Chaos reigns at Twitter as Musk manages 'by whims'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Ever since Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, bought Twitter for $44 billion in late April, Twitter has been in chaos. Musk has made and then withdrawn decisions including trying to retract his offer to buy Twitter. He's fired executives, cut the number of full-time employees in half, and then realized maybe he'd gone too far and tried to hire back some people he just terminated. He's floated ideas for subscription services and for charging a fee to verify that your account is really yours. But those ideas were met with widespread opposition. The number of content moderators has been slashed. Hate speech on Twitter has increased. Musk offered to reinstate Trump on Twitter after polling Twitter users about whether to do it. Some of the responders may have been bots.
My guest, Casey Newton, says Musk has been remaking Twitter in his own image. Newton is an independent tech journalist who covers the intersection of technology and democracy for his newsletter, Platformer, which is hosted by Substack. He also co-hosts the tech podcast "Hard Fork" with New York Times tech journalist Kevin Roose. From 2013 until 2020, when Newton started Platformer, he reported on tech for The Verge. We recorded our interview yesterday.
Casey Newton, welcome back to FRESH AIR. SpaceX and Tesla have been considered such big success stories, and credit has gone to Elon Musk. Twitter is showing a different side of him - indecisive, making decisions then retracting them. Twitter is losing money and advertisers under his leadership. He's making decisions that are driving away Twitter users. Are you surprised by what kind of leader he's turned out to be as the owner of Twitter?
CASEY NEWTON: You know, I really am. I had not paid a lot of attention to what Musk was doing at Tesla and SpaceX, but as you note, he was having a lot of success with those companies. And the Twitter that he inherited, while it had its challenges, was not a company in crisis. It made about $5 billion last year, has hundreds of millions of active users. And while it clearly needed to evolve, there was sort of no pressing need to blow it up and start over. And yet from the moment that he stepped into that job, that seems to be exactly what he decided to do.
He has now eliminated close to three-quarters of the staff. He has implemented a bunch of ideas and then quickly reversed himself. And more than anything else, I think he's given the impression that rather than operating according to some set plan, he's really managing Twitter more by whims and what seems to him to be a good idea in the moment. And so that's led to a lot of chaos.
GROSS: Do you think Twitter is starting to reflect Elon Musk's politics? And what are his politics?
NEWTON: Well, I think that in a lot of ways, he is a fairly conventional conservative. You know, he has adopted a lot of the views that have become mainstream among Republicans such as that social networks are censoring too much content, that free speech is at risk, that there are sort of too much deference shown to people who say that they're experiencing harassment or abuse or hate speech. And he wants to end those practices. So, you know, one of his first moves was to restore more than 60,000 accounts of people who had been banned from Twitter for breaking its rules. And I think that's sort of very much in keeping with this conservative world view, that it should not be up to platforms to decide who can participate or sort of set the terms by which they might participate.
Another way that we've seen Elon Musk's more conservative views manifest is he has lately been having a lot of fun with what he's calling the Twitter files. The Twitter files had to do with a New York Post story from the 2020 election about Hunter Biden's laptop. Twitter and Facebook intervened to temporarily restrict the distribution of that story because it looked like it was part of a sort of hack-and-leak-propaganda operation, which they were on high alert for. And they worried that somebody might be interfering with the election. Well, fast forward to today, and now a lot of Republicans believe that the platforms themselves interfered in the election by not allowing that story to spread quite as rapidly as it might have otherwise. This
is something that Elon Musk clearly believes, and he has now been releasing a bunch of internal documents. He shared them with a couple of other journalists, who have been posting about them on Twitter. And this is essentially red meat for the Republican base. You know, I would not be surprised if we saw hearings about this in the House of Representatives next year, right? So all these things are just sort of, you know, Elon being a good conservative and riling up that base. And he has spent a lot of time since he took over Twitter doing just that.
GROSS: So in terms of whether Twitter may now be reflecting Elon Musk's politics, Musk re-platformed over 60,000 people including Donald Trump, who used Twitter to, you know, say mistruths, disinformation. This is a person who wants to cancel part of the Constitution and who also was responsible for a lot of hate speech on Twitter. And then, you know, Musk re-platformed Kanye West in spite of Kanye West's antisemitism and then canceled the re-platforming in another kind of sudden change of mind. And of the 64,000 people or so that Elon Musk brought back to Twitter, people who had been canceled because of violations of Twitter rules including hate speech - you know, why would he want to bring back people who were responsible for hate speech? Hate speech is dangerous. It can really physically harm people. So how does that reflect, if at all, Musk's politics?
