Courtesy of Greg Olear at Prevail
Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter is a grave threat to national security. President Biden must treat it as such, before unrestrained hate speech leads to violence.
In the summer of 1939, as Nazi Germany prepared to invade Poland, a different kind of war was brewing in New York City. Robert Moses, the mighty Parks Commissioner, wanted to build a bridge at the Battery. The project would be a hideous blight on the scenic southern tip of Manhattan, and was thus met with great resistance by both regular New Yorkers and influential Gotham power brokers. As an eminent attorney put it, in a letter he fired off to his friend the president: “Nobody fit to have an opinion wants the Battery Bridge except Bob Moses.”
But what Moses wanted Moses usually got. The guy was basically a dictator. The only obstacle to him having his way with the Battery Bridge was approval by the U.S. military—a rubber stamp, in most cases. But this wasn’t most cases. The president in 1939 was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And Roosevelt positively loathed Robert Moses. As Commander-in-Chief, FDR had the right to personally ix-nay the Battery Bridge proposal. Which he did, covertly via his Secretary of War, who shot down the plan because “the proposed bridge is seaward of a vital Navy establishment…the U.S. Navy Yard at Brooklyn.” If enemy forces blew up the not-yet-constructed bridge, the argument went, how would the warships in the Navy Yard get to the open sea?
This was bullshit, and Moses knew it. The chances of that scenario ever taking place were vanishingly small. But FDR, pulling rank, had laid down his trump card: national security. There was nothing for Robert Moses to do but seethe.
As Robert A. Caro writes in his landmark Moses biography, The Power Broker—from which tome I learned of this story—“the key point about the fight and its significance for the city’s future was not that the President had stepped in and stopped Robert Moses from building a project that might have irreparably damaged the city. The key point was that it had taken the President to stop him.”
There is a lesson here: When it comes to matters of national security, presidents have enormous power. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and threw journalists with Confederate sympathies in prison. During the Second World War, FDR rounded up Americans of Japanese descent in internment camps. In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush routed alleged Al Qaeda terrorists to Guantanamo Bay, to circumvent U.S. law. Those were ghastly errors of judgment, human rights abuses made by two of our three greatest presidents and one of our three worst. But they underscore what presidents can do, when the situation calls for it.
Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter is a dire threat to national security, full stop. This was clear back in April, when he first floated the idea of buying the social media company (and when I began selling off my meager allotment of Tesla shares). And it was clear on October 27, when he formally took the reins. Here’s what I wrote the morning after the cringe-worthy “let that sink in” takeover:
It seems insane that Musk would blow $44 billion just to burn something down. On the other hand, we just watched him tank Tesla, mostly by raving like a nerd fratboy on ketamine. Plus, it ain’t his money. His is just the pasty, punchable face of the fascist insurgency. As the closing date approached, remember, he was fluffing both Putin and Xi, to the degree that serious people have wondered whether he needed to register as a foreign agent under FARA—just as he cozied up to hateful dipshits Donald Trump and Kanye West. He may as well have USEFUL IDIOT branded on his forehead in Afrikaans.
The question isn’t will he sabotage Twitter, but how? Laying off three-quarters of the workforce, as he’s said he’d do, would be a fine way to start the destruction (he began last night by pink-slipping the legal staff, including the executive primarily responsible for eighty-sixing Trump). Charging for the service would drive away many users and blow up engagement like an exploding Tesla. Re-platforming the likes of Trump, Mike Flynn, and other noxious disinformation peddlers, trolls, and chaos agents would gin up the rage—and scare off more normies. So would amplifying fascist accounts (or, to be more accurate, amplifying them more). He could verify bad actors—as the old administration used to do—and take away blue checks from those who don’t toe the Muskovite party line. He could tweak the algorithm so that we don’t see the accounts we want to, and are force-fed others. He could sell our data and our DMs on the dark web. Or he could simply sack the entire support staff and play his virtual-reality fiddle while Twitter burns.
In the last six weeks, Trump has broken bread with grotesque anti-Semites, Kanye West has come out as a full-on Hitler apologist, and Musk has done almost every single terrible thing I said he’d do. It’s inescapably, incontrovertibly clear now that Elon Musk is a bad actor, an agent of chaos. If he’s not working on behalf of hostile foreign powers—either knowingly or as a useful idiot—he is one of the world’s biggest assholes.
I know people are sick of Elon Musk. I’m sick of him, too. But the fact is that Twitter, for all its myriad flaws, is the most influential social media platform we have. It’s not just pop culture and sports and cat pictures. It’s used by journalists, activists, researchers, doctors, diplomats, and heads of state. It’s a critical source of both news and learned opinion. To dismantle Twitter is bad enough. To turn it into a font of fake news, of disinformation, of hate speech, makes us all less safe.
Musk has “gone to a different level now,” explains researcher Jim Stewartson. The model for Twitter 2.0 is 8chan—a repository for the worst filth the internet has to offer, including “CSAM, neo-Nazi indoctrination, misogynistic trolling, and every form of bigotry and hate imaginable.” Over the last few weeks, Musk has restored the accounts of a number of horrible people that had been banned under the previous regime for gross terms-of-service violations, including: insurrection enthusiasts Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene; Libs of TikTok and Jordan Peterson, sowers of anti-trans hate; misogynist Andrew Tate; Project Veritas; and actual neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin.
