Apr 6, 2022

Elon Musk joins Twitter.

Elon Musk joins Twitter.

Plus, some reactions to yesterday's newsletter.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Elon Musk's new role at Twitter. Plus, a question about Biden's economic plans.

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla. Photo: Daniel Oberhaus (2018
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla. Photo: Daniel Oberhaus (2018

Quick hits.

  1. President Biden is expected to extend a pandemic-era pause on student loan payments through August 31. The pause was set to end May 1. Roughly 43 million borrowers will be impacted. (The pause)
  2. Oklahoma lawmakers approved a bill to make nearly all abortions illegal, with a punishment of up to 10 years in prison for any health care provider who performs an abortion. (The ban)
  3. Ukrainians are fleeing the Donbas region as Russia's military strategy appears to be shifting, with a stronger focus on the eastern part of the country. (The latest)
  4. Former President Barack Obama returned to the White House for the first time since 2017 yesterday, delivering remarks on the state of health care to mark the 12-year anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. (The visit)
  5. The ex-wife of Missouri Republican Senate candidate Eric Greitens says in a new court filing that she has photographs and other documentation of Greitens' alleged abuse of her and their child. (The allegations)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Reader feedback.

Yesterday was another one of those days when quite a few Tangle readers unsubscribed from the newsletter because they were upset or disappointed by "my take." As I always say, my goal here is to be honest about what I'm seeing — if you think my take is biased, wrongheaded, missing something, etc., I want to hear from you. Write in and we can discuss it, and I may even share your feedback in the newsletter (I tried to do that today, but the critics who I reached out to all declined to have their comments published publicly, so I'm not going to publish the positive feedback I got on its own).

But please... don't leave! Engaging views you may not like is one of the central objectives of my project, and while I try my best to be balanced, honest and straightforward, I'm not going to self-censor my own views when I think the discourse is already unbalanced. That's not what this is about. The best part of being totally independent — not owned by anyone, unattached to any advertisers, totally subscriber supported — is that I can truly say what I think. You can always take it or leave it.

Thank you to those who wrote in with your disagreements and continue to engage. You give me hope!


Today's topic.

Elon Musk. Yesterday, the social media platform Twitter announced that Musk would be joining its board of directors. The announcement came just a day after the company said Musk had bought a 9.2% stake in Twitter, making him the largest single shareholder of the company.

“Through conversations with Elon in recent weeks, it became clear to us that he would bring great value to our Board,” CEO Parag Agrawal said in a tweet. “He’s both a passionate believer and intense critic of the service which is exactly what we need on Twitter, and in the boardroom, to make us stronger in the long-term."

As we discussed when former CEO Jack Dorsey resigned and during the Hunter Biden controversy, Twitter is a critical player in politics. It is the modern-day public town square: a central hub for political debates, one of the first places journalists share their reporting, and one of the few places ordinary citizens can interact directly with politicians and celebrities. In the last few years, it has received even more attention because of the company’s decisions on how to regulate the platform — including banning former President Donald Trump and suspending other prominent accounts. Numerous attempts to compete with the site, including Trump's "Truth Social," have so far failed to disrupt the space.

Musk, best known as the CEO of the electric car company Tesla, has a long and storied history on the platform. He has 80.5 million followers. In 2018, he announced on Twitter that he had secured funding to take Tesla private at $420 a share, which led to litigation against him. He also once polled his followers about whether he should sell 10% of Tesla, which earned him an SEC subpoena. His tweets about Tesla now have to be screened by a legal team before posting, while his tweets about cryptocurrency face similar criticisms of market manipulation.

Online, he is a divisive character, simultaneously one of the most successful businessmen alive but also often referred to as a "shitposter," online slang for someone who posts with the intent of derailing conversations via offensive or nonsensical content. Some have suggested Twitter is welcoming Musk with open arms because he is so wealthy he could simply buy the company if he wanted (Musk's fortune is approaching $300 billion).

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left is worried about Musk joining the board, saying he may not be the free speech absolutist he claims to be.
  • Some suggest Musk is simply playing with his money, and his intentions are still unclear.
  • Others say it's all about him controlling the things he likes.

In The Atlantic, Marine Koren said Musk "has not always shown himself to be someone who welcomes people speaking their mind."

"At Tesla, Musk has fostered the opposite of a culture of speaking freely without fear of retaliation," Koren wrote. "He has reportedly fired employees who disagree with him, including those who said that the company’s ambitious production goals were unrealistic, according to the Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Higgins, who published a book about Tesla last year. Some Tesla employees who have alleged racial harassment and discrimination at work say the company has ignored or tried to silence them. (Tesla has denied any wrongdoing.)