NEWTON: So what he has said about his view on this subject is that he believes that as long as you have not broken the law, you should effectively have unfettered access to social platforms, that - and this is just sort of a very glib understanding of free speech, I would say, where if you - you should just sort of have the right to speech, and almost nothing can take that away. And, you know, here in the United States, there's all sorts of horrible things that you can say. And under the First Amendment, you can't be prosecuted for those. Musk essentially wants to bring that idea to this platform that he now owns.
But I think it's worth talking a bit about why that isn't an approach taken by any other platform. And it's because most of us just don't want to be in rooms, whether they're real rooms or virtual rooms, with people who are preaching, you know, a gospel of hate, whether they're - you know, where they're spreading fictions or whether they're just sort of, you know, committing antisocial behavior. So there is this market...
GROSS: Or harassing you.
NEWTON: Yeah, exactly, right? If somebody's harassing you, you want to get out of there. And what I think that Musk and some of these other, like, right-wing platform commentators are missing is that there's a real market demand for this kind of basic content moderation, you know? And I just always sort of laugh because all of these guys - and it is mostly guys - think of themselves as the smartest business people in the entire world, and they can't believe that - you know, what all these woke liberals are doing to - you know, to these businesses. And yet I think we're going to see, over time, that they're going to turn out to be - they're going to lose a lot of money on these platforms 'cause they're not responding to what the market actually wants here, which is just basic content moderation.
GROSS: Hate speech has increased since Musk took over. Are you seeing that? Are you seeing examples of that?
NEWTON: We have seen some studies that have said that. I would say that some analysts who I really respect have questioned the methodology of those accounts. And so I'm not willing to say definitively that we've seen a massive rise in hate speech. However, the fact that they've restored thousands of accounts of people who did get kicked off for hate speech, that is very real. And so I think we have to assume that if hate speech hasn't increased on Twitter yet, it likely is going to happen in the coming weeks and months.
GROSS: Do you think Elon Musk's public image has totally changed, that he's seen now as being more indecisive and incompetent?
NEWTON: You know, I really do. And, you know, I should say, I am somebody who, in a lot of ways, was really rooting for Elon Musk here. Twitter has had a history of mismanagement. You know, two CEOs ago, it had a guy who was working two jobs at the same time. The company was really suffering as a result of that. And so I think, like a lot of people, I hoped that Elon, who had all this previous success, could come in and whatever the heck he was doing at Tesla and SpaceX maybe, you know, sprinkle a little bit of that magic on Twitter, and the platform will become a better version of itself. And yet, unfortunately, after he took over, he continuously rejected the advice of people who'd worked at Twitter for, you know, five, 10 years, who were able to predict for him exactly what was going to happen if he took the steps that he took. And he just kind of ignored those people and threw away their advice and fired them.
And then he took these actions and then exactly what they predicted came true. And he found himself in a lot of trouble. And that's the main reason why I think that Elon's reputation has taken a hit. It's not so much that he made mistakes. Every CEO makes mistakes. It's that the effects of his actions were accurately predicted for him by his own employees, and he just ignored them every step of the way and has kind of continuously found himself in trouble. So I do think that that has changed the public conversation around what kind of leader he is.
GROSS: You know, you reported - you've spoken to, you know, current and former Twitter employees and interviewed a Twitter engineer about his experiences working there and his experiences being laid off from there or terminated. And what you learned was that, you know, part of the engineering staff was asked to make, you know, a very technical presentation about how Twitter operates to Elon Musk. And they were kind of shocked about how little Musk really understood about the technical end of the operation.
NEWTON: Yeah, that's right. You know, so something about Elon Musk is that he sort of worships at the altar of the engineer. And as soon as he took over Twitter, basically job one for him was to bring in a bunch of his engineers from Tesla and some of his other companies to try to figure out who's a good engineer at Twitter. And more recently, they've started to do these impromptu code reviews, they call them, where they sort of summon you to an office. And they say, you know, show me every line of code you've written over the past week. So he really styles himself as this very technical person.
And yet, as you note, we have talked with folks who have said that, indeed, when they go to show him that code, he isn't really understanding what they're saying. Now, that's not true in every case, and I'm not saying that Elon Musk can't write a line of code. But for somebody who styles himself as this, you know, brilliant engineer, I have talked with Twitter employees who have been surprised at the lack of depth of his technical knowledge.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Casey Newton, who writes about tech for his newsletter Platformer, which is hosted by Substack. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Casey Newton, who writes about the intersection of technology and democracy for his newsletter, Platformer, which is hosted by Substack. He's been reporting on the chaos at Twitter ever since Elon Musk bought it for $44 billion in late October.
What's left of Twitter's staff? I think he fired about 20% of his full-time staff and 80% of contractors?
