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What Happened Today: April 26, 2022
Musk’s motivations; Germany sends tanks; The counterelite
The Big Story
One thing that’s clear about Elon Musk’s plans to buy Twitter for $44 billion—it wasn’t motivated by short-term financial gain. The deal, approved Monday by the social media platform’s board, could take another six months before Musk takes ownership of Twitter. To make it happen, Musk offered $21 billion of his own money in a financing plan that also required him to take out a high-risk $12.5 billion margin loan against his stock in Tesla and is projected to add $13 billion in new loans to Twitter’s balance sheet, plunging its credit rating “deeper into junk territory,” The Wall Street Journal reports. That’s a lot of risk to carry considering that Twitter is not very profitable and shows no signs of becoming a big earner anytime soon. In addition to the personal expense and financial exposure, which could end up costing Musk some $1 billion annually just in loans, he is guaranteed to face fierce internal resistance—possibly up to a form of sabotage—from employees at the company who are ideologically opposed to his takeover. Musk’s ownership of Twitter will also make him a target of government regulators and Democratic Party activists who view his embrace of free speech as a threat to their interests. On Monday, the same day the deal was announced, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki intimated that the government might go after Twitter due to the president’s concerns over its power. That comes after warnings earlier this month—when Musk’s plans to acquire Twitter were first announced—that the government would launch investigations into Tesla. All of which suggests that the mercurial billionaire really is motivated by his commitment to free speech as he claims to be, or has a longer-term strategy in mind.
In The Back Pages: General Elon and His Army of Billionaires
→ After weeks of intense pressure, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reversed his position from just a few days ago and agreed to send tanks to Ukraine. Scholz had previously warned that sending heavy armaments could trigger an escalation that would lead to a nuclear war. The agreement to provide the ‘Gepard’ model anti-aircraft tanks marks a significant reversal to a Germany policy that dates back to the country’s demilitarization after World War II and includes a prohibition against sending lethal weapons to war zones.
→ Antisemitism in the United States hit a new high last year, according to data from the Anti-Defamation League that shows the number of reported antisemitic incidents reached 2,700—the highest level on record since the organization began collecting statistics in 1979. Past ADL reporting on antisemitism in the United States has sometimes included dubious incidents that inflated the levels reported to the public, but in this case the organization’s numbers reflected trends that have also been reported by other organizations, like the New York Police Department, which noted that antisemitic hate crimes were up by nearly 50% in 2021 compared to 2020. The trend has gotten even worse this year in New York, with antisemitic hate crimes up 92% in the city in March 2022 compared to the same month the previous year.
→ Russian claims of arresting an elite Ukrainian team of would-be assassins quickly lost credibility when it became clear that the FSB, Russia’s police force, had confused SIM cards with “The Sims” video game. The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation announced that it had arrested six Ukrainians who were plotting to kill a Russian television star, and released photos from the scene of the arrest that included neo-Nazi paraphernalia (a crisp, seemingly new T-shirt with a swastika across the chest), Nazi literature, and three mint-condition copies of “The Sims” video game. This led to widespread speculation about what this elite cell of neo-Nazis would be doing with a computer game from 2009. Did they use “Sims 3” for training? Could the cases contain drugs? Was this a weird sex thing? “Guys, this isn’t about LGBT or any other stuff,” Andrew Protsenko explained on Twitter. “Somebody from the top most likely wrote: ‘3 симки’ (‘three SIM cards’), and some genius obeyed.”
→ Last March, with detentions on the U.S.-Mexico border hitting a record-setting 210,000, a Gallup poll found that 41% of Americans “worry a great deal” about immigration and another 19% worry “a fair amount.” The amount of Americans who are worried “not at all,” meanwhile, has reached a high, with almost a quarter of U.S. adults unfazed by the situation on the border. More striking is the Democratic Party’s increasing indifference to the issue: In 2006, 12% of Democrats worried “not at all” and 42% worried “a great deal”; now, 44% are entirely unworried while only 18% feel deeply concerned. One possible explanation for this sea change in Democratic sentiment is that white Progressives have pulled median opinion to the left—indeed, far to the left of where many registered Democrats actually stand. As Zach Goldberg noted in Tablet some time ago, “black and Asian Democrats and liberals are significantly more supportive of restrictive immigration policies [...] than their white counterparts.” Nevertheless, Democratic Party doctrine and sentiment has solidified around the white and progressive fringe of the party.
→ Some important context to bear in mind when considering proposed changes to Twitter’s moderation policies.
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→ Medical advice be damned! Organizers of the upcoming conference for the Association of Health Care Journalists—an “organization dedicated to advancing the public’s understanding of health care issues”—have announced that they will overrule the policy of local hospitals and government officials in Austin, where the conference is being held, and require attendees to wear masks. As Paul Thacker noted in “The Disinformation Chronicles,” the AHCJ and its leadership, which represents more than 1,500 journalists, has been consistently inconsistent and has a proven history of sending mixed messages. The organization’s director, Tara Haelle, published an article in Forbes in February 2020 titled “No, You DO NOT Need Face Masks for Coronavirus—They Might Increase Your Infection Risk.” A bit later on, the title was dramatically revised to read “Masks Prevent You From Infecting Others With Coronavirus, But May Not Protect You From Being Infected.”
