Drain Elon Musk's Swamp
It's toxic and full of nightmares. We're just beginning to understand how corrosive Musk's Twitter truly is.
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
That’s the moral that opens the introduction to my favorite novel: Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a line I use a lot.
The book tells the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr., awaiting a war crimes trial in Israel. He had been, in the style of (the very real) Lord Haw-Haw, Hitler’s English propagandist.
The book, written from Campbell’s perspective, tells of his comfortable life in Berlin, ranting on the airwaves about the threat of international Zionist brotherhood. He was on the radio to plead with the German people: Save the United States from Jewish control.
Campbell, however, harbored a secret: He didn’t believe any of it. He was a spy, delivering coded dispatches in his broadcasts for American operatives and resistance fighters.
“My personal experience with Nazi monkey business was limited,” Campbell writes. “Somebody slipped me a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, I remember.” But he we wasn’t an antisemite. Although, he could have been. “If I’d been born in German, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides. So it goes.”
But, he’s forced to ask himself, what’s the difference between pretending to be a Nazi and actually being one?
Later in the book he’s confronted by his wife’s father, an actual Nazi. “Until about this very moment nothing would have delighted me more than to prove that you were a spy, to see you shot,” he tells Campbell. But now, he says, it doesn’t matter. “Because you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us.” More than the fürher, his commanders or his censors and propagandists: “You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.”
He wasn’t the only one. Decades later, in New York, Campbell would be venerated at a meeting of American neo-Nazis, including the Black Fürher of Harlem. Their leader, Lionel Jones, explains how, during the war, one had to swim through a sea of lies to find Campbell: “If a man was fortunate enough to have a short-wave radio, there was still one fountainhead of truth — just one.”
Campbell was liar. But it didn’t matter to whom he was lying — the Germans, the Americans, himself — because he was believed. And he gave people permission to believe the unbelievable.
The real-world turncoat propagandists on whom Campbell was styled worked hard to warp their listeners’ minds. It wasn’t just for the patriots and the fascists with short-wave radio sets: Most of ‘Axis Sally’s’ broadcasts were jazz, aimed at catching the ear of American GIs. Interspersed with the music were skits and short messages “calculated to install homesickness, dissatisfaction, worry and concern about their welfare after the war, the danger of of being killed or crippled, the fact that Germany was not the enemy, the assertion that Jews were responsible for the war and that England was, in fact, not our friend but desired only to ‘use’ the United States for her own selfish purpose, etc,” per a 1948 FBI memo.
The relationship between propagandist and the propagandized is one we don’t talk about often. We have broached it gingerly, as Fox News and its more-insane cousins have grown in popularity whilst moving further into lunacy. We, too, have groped around the noxious influence of 4chan and other crowd-sourced extremist sites. The current state of Twitter bridges that divide in worrying new ways.
This week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, we return, alas, to Elon Musk. I know, I know, I want to ignore him too. But we have to face reality: Musk’s swamp is poisoning the water supply.
Come for the hot jazz, stay for the Bug-eyed and Shameless
When talking about online media ecosystems we often wind up with the same two metaphors: Echochambers or bubbles.
If I may don my Metaphor Police hat: These conceptualizations are bad, and maybe even a barrier to our understanding of the problem.
Elizabeth Dubois and Guillermo Renna agree with me. And they’d know, they co-led the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge.
“Filter bubble and echo chamber metaphors are no longer, and likely never were, particularly useful for describing most individuals’ experiences of our Internet-enabled media environment or for understanding and responding to fears of political polarization,” they argue in a paper submitted to the Center for Media, Technology, and Democracy at McGill University. (Which, full disclosure, was a component of the polarization research project to which I was a contributor.)
The evidence, they argue, shows that people do not tend to ensconce themselves into hermetically-sealed information bubbles. Indeed, if they did, the solution would be so much easier: Just expose them to more counter-vailing information. But the fact is that even the most radicalized amongst us consume a ton of diverse information — indeed, many exist on more heterogenous media diets than the average person. It matters, however, how they engage with that variety of information. Are they balancing it aptly? Or at they, like those American Nazis surfing the short-wave radio dial for Howard W. Campbell Jr’s nightly broadly, sipping and spitting a variety of other sources in search of the most radical and fringe ideas?