NEWTON: The numbers were even higher than that. And it's happened in several rounds, so it's sort of hard to keep up. There was an initial cut of about 50% to the core full-time employees. Then, as you note, about 80% of contractors got let go. Then he sent out an email to everyone saying, hey, you know, things - life is about to get even more difficult around here and you need to be extremely hardcore if you want to stay. And if you want to stay, like, click this button. Well, after that, a lot of people chose to take a severance package instead. So we now believe that Twitter has around 2,000 employees or fewer, and that's down from about 8,000 when he took over.
GROSS: Well, you know, the first time you were on our show, you were talking about content moderators on Facebook and how many of them get PTSD because they're - these are the people who have to look at all the, like, beheading videos and the murder videos and all the most horrible videos that Facebook would be taking down 'cause they're making the decision about whether to take these down or not. And so, you know, it sounded like a really stressful job. What's left of content moderators now on Twitter? Because on the one hand, tens of thousands of Twitter users who were de-platformed, who were taken down from Twitter, have been reinstated by Musk. And, you know, a certain percentage of them - I don't know what percentage - were taken down because of hate speech, because of behavior that wasn't tolerated on Twitter. So you're adding people who are responsible for hate speech and you're firing people who are content moderators. So what's left of the content moderation crew?
NEWTON: So, you know, Twitter will not tell us how many content moderators it has left. The company no longer has a communications department. So, you know, we're - we reporters are all used to just, you know, emailing our friends over in PR. And with Twitter, that's no longer possible. So we don't have a good answer to that question. What we - you know, what I've reported and have come to understand is that the vast majority of the content moderators have been let go. And I have friends and sources who work in a field that they call trust and safety, and they're basically the people who work at these companies to try to keep the platforms safe. And they've been pointing out to me, like, look, if you search for this hashtag, which, you know, used to sort of be blocked on Twitter, didn't used to return very many results, it's now starting to show some really problematic stuff. So there is absolutely concern that Twitter is filling up with the sort of stuff that content moderators would have been able to eliminate if they were still around.
You know, at the same time, Twitter's, like, rules - you know, every platform sets rules for what you can and can't do on the platform. Like, those haven't changed at all. If you, you know, Google the Twitter community standards, you'll find them, that there have been no changes since Musk took over. And yet, as you note, he just restored, you know, a bunch of, you know, neo-Nazis and other people to the platform. So, like, what are the rules on Twitter? You know, who knows? We really are just in a moment of pure chaos.
GROSS: You know, you describe what's happened at Twitter to employees as a purge. An engineer who you - a Twitter engineer who you interviewed was fired and got this email. We regret to inform you that your employment is terminated effective immediately. Your recent behavior has violated company policy. What was the violation?
NEWTON: Well, this person didn't know because it wasn't clear what policy they were referring to. You know, one of the waves of people being let go happened as Elon and his associates noticed that Twitter workers were being somewhat critical of his behavior, both in the company's Slack channels and sometimes even publicly on Twitter. And they just started to get rid of those people. And they would just say, well, you know, you violated company policy.
And, you know, the sources I spoke with sort of were throwing up their hands and saying, what policy are you talking about? You know, at Twitter - some people hear that and they say, well, look, if you were making fun of the boss, of course you got fired. That would happen anywhere. And that's, you know, true as far as it goes. But at Twitter, they had this culture of always criticizing power. You know, they believed that it sort of made the company stronger if they could question decisions being made by their leaders in public. And so this really did come as a huge shock to them. And I actually think some of them are probably going to sue the company over it because they feel like it was a wrongful termination.
GROSS: Musk became obsessed with the idea that his employees might sabotage Twitter. Is that a sign - do you think that's a sign of paranoia or a legitimate concern?
NEWTON: I think it was mostly paranoia. You know, most of the folks who I've been speaking with at Twitter over the past couple of months cared about the service a lot. And, in fact, the reason why they were staying on in spite of a lot of chaos all around them was because they wanted the Twitter service to stay up. They believed in it. But Musk really - particularly, I think, as he started to see criticisms of himself and his associates and Slack and on Twitter, he really did start to believe some of these people are going to go rogue and somehow sabotage the site. And so he undertook a purge.
GROSS: Are there employees who think that Musk is sabotaging Twitter in his attempt to blow it up?
NEWTON: There are.
GROSS: And remake it, you know, and remake it his way? Yeah.
NEWTON: Well, I think - the employees I've spoken to believe that the motivation is likely more financial. You know, as you'll recall, he spent $44 billion on Twitter. Almost everyone agrees that that was way more than the service was worth. The price crashed basically as soon as he bought it in the public stock markets, along with all the other tech stocks. And so now the company is loaded up with about $13 billion in debt. It has to pay a billion dollars a year just in interest to service that debt. And some folks believe that what Elon really wants to do is just blow the whole thing up so that he can restructure that debt and make Twitter cheaper after all. I will say I don't really buy that. I don't think that there is a master plan. I think Elon's waking up every day and just deciding what seems like the best thing to do that day, and that he's not trying to sabotage the site. But is it an idea out there that's going around among employees? It is.