"The distaste for dissent also shows up in Musk’s reaction to the people assigned to scrutinize his work," Koren added. "Musk once criticized analysts during a Tesla earnings call for their line of questioning, saying that 'boring, bonehead questions are not cool,'  then gave the stage to an investor known for his fanboy tendencies on YouTube, allowing him to ask a dozen questions over the course of more than 20 minutes. In 2018, Musk, seemingly fed up with what he described as 'negative' press coverage of his companies, announced that he would create a website that allows people to rank the credibility of journalists and news organizations. He offered a poll then, too, asking whether he should do it. (He never did.) During SpaceX press conferences, Musk has shut down my questions on two occasions, once interrupting the NASA administrator to tell me to 'move on.'”

Timothy O'Brien said Musk's investment is bad news for free speech on the platform.

"Consider the poll he conducted (on Twitter, of course) 10 days ago. 'Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy,' it says. 'Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?' More than two million users responded to that question, with 70.4% of them voting 'no.' A day later, Musk, who fashions himself a 'free speech absolutist,' was on the social media platform again: 'Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done?' This time he didn’t bother with a poll, asking: 'Is a new platform needed?' All of this follows Musk’s ongoing battle with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has been monitoring his Twitter posts for a very good reason: They move markets," O'Brien wrote. "Musk maintained in a court filing that the SEC’s oversight seems 'calculated to chill his exercise' of free speech.

"So despite ample room in which to exercise his speech — and aggressively trying to curtail the free speech of some of his critics — Musk evidently feels aggrieved," O'Brien wrote. "What’s not clear is why Twitter is his target. His Twitter rants and raves have been wide-ranging and unfettered. He once tweeted, then deleted, a meme comparing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Hitler. He’s tweeted transphobic memes. He's slagged a British cave explorer as a 'pedo guy.' That’s a lot of free speech, and Twitter hasn’t done a lot to curtail it... it’s not ideal to have a free speech absolutist who isn’t absolutely in favor of free speech at the helm of — or even close to — a media company."

In The New Republic, Alex Shephard said "Musk may be up to nothing more than making money."

"To an extremely rich person, $2.9 billion in stock is a lot but ultimately not that much—his net worth is nearly a hundred times that," Shephard wrote. "A fan of buying shiny things for the sake of buying them, Musk may very well just be acting like the prototypical rich tech guy: He is an active Twitter user, after all, so why not buy a significant stake in the company? The form he filled out to disclose his investment, meanwhile, indicates that he had 'not acquired the securities with any purpose, or with the effect, of changing or influencing the control of the issuer.' Musk, however, has never cared much for rules and seems to actually enjoy tangling with the SEC. That Musk posted his poll after acquiring shares in Twitter suggests he does indeed intend to pressure Twitter to change its policies—but then again, Musk seems to be governed almost entirely by whims.

"Should Musk fulfill his sort-of promise to make Twitter 'adhere to free speech principles'—his definition of them, at least—it very well could be a nightmare for the company," he wrote. "Its response to demands for more content moderation have been slipshod and inconsistent but are still better than the alternative of doing nothing. Removing users who promote vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories about the 2020 election points in the right direction but has excited a furious countermobilization. As Trump ramps up his 2024 presidential campaign, calls for the former president’s reinstatement will grow. Now those demands may find a receptive ear on the inside in Musk: Having gained a seat on the board, his influence will be profound—and he could still acquire more shares."


What the right is saying.

  • The right celebrated the news, saying Musk may have a positive influence on the public square.
  • Many said Musk could usher in an era of less censorship on Twitter.
  • Others suggested he's just another wealthy American trying to become a media mogul.

On Fox News, Tucker Carlson said "it's a good day in America."

"Conservatives were taught from a very young age to support big business because big business was a bulwark against government overreach," Carlson said. "And that made sense, and it was true for quite a while, but very few imagine what it would look like if big business harnessed monopoly power and then joined that power with government power to strip us of our constitutional rights. Again, this happened incrementally, but now it's here. So these aren't really free market companies. They resemble repressive governments. They're too big. They're too powerful for you to do anything about. You can't resist. So, if you want to talk in public in 2022, you have to submit to their censorship. It's depressing. It doesn't seem like there's a solution. That's what America looked like when we woke up this morning, but thankfully — and it's very nice to be able to say this on a Monday — things are changing and they appear to be changing fast.