“If individuals consume information only to refute it, then it’s likely to not be de-polarizing,” Dubois and Renna write.
If we stop thinking about these people consuming bad media in their silos over there, we may start to understand how the information they consume and create can impact how we engage in discussion over here.
Let me try a different metaphor on for size.
I’ve written before about disinformation pipelines, like the ones used to pump the conspiracy theory that the U.S. government was running a network of bioweapons labs in Ukraine. We can imagine the various inputs along the line — the Kremlin feeds a torrent of disinformation about the evil Americans, QAnon adds their brand of anti-vaccine deep state yahooery, and Tucker Carlson feeds in his brand of just-asking-questions narrative building. The tailpipe spews this nonsense into the lake in which we all swim.
If that particular Russia-Carlson-QAnon pipeline is just a single source of sewage, in a big body of water with various inputs and water filtration systems, then we can manage. Indeed, pre-Musk Twitter controlled for these issues by leveraging reputable accounts — using both status symbols and boosts in the algorithm — while policing outright misinformation, albeit inconsistently and sometimes poorly. It meant that the pool was slightly more toxic than, say, Reddit, where users try and do their own cleaning; but less so than Gab or 4chan, where the acidity is the point.
Let’s see how far this metaphor will extend: If we think of the social internet as a network of lakes, ponds, streams, pipelines, brooks — all, to varying degrees, feeding each other and each emptying into the ocean — we can start to imagine the complicated flows that help misinformation, conspiracy theories, and outright extremism bleed from a limited number of sources to the broader discourse.
Let’s return to our once-tranquil pond, now with Elon Musk at the center of it. He’s turned off the water filtration systems. He’s reduced the flow for all of the sources of clean water, and ratcheted up the flow for everything else. As the pond has grown toxic and a pale shade of green, seeping into the ground and to nearby sources of water, he too has become putrid, along with everyone else in the swamp with him. It didn’t happen all at once. It happened so slowly that many didn’t even realize it was occurring at all.
Let’s stop of the enhanced interrogation of this metaphor and put things in real terms: Elon Musk has created a platform so rife with misinformation and conspiracy theories that he radicalized himself. Many who stuck around have joined his descent into the muck. Many others who remain on Twitter may be immune, thus far, from the diseased waters, but they won’t be forever. All the while, Twitter has slowly poisoned other nearby bodies.
The last time I really wrote about Twitter, wherein I had a whole other complicated metaphor about the expanse of space, (Dispatch #48) I predicted that the internet would fracture into smaller units, creating more productive conversations in more managable cliques. To some degree, I think that has been true and it will be true, in time.
But this is a dispatch about our current hell.
Andrew Ross Sorkin — New York Times columnist, originator of the DealBook newsletter, and CNBC chattering head — opened his interview with Elon Musk Wednesday promising that it would be a gentle foot massage like no other.
“He may be the most consequential individual in the world right now,” Sorkin peacocked to the audience, rattling off Musk’s CV of “disruptive” companies — the winners, Tesla and SpaceX; and the losers, The Boring Company and Twitter, in the same breath. “But,” he paused, “he’s faced a storm of controversy in the process.”
The proceeding five minutes are Sorkin trying to assure Musk that this will be a conversation about ideas. But he wanted to start off to hear Musk’s thoughts about “the last week” and the “firestorm of controversy.”
What happened in the last week? What was the controversy? Sorkin never says.
Rewind to November 15. A Twitter user, @breakingbaht, is on a spree. He’s telling his followers that “nothing will happen until whites start protesting under the banner of identity movements like BLM.” Immigrants, he ranted, who don’t believe in free markets “should just go home.” In his flurry of replies, he explained how “toxic feminity” is what’s wrong with Nikki Haley and how, when it comes to “blacks,” there is the “preferred cultural past time of ‘gang kick them in the head till they're dead.’”
