Should I stay or should I go? The Clash knew the right question to ask.
The cesspool factor on Twitter has amped up exponentially in the last 72 hours, first with the “free the bird” ethos leading to a spike in racist and antisemitic tweets. That overnight shift led power showrunner Shonda Rhimes (“Bridgerton” and 1.9 million followers) to exit the platform and GM to begin “pausing” ads on the platform. And who can blame them?
Then on Sunday Twitter owner Elon Musk (112 million followers) retweeted a gutter-level conspiracy theory about Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was attacked with a hammer in his home at 2 a.m. last week by what appears to be a mentally unstable MAGA guy. I won’t repeat the calumny, you can check it out if you must.
Worse: Musk’ post was in response to Hillary Clinton’s tweet imploring our politicians to bring extreme rhetoric down, way down. Musk’s tweet was mocking and irresponsible, and very worry-inducing about where things are headed.
With that post, Twitter’s new billionaire owner showed himself not merely to be a jerk, but one who endorses and spreads poison.
And so I ask: is it time to go? Many of us in media and commentary are asking the question, weighing almost hour to hour whether and how far the platform is headed down a path of irretrievable toxicity. My friend Shannon Watts, founder of the gun-reform group Mom’s Demand Action who uses Twitter more than almost anyone I know, tweeted that she was thisclose to signing off.
The dilemma: If we stay, are we validating a platform that makes a mockery of the necessary guardrails of free speech? Are we ceding the moral ground by continuing to use a platform that does not respect the shared values of decent society?
Conversely, if we leave, are we abandoning a powerful communication platform, ceding it to the conspiracy theorists, liars and haters? Have we then allowed Twitter to become just another echo chamber for deliberately toxic speech that further erodes our ability to live together in a democratic society?
For many of us who for more than a decade have loved the communal mix on Twitter of news, bemused observations, political debate, real-time video and Yashar Ali’s elephants it is a tough decision. For many influential people, Twitter is a destination to quickly scan and gauge the temperature of public debate.
Among those weighing their options are media powerhouse Kara Swisher and neoconservative writer Norman Ornstein. And where else would be having this debate – but on Twitter!
“As with other tech sites I used to use a lot (Instagram), I will leave if it becomes a s—ty experience for me,” Swisher tweeted. “This is a squarely product issue and if it’s not delightful or useful or must have I tend to move along. If it gets overrun by assholes, it’s an easy choice.”
So far, Swisher is staying. So is Ornstein, who pointed out his displeasure that Saudi Arabia – an enemy of free speech – is the second largest stakeholder in Twitter. “At least for now I am going to stick it out on Twitter,” he wrote.
Jennifer Taub, a law professor and author, tweeted about feeling torn: “My ambivalence reflects the nature of Twitter itself. On the one hand, it offers an opportunity to connect with people from across the globe to laugh, learn, and commiserate together. On the other hand, it’s a colossal waste of time and is a cesspool of commentary and images.”
She then added: “But, what’s new… is the lies that Musk is now spreading and his invitation to racists to use the N-word here on this platform.”
It may well be. On Saturday night someone named Yoel Roth, apparently the head of “integrity” for the platform, tweeted out that the standards had not changed since Musk took over. That tweet was obliterated by Sunday, after Musk shared the Pelosi garbage.
So, stay or go? It’s a tough choice. Still, when I step back I remember that my role as a journalist requires me to debate, to be in the arena where critical thinking and conflicting opinions live, and to make arguments with facts. To lean in to the task of more speech when confronted with speech I believe is wrong.
To cede the platform would be the wrong thing, even if it’s unpleasant.
I note that Richard Painter, the former chief White House ethics lawyer under Obama, pinned this tweet to his profile:
“Liberals who say they will boycott @Twitter unless @elonmusk changes his polices, are doing exactly what the far right wants,” he wrote. “In weeks liberals could be the ones with alternative platforms while 45 & Co. wallow in lies with nobody to counter them. Dumb.”
Believing that leaving right-wing invective to its own devices will cause that outlet to “eventually wither and die because right wingers will just be talking to themselves, get bored and walk away” is a mistake, he wrote, adding: “Right. Just like @FoxNews.”
Hard as it may be, let’s stick around and hold people accountable.