musk's Twitter has become a haven for racism.

Much of this stems from a report that "use of N-word on Twitter jumped by almost 500% after Elon Musk's takeover." But the jump seems to have come from a coordinated attempt by trolls to test limits, not some sort of new normal on the platform.

And other attempts to portray Twitter as newly toxic ring hollow, considering offensive language and conspiracy theories thrived on the site long before Musk took over, and that Musk insisted (at least as of late last week) that no content moderation changes had yet been made.

Overall, it smacks of people just looking for reasons to pillory Musk. He's become a larger-than-life boogeyman to many on the left, hellbent (in their minds, at least) on not just making changes to a social media platform people voluntarily use but destroying democracy:

Lest anyone questions the idea that Musk has become a Trump-like figure for the left, here's a CNN headline: "Elon Musk, with his bombastic tweets, is filling the void vacated by Trump on Twitter." And here's The Guardian: "Like Trump, Elon Musk reveals a vapid mind super-charged by wealth and ego."

But while the hysteria around Musk may be supremely eye-roll inducing, some of Musk's moves do raise questions about just what, exactly, he's doing.

Take the alleged plan to charge for Twitter verification.

Verification was originally designed to deal with the problem of people impersonating public figures like politicians and celebrities. It still serves that purpose, but it has also become much more—a status symbol in the minds of some, and a driver of online resentment. A signaling mechanism. A shorthand for a hated class ("blue check Twitter").

Big celebrities, corporations, and officials may be happy to pay, but a lot of lower-level public figures aren't. Musk's alleged plan to start charging for the privilege seems to fundamentally misunderstand why the blue check is coveted. Where it was once bestowed upon people and (somewhat nonsensically) viewed as a mark of external validation, paying for the privilege would at once take away the perceived prestige and mark folks as thirsty, clout-chasing suckers. So people on Twitter have been loudly scoffing, and Musk's responses have been…interesting.

In response to Stephen King—who tweeted "$20 a month to keep my blue check? Fuck that, they should pay me. If that gets instituted, I'm gone like Enron"—Musk replied: "We need to pay the bills somehow! Twitter cannot rely entirely on advertisers. How about $8?"

In a follow-up tweet, Musk replied "I will explain the rationale in longer form before this is implemented. It is the only way to defeat the bots & trolls."

Perhaps Musk's explanation will eventually make sense, but at present this proposal seems silly. More verified accounts means less ability for bots and trolls to impersonate people. But charging for verification is only going to lead to fewer verified accounts and more ability for bots and trolls to wreak havoc. Even if verification opens up to any real-name account and not just (very loosely defined) public figures, it seems unlikely that most people will pay—and certainly not $240 a year.

A poll from tech investor and entrepreneur Jason Calacanis found the vast majority of people said they wouldn't pay even $5 per month for verification. Musk responded publicly to the results: "Interesting."

The whole episode suggests, at worst, that Musk has no idea what he's doing—that he's rushing to make changes without research or really thinking through the implications. That he's simply throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.

But there's also a more charitable way to read this: Musk is willing to consider bold ideas and big changes, and also to adapt to public feedback. In a number of recent tweets, Musk has appeared receptive to all sorts of suggestions for making Twitter better.


Reminder: Hate speech is free speech. Late October was for playing the hits when it comes to bad First Amendment takes, apparently. First, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito—talk about people who should know better!—trotted out the "can't yell fire in a crowded theater" trope. Now, it's LeBron James and the idea that there's a "hate speech" exception to the First Amendment.

"So many damn unfit people saying hate speech is free speech," tweeted James, in response to a report that use of racial slurs on Twitter were up.

As the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) points out, there are some exceptions to First Amendment protections, including true threats and incitement to imminent lawless action. But offensive language, insulting words, and bigoted speech are not among them. And one needn't endorse this sort of speech to be opposed to criminalizing it.

Hate speech is a vague, broad term. "Hate" means a lot of different things to different people. Sometimes people use hateful terms to discuss the history and impact of those terms in a critical way. Carving out a hate speech exemption to the First Amendment "will lead to selective and politicized enforcement," notes FIRE. It also comes with all sorts of unintended consequences:


A stable tax gap. The Biden administration has partially justified its massive new funding for IRS agents by suggesting that it's needed to deal with an increasing amount of tax fraud. But a new IRS report suggests this increase does not exist. The Cato Institute has details:

The IRS has released a new estimate of the "tax gap," which is the amount of federal taxes owed but not paid. Basically, this is the amount of cheating on federal taxes. The IRS report contains good news. Tax cheating is not a growing problem relative to the size of the economy, despite all the political rhetoric to the contrary.

The IRS found that the annual gross tax gap for 2014–2016 was $496 billion. After late payments and enforcement actions, the net tax gap was $428 billion. Of the net total, $306 billion stemmed from individual income taxes, $34 billion from corporate income taxes, $87 billion from payroll taxes, and $2 billion from estate taxes.

The new report includes gross tax gap estimates for prior years, which were $345 billion in 2001, $472 billion in 2006, $394 billion in 2008–2010, and $438 billion in 2011–2013. The IRS also projected the gap for 2017–2019 to be $540 billion. The dollar value of the tax gap has increased, but the gap has not increased when compared to the nation's gross domestic product (GDP) […] The flip side of the gross tax gap is the "voluntary compliance rate," which is the tax paid on time divided by the estimated full amount owed. The IRS report shows that the voluntary compliance rate rose from 83.7 percent in 2011–2013 to 85.0 percent in 2014–2016. The IRS projects the rate to be 85.1 percent in 2017–2019.

More here.


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