And he’s not the only one. He’s jostling in the comments of all kinds of avowedly racist posts — “low IQ vermin,” “barely sentient ferals” — as one in the chorus.
But then @breakingbaht responds to a video, an uber-viral ad about the staggering rise of antisemitism online. “Jewish communties have been pushing the exact kind of dialectical hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them,” he writes. The post is a syntactical mess, but his point is that the Jews are insufficiently grateful for their support from the whites, especially while being mistreated by “those hordes of minorities that support flooding their country.”
And then Elon Musk responds: “You have said the actual truth.”
A lot of coverage about Musk’s antisemitic post has failed to include what, exactly, he was agreeing with — and how unabashedly racist the original poster was. I am at a loss for what the “controversy” is. Musk tuned his dial to the exact frequency to catch some particular antisemitism and racism, then rebroadcast it to the world and proclaimed it the fountainhead of truth.
Back to DealBook: Musk is jumping all over Sorkin’s already-obsequious question — "the trip to Israel…wasn’t some kind of apology tour,“ he interrupted “I have no problem being hated.” Sorkin is begging with Musk, at this point, to accept his invitation: “Take us back to the moment you write that-” Musk keeps interrupting. He yammers on about SpaceX and Tesla.
In one of only truly funny moments of the whole interview, Musk rounds back on Sorkin to demand gratitude for even showing up: “Jonathan, the only reason I'm here is because you are a friend. What was my speaking fee?” Musk asks. Sorkin, already looking flustered, says: “You’re not making any…First of all, I’m Andrew.”
Did Musk confuse Andrew Ross Sorkin, a Jewish writer for the Times, with Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League? Hard to say.
Eventually Sorkin brings it back, rattling off all the Jewish groups which condemned his tweet. Musk interrupts: “Did you read the whole thing?” Sorkin did. “I said more.” There were “clarifications,” Musk insists. Sorkin hastily agrees.
The clarifications were even more offensive. About an hour after the original post, about “the actual truth,” amid a huge outpouring of denunciations — and venerations — Musk added: “The ADL unjustly attacks the majority of the West, despite the majority of the West supporting the Jewish people and Israel. This is because they cannot, by their own tenets, criticize the minority groups who are their primary threat.” He goes on: “You’re right that this does not extend to all Jewish communities, but it is also not just limited to ADL.”
In other words: Whites aren’t to blame for antisemitism. The Jews are just too woke to go after the real problem.
Onstage this week, Musk reiterates it. The Jewish people, he says, “have a natural affinity” for persecuted peoples, as they themselves are. “This has led to the funding of organizations that essentially promote any persecuted group — or any group with the perception of persecution. This includes radical Islamic groups.” He points to “the massive demonstrations for Hamas in every major city in the West.“ A number of “those organizations,” he says, “received funding from prominent people in the Jewish Community.” In short: “Hordes of minorities” are not holding pro-Palestinian or pro-ceasefire rallies, but explicitly pro-Hamas gatherings. And the Jews are financing it all. White people are the other ones wise enough to see the full picture: A benevolent and morally just force.
All of this has a tangential relationship with reality. But, certainly, there are accounts — like the @MOSSADil account, with its blue check mark and its passing resemblance to the real account for Mossad, which claim that there are no pro-ceasefire protests, only pro-Hamas rallies. And there are white supremacists, like Charlie Kirk, who broadcast on Twitter, claiming that the Jews have been “some of the largest financiers of left-wing anti-white causes.” It is not hard to figure out where Musk has developed his views.
