Dec 1, 2021

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey resigned. Now what?

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey resigned. Now what?

His replacement is already a divisive figure.

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: 11 minutes.

Jack Dorsey has stepped down as CEO of Twitter. What does that mean for the future of politics and free speech? Also, a reader question about gerrymandering.

Jack Dorsey speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us. April 15 - 19, 2019, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED
Jack Dorsey speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us. April 15 - 19, 2019, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Correction/Clarification.

In yesterday's newsletter on the history of abortion, I wrote that "In many European and Asian countries, abortion is available upon request, and the most common time limit is 12 weeks after the first day of the last menstrual period — or about 14 weeks after conception." The math here is, ironically (because I started the newsletter out by saying how ill-informed many people are on this issue) backward: 12 weeks after last menstrual period is 10 weeks after conception, not 14. Otherwise, as one reader noted, women would have a period after conception. This was, to my fascination, one of the most-corrected errors in Tangle history — I think more than 50 readers pointed it out. I'm impressed, and humbled. Thanks for the eagle eyes.

There was also one confusing sentence, where right after saying that abortions became illegal in the early 1900s, I wrote that "At the same time, though, abortions were becoming increasingly available and legal." This should have read "increasingly available and common."

This is the 47th Tangle corrections in its 121-week history, and the first correction since November 23rd. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.


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Quick hits.

  1. A 15-year-old Michigan high school student is in custody after killing three students yesterday in a mass shooting. Authorities are still exploring a motive. (The tragedy)
  2. Supreme Court justices will begin hearing oral arguments in the biggest abortion case in decades today. (The hearing)
  3. Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity physician and television host, announced he is running for Senate as a Republican candidate in Pennsylvania. (The announcement)
  4. Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said he is cooperating with the House investigation into the January 6 riots at the Capitol. (The comments)
  5. Andre Dickens, an Atlanta City Council member who made public safety a top issue, easily won a runoff election to become Atlanta's next mayor. (The win)

Today's topic.

Jack Dorsey. On Monday, Jack Dorsey announced he was stepping down as CEO of Twitter, the social media website he co-founded in 2006. He is going to be replaced by Parag Agrawal, the company's chief technology officer who started at Twitter as an engineer and been working on technologies associated with cryptocurrencies.

Why it matters: Twitter is one of the most important meeting places for political minds, and has played a huge role in the political world over the last five years. former President Donald Trump mastered engagement on the platform, using it to drive media coverage of his presidency, sidestep traditional news outlets and speak directly to his followers. And then, in the wake of the January 6 riots at the Capitol, he was banned.

For many journalists, Twitter is the first place they share their work, and as a result it is one of the first places news breaks. Politicians, reporters, entrepreneurs, athletes and others have faced some of their most intense criticism on the platform. As Axios put it: "The person who controls Twitter controls the de facto public square — with implications for politics, media and free speech."

Now what? The resignation could signal a major shift at the company. Republican lawmakers have long complained that Twitter stifles conservative voices, while Democrats have feared it is being leveraged to spread misinformation. Agrawal is facing down a legislative body that is hungry to regulate, albeit for different reasons. Twitter is also in the midst of changing its platform, hoping to transition from ad-based social network that puts a premium on text tweets to a subscription based platform centered around smaller communities and multimedia.  

Naturally, Dorsey's resignation and what it means generated a lot of commentary. Below, we'll take a look at some thoughts from the left and right, then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • The right worries we might end up wanting Jack Dorsey back, despite his flaws.
  • They have concerns about how Twitter moderates its platform, and hope to see that changed.
  • Some question Parag Agrawal's past comments about speech, worried he will make the platform more censorious than it is already.

In The Washington Examiner, Tim Carney said we might miss Jack Dorsey at Twitter.

"Twitter has not always been fair, honest, or tolerant of politically unpopular ideas or people," Carney wrote. "It banned President Donald Trump but allows multiple propaganda accounts from the slave-state of North Korea and the terrorist state of Iran. The social media platform often freezes out users for non offenses and occasionally tries to use its rules to advance culture-war extremism. Twitter’s worst decision was blocking links to stories, just before the election, that shed light on the tawdry connections between Biden family foreign business dealings and Biden’s positions.

"For these and many other reasons, outgoing CEO Jack Dorsey deserves blame. But the irony is that Dorsey was, among all those in the tech world, more attuned than most to the dangers posed by his company and his industry," Carney wrote. "Big businesses often form alliances with big government to the benefit of both and often to the detriment of the public good. The post-Dorsey leadership, under new CEO Parag Agrawal, may avoid this temptation. It may resist the siren call of hysterical millennial and Gen Z staffers calling for more censorship of conservative opinions. But both of these forces will likely prove overwhelming. Post-Dorsey, I expect Twitter to become more censorious, to lobby for more regulations, and to become an active participant in the Left’s culture-war offenses."

In The New York Post, Will Feuer said Agrawal is walking into a hornet's nest.