Musk does all this, disingenuously, in the name of “free speech.” But allowing that kind of ugly material on the world’s most vital social media platform is a recipe for disaster—which, one imagines, is the point. If I’m one of the key insiders in a brutal dictatorship—like, say, Saudi Arabia, where some of Musk’s investment capital came from—I don’t want Twitter to exist in its pre-Elon form. I either want to take it over and weaponize it for my fascistic purposes, or else blow it up completely. In six weeks, Musk has accomplished the former, and is well on his way to realizing the latter. Opening the floodgates to let in Nazis, sowers of hate speech, and disseminators of ugly disinformation will eventually chase all the decent people away. The exodus has already begun:
All my life I’ve tried to use music to bring people together. Yet it saddens me to see how misinformation is now being used to divide our world.
I’ve decided to no longer use Twitter, given their recent change in policy which will allow misinformation to flourish unchecked.
— Elton John (@eltonofficial) December 9, 2022
Musk “is openly recreating 8chan, with a number of ‘improvements.’ And he’s doing [it] with 1000x more people. Instead of hundreds of thousands of people on 8chan, he has a captive audience of hundreds of millions,” Stewartson writes. “We know where this goes. This will cause mass violence unless it’s shut down.”
I explained how this works on these pages two weeks ago, in “Death Groomers:”
This is how stochastic terrorism works: Violent rhetoric is pumped into the discourse by cynical politicians, conservative influencers, retrograde church leaders, and far-right provocateurs. The ugly, mendacious narratives saturate the airwaves, the social networks, the fringe channels. Over and over and over, the hate speech is repeated. And someone, somewhere, snaps. Enough is enough, he decides. (It’s almost always a “he.”) He picks up his gun—there are always plenty of guns lying around—and takes action.
The online vitriol directed at so-called “groomers,” at the trans community, at Dr. Fauci, at the members of Twitter’s advisory board who resigned in protest at Musk’s stewardship, at the company’s former head of trust and safety Yoel Roth, will eventually lead to violence. Violence is the purpose of hate speech. Roth has already fled his Bay Area home because of death threats that were a result of Musk implying, ridiculously, that he condones pedophilia. Meanwhile, the hapless New York Times, our supposed paper of record, can’t figure out what Musk’s game is.
The far-right mantle of grievance-fueled white supremacy that fell from the grasp of Trump’s short fingers has been taken up by one of the world’s richest men. Unlike FPOTUS, Elon Musk is an actual billionaire, the scion of a South African emerald mine baron, a far-right hate monger known on Black Twitter as “Apartheid Clyde.” But he has been trust-washed by Saturday Night Live, by Dave Chappelle, by Grimes, by Hollywood mogul Ari Emanuel, by everyone who drives a Tesla (and who, like me, bought stock in the company). Most Americans don’t see Elon Musk as a dangerous fascist, but as the smirking genius who made electric automobiles and dreams of going to Mars.
This situation is a blinking-red threat to national security, and must be treated as such by the White House. That the Twitter deal was permitted to go through at all, let alone two weeks before the midterms, was a grievous screw-up by the Biden Administration. The President must rectify this error.
And that’s where Caro’s Battery Bridge story comes in. Biden needs to take a page from FDR and get creative here. He must use every means at his disposal to fight back, before the hate speech leads to more violence. To use a metaphor the Chief Twit might appreciate: Joe must throw the kitchen sink at Elon Musk. If the FCC can’t regulate Twitter, figure out which agency can, and have at it. Cancel the government contracts with Space X and any other Musk-owned company. End the electric-car-credits three-card-monte that is the source of Tesla’s revenue. If there are legitimate questions about the validity of Musk’s immigration to the United States, as some have suggested, then revoke his citizenship and send his anti-woke-mind ass back to the Transvaal.
As for Twitter, if the federal government can legally seize private property to build an interstate highway, why can’t it do the same to a rogue social media company in league with the bad guys? Call it “eminent bro-main.” At first blush, this might seem extreme, but I don’t know that re-deplatforming Libs of TikTok is on par with interning Japanese-Americans.
And if Musk’s is just the “pasty, punchable face of the fascist insurgency,” as I postulated six weeks ago, tell us. Don’t keep quiet to run some endless, futile counterintelligence op. Don’t do the thing you did with Trump, where you refused to identify him as a mobbed-up confidential informant. Come clean about it. Disclose to the American people who this hateful sack of shit is working for. Out the bad guy.
Again: the ultimate goal of hate speech, which has been brought back to Twitter with a vengeance these last six weeks, is violence. Whether or not this is what Musk intends, bloodshed will be the result, if things keep heading this way. With that in mind, Biden needs to use every tool at his disposal to protect the American people from this clear and present threat to our national security. Nothing should be off limits.
When it comes to Elon Musk, there is no bridge too far.
Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson. Elon Musk Presenting Tesla’s Fully Autonomous Future, 2019. Image cropped by me.