This conspiracy theory may feel very modern, but it’s not. The idea that Jewish money funded antisemitism, as a part of some 3D chess realpolitik, is very old. In particular, there is a belief that the Rothschild family — which, these conspiracy theorists believe, is the head of international Jewish banking power — directly funded Hitler.1
Where can one find evidence for this wild theory? On Twitter, of course. “Adolf Hitler Was A Rothschild,” one account wrote on Thursday. (25k views.) Last month, the “redpill drifter” uploaded a video explaining that Hitler was a Rothschild and that he and the Nazis “were 100%, completely and utterly set up and made into what they were by the international banking community.” (41k views) Another thread, from May, explained how “8 families funded Adolf Hitler.” Mostly, of course, Jewish. “Your entire world was/is shaped by these families.” (446k views). At its worst, this theory holds that the Jews have tried to force humanity into war to take control of it and install a New World Order. But a more muted version of the theory holds that the Jews had simply hoped to make money from Hitler, and that they were too foolish to see that they had created a monster — they had to be saved by the well-intentioned whites.
As Musk rehabilitates this old canard, he mugs to the audience. Eventually, as though hooked up to a generator, a few people spastically applaud. “I think it’ll be obvious that in fact far from being antisemitic, I’m in fact philosemitic,” he says.
Yet even that word, Musk seemed to steal from Twitter. Another Twitter user opined that “the propensity to blame antisemitism on American whites, the most philosemitic group of people in the modern history of the world, is extremely upsetting.” Musk responded: “Yes.” As the backlash continued, he began using that word, too.
Musk never apologies for his statement. Indeed, he doubles down on it. Sorkin never pushes back, except to suggest that he should be more careful in imparting his genius.
The rest of the hour-and-a-half interview is only worth watching if you’re keen to see the financial journalism equivalent of softcore pornography. But a short time later, Musk gets around to addressing the thing that I really want to talk about this week. And, I apologize in advance, but there’s more metaphors.
Musk: The aspiration for X is to be the global town square. Now, if you were to walk down to, let's say, Times Square, right? Do you occasionally hear people saying crazy things?
Sorkin: Yes. But they don't have the megaphone. Right? And that's the conundrum. They can only say it to the 50 or 100 people that are that are standing there in Times Square.
Musk: The joke I used to make about old Twitter was: It was like giving everyone in the psych ward a megaphone. So, I'm aware that things can get promoted that are negative — beyond somebody simply screaming crazy things in Times Square, which happens all the time. But it's pretty rare for something, frankly, that is hateful to be promoted [on X]. It's not it's not that it never happens. But it's fairly rare. I mean, I would encourage people who use the system: When you look at the feed that you receive, how often is it hateful? And over time, has it gotten more or less hateful? And I would say that, if you're looking at the X platform today, versus a year ago, I think it is actually much better.
Sorkin told Musk that, actually, yes: His feed had gotten much more toxic. But, he offered, maybe that’s because he “go looking for this stuff.” Well, Musk says, that’s why. Sorkin quickly moves on.
But we shouldn’t move on: Twitter has grown more toxic. And, critically, it is not confined to Twitter. Look, it’s right there onstage with the New York Times. Every Musk tweet has the power to dominate cable news. It is influencing major candidates for high office in countries around the world.
If you’ve seen anything from this interview, you probably caught the clip of Musk addressing the advertisers who have fled Twitter. “Go fuck yourself!” He repeated, until the audience began laughing. He insisted that, if Twitter dies, it will be the advertisers’ fault. And it will be a grave day for freedom of speech.
In the hours after Musk’s Lovecraftian fluffing session, Twitter’s Chief Enabling Officer Linda Yaccarino logged on to offer her interpretation of the interview. “He also offered an apology-” he didn’t “-an explanation-” no “-and an explicit point of view about our position-” lol “-X is enabling an information independence that's uncomfortable for some people-” it continues apace and ends with a message to Twitter’s suffering advertisers: “Thank you.”
She followed up that unhinged piece of corporate spinelessness by liking a post from Alex Lorusso, a far-right media producer who once dubbed the mass-banning of Stop the Steal endorsers on Twitter, following the January 6 insurrection, “the digital night of the long knifes.”
Yaccarino is certainly hard at work convincing Twitter’s institutional users and advertisers that Musk isn’t an anti-semite, he’s just pretending to be one; while assuring its conspiracy-minded mega-users that Musk will never stop fighting for their right to par-tay.