"Dorsey was blasted during his tenure after Twitter blocked the account of the New York Post for its exclusive reports in October 2020 on the contents of a hard drive that held emails and other materials from a laptop that was abandoned at a Delaware repair shop by Biden’s son, Hunter," he wrote. "The company also drew fire from some who said it was part of the Big Tech censorship brigade that shut former President Donald Trump out of social media when it banned his account after the January 6 Stop the Steal riots.

"Already, Agrawal has been involved in the company’s efforts to fight so-called 'misinformation,' which he struggled to define in a November 2020 interview with the MIT Technology Review," Feuer wrote. "Agrawal claimed the company wouldn’t try to 'adjudicate truth,' but instead would focus on 'potential for harm.' ... Adjudicating content is one area where Dorsey stumbled badly — and he admitted as much, but only after the damage was done."

In The Federalist, Emily Jashinsky said Parag Agrawal might make a "poisonous platform worse."

“Jack Dorsey is leaving his platform in the hands of Parag Agrawal, the company’s chief technology officer, a man who last year said Twitter’s 'role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation,' and to 'focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.' Agrawal’s false binary, between healthy discourse and the First Amendment, is alarming but unsurprising,” Jashinsky said. “It indicates Twitter is set to devolve further from a company that seeks to decentralize the discourse to one that bolsters its corporate gatekeepers.

"Setting the First Amendment—both as a legal and cultural norm—at odds with 'a healthy public conversation' is obviously en vogue with culturally leftist elites," she wrote. "It’s also based on postmodern nonsense. A 'healthy public conversation' must include all perspectives so the correct and moral ones can emerge and prevail in the court of public opinion, rather than being adjudicated by elites and protected with force from criticism. Twitter is a private company, but Agrawal was clearly arguing against the norm of the First Amendment as the philosophy for our discourse.”


What the left is saying.

  • The left has mixed feelings about the move, but gives Dorsey credit for turning Twitter into what it is.
  • Many say Twitter's ability to elevate outside voices is also what has made it dangerous at times.
  • They hope Agrawal's product experience will help Twitter improve in the near future.

In Vox, Shirin Ghaffary said Dorsey deserves credit for shaping the company into what it is today.

“While it’s still too early to say if and how Twitter will operate any differently under Agrawal’s watch, what we do know is the company is losing its vision-oriented, original-thinking founding leader,” Ghaffary wrote. “He may have been an absent CEO at times, but was nevertheless respected by many in the tech industry for inventing a platform that put the public in conversation with each other about topics both trivial and world-changing, while retaining a sense of humor and eccentric personal style.

"Dorsey was in some ways an unconventional leader, and under his guidance, Twitter did things a little differently," Ghaffary said. "While Twitter suffers the same problems around hate speech, extremism, and harassment that every major social media platform faces, it has managed to garner praise from members of the social media research community for offering more transparency, at least compared to competitors, about what goes viral on its platform. And the company clearly wields incredible influence as the social media platform of choice for world leaders, journalists, and many celebrities and newsworthy figures."

In his newsletter, Matt Taibbi said Twitter "suffered from working too well."

"Specifically, society responded to Donald Trump’s Tweet-driven 2016 presidential campaign as if it revealed a defect in the platform that needed fixing when actually Trump’s election was proof that Twitter was working much as intended," Taibbi said. "Our political establishment just wasn’t looking for that sort of functionality... Trump didn’t need the news media to amplify his message. He was expressing himself in a way that defied contextualization, on a Twitter account that essentially became the country’s most-followed media network.

"Whether he was being dumb or smart, petty or cutting, incoherent or inscrutable, Trump had a way of expressing himself that automatically gave his tweets superior reach to news stories about his tweets. This put him permanently ahead of the news cycle," Taibbi wrote. "With this power, a politician was now able to communicate directly with voters, and even the collective displeasure of the entire self-described political establishment could not stuff that genie back in the bottle.... People will focus on the fact that it was bad Donald Trump got elected that year, but that was really incidental. The real problem Trump represented for elite America had less to do with his political beliefs than the unapproved manner of his rise. Twitter, seen as a co-conspirator in this evil, became a target of establishment reprisal after Trump’s win."

In The Washington Post, Will Oremus and Elizabeth Dwoskin said Twitter's new CEO is "bringing an engineering background to a politics fight."

"As chief technology officer, he also had limited experience handling the thorny questions of content policy — what people are allowed to post on social media — that make Twitter an influential force in global discourse and a target of criticism and regulation by governments and political actors around the world," they wrote. "Instead, insiders say, his formidable engineering chops, his alignment with Dorsey’s vision of a 'decentralized' future for social media, and his relatively uncontroversial reputation within the company helped to make him the choice over other, perhaps more obvious internal candidates in a closely guarded and opaque succession process.

"Agrawal will bring a keen intellect, those who know him say, but little to no experience in the political realm," they wrote. "Then again, few other Big Tech CEOs had political experience when they stepped into the top job, either. And the pressure Twitter’s board faced from investors was less about the nuances of its policy decisions and more about developing popular new products that would spur user growth and give it more mainstream appeal."


My take.

I'm torn. On the one hand, Twitter is probably my favorite platform of all the options on social media — it has helped me grow my newsletter, it's a great help in processing breaking news, and if you curate your feed properly, it's an incredible place to learn from and interact with experts directly. There is no doubt that Twitter has been a boon for my career, too, with some viral tweets of mine bringing in new followers who became newsletter subscribers and loyal readers.