"Elon Musk, who's the head of Tesla and SpaceX, famously a billionaire, just announced he has bought an almost 10% stake in Twitter. That makes him the largest shareholder of Twitter. So why does this matter?" Carlson explained. "Well, because Twitter matters, whether you want it to or not. Twitter is hardly the largest social media platform, but Twitter sets the tone for all news coverage, for all information. Twitter is where a professional class goes to learn which opinions are acceptable and which are forbidden and the effect is obvious to everybody... Could this be the first move in a hostile takeover of Twitter that transforms Twitter into a platform for free speech? Seems that way. Elon Musk is not an Orthodox conservative, but he sees the people in power with devastating clarity. A few months ago, he described wokeness, that is to say, the ideology at the heart of Twitter's business operations, as 'one of the greatest threats to modern civilization.'"

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said there might be a "market solution" to Big Tech censorship.

"Mr. Musk hasn’t disclosed his agenda for the company, but for now we’ll consider this a hopeful moment for political speech and debate at America’s increasingly censorious tech giants," the board said. "The cofounder of ventures ranging from Tesla, to SpaceX, to the Boring Company has frequently expressed disdain for Twitter’s heavy-handed censorship, which the company uses to silence prominent voices (e.g., Donald Trump) and stifle views that disagree with the prevailing progressive consensus... Perhaps he thinks he can accomplish more in the room where censorship happens.

"One test will be if Twitter keeps making decisions like censoring the Babylon Bee, the conservative satirical website, for 'misgendering' a Biden official (as The Hill put it)," the board wrote. "Big Tech is becoming more aware of the perils—political, financial and legal—of serving as handmaiden to the woke speech police, but its executives remain too complicit or too afraid to do anything about it. They are courting a political backlash. Mr. Musk is familiar with controversy on Twitter, as his tweets have sometimes aroused the attention of Washington financial regulators over disclosure rules. But in an age when too many CEOs lack the courage to express open support for core American principles, it would be refreshing if Mr. Musk’s intention is to stake some of his own wealth in the cause of promoting political free speech."

Jack Shafer said Musk is joining a long line of billionaire media moguls.

"The Twitter gambit makes Musk look like Jeff Bezos, who plucked the Washington Post for placement in his financial bouquet; like Patrick Soon-Shiong, who harvested the Los Angeles Times; like Laurene Powell Jobs, who garnered the Atlantic (and invested in other media properties); like Michael Bloomberg, who grew the loss-leader Bloomberg News from scratch; like John Henry, who reaped the Boston Globe; and others," Shafer said. "As egg gives way to larva, and larva surrenders to pupa, the billionaire often metamorphizes into media mogul before his wings fully form, he pollinates the pasture and his fortune finally dissipates (or he dies).

"What’s different about Musk’s impending mogulhood is that most new rich people swoop in with the intention to restore flagship publications to their former glory — in the above examples, the rescue cases were the Post, the Times, the Globe. But rescue is not Musk’s motivation," he wrote. "Twitter is largely self-sustaining and needs no billionaire help to regain lost glory. Instead, Musk is that obsessive Twitterer who so loves its milk he wants to buy the cow. Also, the herd, the dairy and the pasteurization plant. This makes Musk look like the person who doesn’t like the way Twitter censors messages, hence he’s buying the messenger."


My take.

I think it's a great move for Twitter, and it could be a good move for political discourse.

I'm sure I could write a whole newsletter criticizing Elon Musk. He is brash and arrogant, ill-informed on issues he opines about, and his "commitment" to free speech absolutism seems entirely dependent on the kind of speech he's encountering. He'll happily accuse a random person of being a pedophile as he hides behind his free speech rights, but will exercise censorious authority and threaten legal action when criticism is directed towards him.

In other words, aside from being absurdly rich and some concerns about him consolidating even more power and influence: He's a lot like basically everyone else on Twitter.

The reason it's a good thing, though, is that Musk — despite sometimes serving as the face of the battle against climate change — is a cultural conservative in today's landscape. Twitter's impact on public opinion is often overstated, both in its magnitude and power to censor, but there's no doubt its influence in the public discourse is massive. A company that sets the tone for how — among other things — political news moves through the ether should also be a company that has some ideological diversity at the top. That is really the central cause for optimism here.