Which brings me to a point I’ve made before, and will make again: Twitter, with its bug-eyed owner and its shameless CEO, needs to be quarantined.
We can actually quantify how bad Twitter has become. TrustLab, a European research organization, collected a huge trove of content posted to the social platforms in Spain, Poland, and Slovakia in August.
TrustLab found that nearly half of all keyword searches on Twitter returned some form of mis/dis-information. For the next-worst platform, Facebook, it was less than a third. The rate of discoverability of this bad content on Twitter was more than twice as high as on Tiktok.
Mis/dis-information on Twitter earned a rate of engagement nearly twice as high as regular content: Worse than every other platform by orders of magnitude. On Tiktok, mis/dis-information earned just a fraction of the rate of engagement for regular content.
Twitter, as a platform, encourages misinformation. Its users expect it and egg it on.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate looked at the impact of Musk’s amnesty for previously-banned accounts: It found that, in just weeks, ten of the reinstated accounts — including alleged human trafficker Andrew Tate, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, violent conspiracy theorist Stew Peters — had racked up nearly 2.5 billion views on their content. The rogues gallery of those conspiratorial accounts, which have formed a kind of new Twitter elite, make clear where the new seat of power resides on Twitter.
That research earned the Center a lawsuit from Musk and Twitter, who allege the the British research organization is a “foreign dark money group” and that it is “funded and supported by foreign organizations and entities.”
There’s an interesting angle that the Institute for Strategic Dialogue discovered when they investigated a rise in antisemitism on Twitter: It actually rose to meet Musk. Between June 2022, when Musk was being cajoled into respecting his offer to buy the platform, and October, when the deal went through, there was a 105% rise in antisemitic content on Twitter. There was a particular spike right around when he walked into Twitter HQ with the kitchen sink. “This spike potentially correlates with reports of a coordinated trolling campaign designed to flood Twitter with hate speech at the point of Musk’s takeover of the platform,” they write. (A similar growth was observed for mysoginistic accounts.)
To that end, we have to consider that Musk and Twitter now exist in a symbiotic relationship. The worst users on Twitter know he’s sympathetic: So they tag him in their posts, recommend videos for him to watch, ask for his input on things. And he obliges, promoting their mission in the process. This is exactly how he conjured up the #BanTheADL campaign, led by an actual neo-Nazi. (Dispatch #62)
It’s clear that every other major platform — through a combination of moderation, algorithmic recommendations, and user culture — actively discouraged mis/dis-information, Twitter actively encouraged it.
I could keep bombarding you with studies and examples. But why bother? Elon Musk proved my point in a single tweet this week.
In publishing a meme from The Office, originally uploaded to shitpost site iFunny, Musk proclaimed “does seem at least a little suspicious.” The meme, in short, concluded “Pizzagate is real.” Pizzagate, the progenitor of QAnon: The belief that a powerful cabal, including Hilary Clinton and Tom Hanks, traffic children around the world and sacrifice them to a Satanic god and to extract their brain secretions. A conspiracy theory that had to percolate on 4chan and 8kun because it was simply too toxic and madness-inducing for a pre-Musk Twitter.
Whether he believes it is immaterial. Twitter has become toxic, and everyone who continues to ignore that fact is enabling it. I know, I know, a Twitter addiction is hard to break. And I know that news happens on Twitter. And that rebuilding social networks can be hard.
Much like Shrek, Elon Musk lives in a swamp. He’s been putting up signs. He’s become a terrifying ogre. What more does he have to do to get us to listen?
That’s it for this week. Exciting things brewing in the coming weeks, which I hope to announce relatively soon.
As always, a massive thank-you to those who are signed up to be paying subscribers. While most of the content on Bug-eyed and Shameless is free, it’s only made possible thanks to those who pay for subscriptions. Buying a paying subscription also gives you the power to pitch me ideas for future dispatches — all of which I will, eventually, one way or another, incorporate.
Until next week!
For more on this, pick up a copy of Mike Rothchild’s (no relation) new book: Jewish Space Laser: The Rothschilds and 200 Years of Conspiracy Theories