But Twitter is also a hellscape of sensationalism, misinformation, and the mob mentality. Parag Agrawal got a taste of exactly how the platform works on his first day, when some users dug up this 11 year old tweet:

Parag Agrawal Twitter
Parag Agrawal Twitter

Agrawal immediately got dogpiled, with accusations he believed all whites were racist and calls for him to resign. Of course, the practice of elevating decades-old tweets free of context and making them appear as evil as possible in order to damage someone's career is one of the most popular things to do on Twitter, especially by the left (though this time it was conservatives), and so a lot of people viewed this as Agrawal "getting a taste of his own medicine."

It's also true that Dorsey, for all his flaws, was transparent and owned his mistakes. When Twitter blocked the sharing of the "Hunter Biden laptop" story on the absurd charge it was all a story concocted in Russia, Dorsey later apologized and conceded they had folded under pressure and acted irrationally. It looks even worse now, after Politico's Ben Schreckinger published a book on the Biden family that confirmed some of the emails were authentic and gave a clear-eyed view of how Biden's family has profited off his presidency. This kind of self-awareness and ownership from a CEO of a major tech company is hard to find.

As for Agrawal, I'm inclined to give him some time. His quotes about free speech are concerning, but he isn't a unilateral actor here. His goal is to build something that outcompetes other platforms and that users want to spend time on, and the controversies and battles on Twitter are still part of its allure. On Tuesday, Twitter announced a major new policy change to remove private photos and videos if they are posted without a person's consent, though there are exceptions for public events and people of interest. This seems like a very reasonable policy to me, but it got trashed by both the left and right immediately after being announced.

For now, I think Agrawal deserves a chance, and Dorsey some praise. The former is on his third day of a new job and the latter created one of the most influential media platforms in the world, even if its importance is sometimes overstated, and if the Americans who use it most are not representative of the country as a whole.

Don't like my take? Feel free to reply to this email and let me know why. We love to publish thoughts and feedback from our readers.


Your questions, answered.

Q: In response to the increased and worrying gerrymandering of voter districts, what would happen if half the Democratic voters in gerrymandered districts re-registered as Republicans prior to the midterms? (Or vice-versa in areas where districts are gerrymandered in the Democrats' favor?) By voting in the appropriate primaries, at least it might be possible to prevent candidates from the far right or left from winning, which might return some sanity to our government. It seems simple. Is it?

— Shelby, Wake Forest, North Carolina

Tangle: We are probably due to do a big Friday edition on gerrymandering, which is something a lot of Tangle readers have been asking for. The short answer, though, is no — this wouldn't really solve anything.

Certainly, if you got a huge number of voters to switch party affiliation, they could make an impact on primary races. But I really can't think of any realistic way to do that, given how much political affiliation is tied to identity and the fact that primary voters are typically the most motivated and politically partisan.

On top of that, though, the advantage of gerrymandering is really about general elections, not primary races. It's about taking a state that leans one way on the whole or is about 50-50, and turning it into a state either run by the minority party or one overwhelmingly run by a party with thin margins of popularity. The polling savant Dave Wasserman pointed this out on Twitter just last night, noting that a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling cementing how the state's map will be divided means Republicans are likely to have a 6-2 seat advantage in the House despite the fact that Biden won the state. That's what gerrymandering is all about.

Whenever we do our in-depth edition on this we'll talk about some potential solutions out there, but none of them are foolproof. Suffice it to say, my opinion is we should pick our leaders and not the other way around. So gerrymandering is generally an abhorrent practice to me.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

The Senate is inching closer to axing paid family and medical leave from the Democrats' $1.7 trillion climate and social spending bill. Paid family leave, one of the most popular proposals on the table, has already been inserted and removed from the bill once. This time, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is once again acting as a holdout — saying he'd prefer to craft a separate bipartisan bill on the issue with Republicans (something other Democrats say is a much longer shot). Republican support for paid family leave is fractious, and the odds of the GOP agreeing on a paid family leave proposal among themselves are slim enough — let alone coming to an agreement with Democrats. Politico has the story.


Numbers.

  • 10%. The percentage of Twitter users who create 80% of the content on the platform.
  • 40. The median age of adult U.S. Twitter users.
  • 47. The median age of all U.S. adults.
  • 46%. The percentage of Twitter users who say the site has increased their understanding of current events.
  • 53%. The percentage of Twitter users who say the site's misleading or inaccurate information is a major problem.
  • 37% vs 38%. The percentage of users who say Twitter is mostly good vs. mostly bad for democracy, with the rest saying it has no impact.

Have a nice day.

A Massachusetts man recovering from open heart surgery was mailed a scratch off lottery ticket while he was still in the hospital. Alexander McLeish received three scratch off tickets and a get-well card from a friend, and one of those tickets ended up being a second top prize of $1 million. And it wasn't even the first time it happened: a few years ago, McLeish says he won $1,000 on a lottery ticket his friend gave him for his birthday. The lucky draw and the incredible story were covered by CNN.


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