→ Great news for top U.S. defense contractor Raytheon: The war in Ukraine, in which the United States is now pledging to play a larger role, is expected to provide “a benefit to the [Raytheon missiles and defense business] top line,” the company’s chief executive told analysts on a quarterly earnings call Tuesday that was reported in the Financial Times.
Jacob Siegel on Elon Musk and the New American Counterelite
So it’s war.
Twitter, the social media platform that led the charge in censoring reporting on the Hunter Biden laptop, was reluctantly forced to approve Elon Musk’s $44 billion “leveraged buyout” Monday after running out of options to block the deal. With that move, the richest man in the world, with a day job running electric car manufacturer Tesla, instantly promoted himself to five-star general of a free speech army fighting to liberate the internet from top-down political control. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk tweeted in his first statement announcing the deal where he also pledged to make the platform’s algorithms open source “to increase trust,” defeat the site’s spam bots and authenticate its human users. “The Berlin Wall of censorship fell yesterday,” internet entrepreneur David Sacks tweeted on Tuesday.
If Sacks had wanted to use a different metaphor, he might have said that Musk had captured a key foothold—a defensible initial position from which to build up forces in an effort to gradually expand the territories in which it’s possible to dissent from the party line on issues like COVID-19 or U.S. policy in Ukraine where discourse has been most tightly regulated. Because, with this latest move, Musk and a merry band of fellow billionaires that includes Sacks and the venture capitalist Marc Andreesen seem to be coalescing into an American counter-elite committed to breaking the monopoly on public discourse held by our current ruling class.
On the other side of the skirmish line we have the forces of the bipartisan political establishment under the command of General Barack Obama. The members of this faction are easy to identify because they have been engaged in an unhinged freakout for weeks. Ever since news first broke indicating that Musk was trying to acquire a controlling share of Twitter, his critics have been apoplectic about the dangers to democracy that will be unleashed by allowing users to more freely share and view information. Former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich captured the shrill zeitgeist of apocalyptic liberal technocrats everywhere when he warned that Musk’s “libertarian vision of an ‘uncontrolled’ internet [is] also the dream of every dictator, strongman, and demagogue.” Uh, sure, “what linked Idi Amin, Suharto, and Adolf Hitler,” James Kirchick recently noted in The Scroll, “was their belief in unfettered freedom of speech.”
But the official, buttoned-up version of the freakout was articulated by Obama himself. Less than a week ago in a speech at Stanford University, the former president warned that it’s necessary to impose more regulations on the internet, in order to prevent toxic disinformation from destroying American democracy by eroding citizens' trust. “Once they lose trust in their leaders, in mainstream media, in political institutions, in each other, in the possibility of truth, the game’s won,” Obama told the audience at the Silicon Valley hub. “As Putin discovered leading up to the 2016 election,” Obama said, “our own social media platforms are well designed to support such a mission.”
The Stanford speech was a nearly perfect encapsulation of what is so corrupt about the disinformation discourse—which is, at this moment, frantically being redirected against Musk to force him into playing ball or being painted as a Russian stooge. In the same speech where he made the case for more censorship, even while hollowly proclaiming his commitment to free speech, Obama could not stop himself from echoing the single most destructive piece of disinformation of the modern political era—the establishment’s “big lie” that Russia swung the 2016 election for Donald Trump, a claim that has repeatedly been proved false but is kept alive because it makes such an effective political weapon.
Obama has to uphold the Russian collusion narrative, even if it means spreading disinformation himself, because that extraordinary claim established the basis for the joint government-tech company control over the information environment, which was expanded under COVID and he now wants to fortify. In the current system, which Musk is vowing to change, social media platforms take orders on censorship protocols from government officials and partisan functionaries with titles like “fact-checker” who work inside the complex of NGOs funded by the Democratic Party.
If Obama, or President Biden for that matter, was serious about curtailing the power of the tech oligarchs, they would put aside the culture war rhetoric and act in the national interest by using antitrust laws to break up tech monopolies. That might actually restore political agency to American citizens and political sovereignty to the government. So why hasn’t that happened, and indeed won’t ever happen? Because the Democratic Party relies on the tech companies to fund its political campaigns and regulate what kind of information reaches voters.
The populist movements of 2016 were an attempt on both the left and right to wrest power back from technocratic elites. Those movements relied on figureheads—Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—because average voters, even when they were tens of thousands strong, were too cut off from the levers of power located inside institutional centers to pose any long-term challenge to the American ruling class. Even Trump, at the time supposedly the most powerful man in the world, couldn’t quash the false Russia collusion narrative or keep himself from getting booted off of Twitter, and was forced to mope off pathetically like he was just another anonymous troll account.
Musk and other billionaires who are now coalescing into the counterelite are testing out what happens when they simply buy back the central institutions of public discourse and—exercising a degree of independence that only truly “fuck you money” can buy—remake the rules in a way that empowers average users but directly threatens the interests of the establishment elite.
It is, let us say, hardly ideal in a democracy to depend on the whims of a billionaire who seems to get off on winding people up to secure the basic constitutional protections of free speech. Let’s not forget that Twitter’s founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey—who has been embarrassingly woo-woo in his praise of Musk—was until very recently more than happy to go along with the Hunter Biden charade and the government’s other censorship demands. But given Twitter’s current ownership structure, in which the majority of its shares are owned by BlackRock and Vanguard, and the fact that the company serves an alliance of global financial capital, the Democratic Party, and progressive activists, I’ll take my chances on the counter-elite.