Musk isn't taking over, but he's getting a major seat at the table. Based on everything we know about the current CEO and the way the company has made decisions about regulating the platform, Musk will disagree with pretty much everyone else on the board. As Agrawal put it, "he’s both a passionate believer and intense critic of the service." That's a great reason to hire someone. That's the kind of reason I'd hire someone to join Tangle.

Twitter has been scrubbing far-right voices for years, and more recently has been on a tear, removing legitimate news stories or banning people who question the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines and where the virus came from. I've criticized many of those views, and I've long held that platforms like Twitter should have a default position to let contradicting content battle it out — even if some of that content is offensive, "misinformation" or controversial. That's not to say there shouldn't be limits — there have to be, and every platform has rules.

But Musk has been outspoken about Twitter's past decisions, many of which were wrong, and it's conceivable that if he had been on the board before, his voice may have helped facilitate a more thoughtful application of the moderation standards. Right now, it's clear that Twitter applies those standards unevenly and inconsistently.

Best of all, though, is the simple fact that Musk loves Twitter. He has a bigger and more interactive presence on the platform than former CEO Jack Dorsey and just about any other Twitter employee I know of. He engages random people, celebrities, politicians, and more. He shares knowledge, comments on stuff he probably shouldn't, breaks news, starts controversies, and posts silly, meaningless content.

In essence, he uses the platform exactly the way the average active user does. It’s kind of akin to a professional sports team allowing one (very, very rich) superfan onto their coaching staff to have some input. It could go wrong, sure, but there’s something about it that I find really appealing; it feels like the kind of person who should have an influence on the platform's future.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Do the latest jobs report numbers prove that Biden’s approach to the economy is working?

— Anonymous, San Diego, California

Tangle: I think the March jobs report is very good. Adding 431,000 jobs despite inflation, the disruptions from the war in Ukraine, and an ongoing pandemic (however waning) is all good news. Employers have added 400,000+ jobs for 11 straight months, quite a few reports have been revised upward, and the unemployment rate is down to 3.6%. That can be a messy number because it depends on labor participation, but it is headed in the right direction:

Screenshot of labor force participation rates from the the Fed
Screenshot of labor force participation rates from the the Fed

All that being said, the big weight tied around the administration's ankles is inflation. Wages climbed 5.6% in March from the previous year, which was nearly double the pre-pandemic average of 3%. Yet the wage growth is still being outpaced by the cost of goods, and as long as that is the case Americans are not going to feel the gains.

So, is it working? I don't think I'd go as far as saying it's "proof" of anything. Economic numbers like this require longer snapshots than just a month for any clarity. But I certainly took it as an encouraging report, and others have as well. The Wall Street Journal said it showed strong hiring momentum and The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell said “the economy is finally cooking with gas.” We could use some good news, so I’ll take it.


A story that matters.

Prosecutors are now calling the "looting" of the Covid-19 relief plan known as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) one of the largest frauds in U.S. history. Tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer money intended to help those harmed by the pandemic was instead spent on luxury cars, mansions, private jets and swanky vacations by a wide array of criminals and fraudsters who took the money. While we knew there was some amount of fraud, we are just now beginning to understand the scale. Experts say as much as $80 billion — or about 10 percent — of the $800 billion handed out in PPP was stolen, on top of the $90 billion to $400 billion believed to have been stolen from the Covid unemployment relief program, and another $80 billion potentially pilfered from a separate Covid disaster relief program.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Matthew Schneider, a former U.S. attorney from Michigan, told NBC News. “It is the biggest fraud in a generation.” The sum of taxpayer money stolen could rival the $579 billion in federal funding recently passed for Biden's infrastructure plan. NBC News has the story.


Numbers.

  • 27%. The rise in Twitter's share price since Musk's purchase was revealed.
  • 315 million. Twitter's goal for its number of daily users by the end of 2023.
  • One in five. The number of U.S. adults who say they use Twitter.
  • 16. The number of years Twitter has existed.
  • 1.93 billion. The number of daily users on Facebook.

Have a nice day.

I'm still not really sure what to think about this one, but I couldn't resist posting it: New research suggests that mushrooms... talk to each other. A new study says fungi are communicating with each other, and have been recorded having conversations in a language similar to human speech. Their conversations are happening through long, underground filamentous structures called hyphae, which can send electrical impulses similar to those generated by nerve cells transmitting information within human bodies. Professor Andrew Adamatzky from the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of the West of England studied these impulses and says the electrical spikes often clustered into trains of activity, resembling vocabularies of up to 50 words. Screenshot Media has the (very trippy) story.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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