GROSS: So one of the changes that Musk told employees he was making was that they could no longer work remotely, that they had to come into the office. And I think a lot of employees were upset by that, particularly ones who might have, you know, taken the job with the understanding that they could stay at home and take care of, you know, children or parents or grandparents or whatever their reason was to want to work at home and that suddenly the ground rules were being changed. Now, a lot of offices changed their ground rules about working from home. But how did that go over at Twitter? And how did Musk respond to the negative reaction?
NEWTON: Well, you know, as you can imagine, this is an extraordinarily disruptive thing for people who had taken these jobs assuming that they would be able to work where ever they wanted to. So a lot of folks don't work near one of the Twitter offices. And they received an email that said essentially, within a day, you need to be able to report to Twitter headquarters. And unless you have either a really good reason or you are an exceptional talent, we're not going to let you work remotely. And, of course, you know, how do you define an exceptional talent? There was sort of no further information on who might qualify under that plan.
And so people did start to make other plans. You know, that that was sort of a big reason why some people quit the company because ultimately they just decided, you know, this wasn't worth uprooting their entire lives for. For other people, though, I think it will probably be the basis of some sort of lawsuit because they will say, look, you know, you can't sort of unilaterally tell me that I just have to show up, you know, after hiring me to do this job that you told me that I could do remotely. So that's kind of how it played out among employees.
You know, for Elon, I think his perspective is anything he does that leads an unhappy person to quit is good. Like, right now, he's in a mode of trying to figure out who is loyal to him at Twitter and who he can sort of count on to be a good engineer. And everything else is just kind of noise and he doesn't really worry about it.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Casey Newton, who reports on tech issues for his newsletter Platformer, which is hosted on Substack. We'll talk more about the chaos at Twitter ever since Elon Musk took over in late October after a break. I'm Terry Gross, And this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Casey Newton, who writes about the intersection of technology and democracy for his newsletter, Platformer, which is hosted by Substack. He also co-hosts the tech podcast "Hard Fork" with New York Times reporter Kevin Roose. Newton has been writing about the changes and the chaos at Twitter since Elon Musk bought it for $44 billion in late October.
So is part of Elon Musk's goal in slashing the staff at Twitter by about 50% for full-time employees as part of the goal to, like, cut costs?
NEWTON: Yes, it is. He spent a lot of money on Twitter, and he needs to figure out how to make the site profitable. You know, for most of its history, Twitter has not been a profitable company, and it arguably had hired too many people. You know, I think even if Elon Musk had not taken over the company, Twitter probably would have undergone some pretty significant layoffs this year. I think it probably would have been closer to 25%. But as he tries to figure out what the next incarnation of Twitter should be, he wants to really get rid of a lot of employees because that's his single biggest cost.
GROSS: Musk said that the financial situation at Twitter was dire, and the company could even go bankrupt. What's the upside of saying that publicly?
NEWTON: (Laughter) You know, I wish I knew. I have since learned that he apparently has said a version of this at some of his other companies as well. He seems to like leaning on the drama of that a little bit to rally the troops. That's not how I would rally the troops. But I think he wants to sort of inspire in employees a sense of fear that unless they work really hard and do their best, the company and then their job might go away.
But I also think it gives him cover to do a lot of the things that we've seen, right? - getting rid of absolutely huge numbers of people, sometimes without even fully understanding what they did to the point that you have to go beg them to come back after you've gotten rid of them, right? But if you tell people, like, hey, we might go bankrupt, all of a sudden, a lot of options are on the table that might otherwise not be.
GROSS: One of Musk's strategies that seems to have backfired is dealing with verification. Can you describe what verification is and what Twitter's policy had been before Musk took over?
NEWTON: Yeah. So Twitter started a verification policy in 2009, and the basic idea was that it needed a way to verify that the owner of an account was who they said it was. So if you were a politician, a journalist or a celebrity, if you were really that person, Twitter would verify that, and then you would get this little blue check mark on your profile. That's how it had always worked. Musk came along and said he wanted verification to be open to a much wider number of people, which, by the way, I thought was a pretty good idea. I think there are a lot of good reasons why you might want people to be able to optionally verify their identity on Twitter. It can just sort of be good for the service overall.
But he made one really bad decision, which was that not only did he offer everyone a verification badge, it was no longer actually connected to any sort of idea of verification. All you needed to do was pay $8. You could create any account; you would get that little badge. And so people started to pretend to be brands. They started to be celebrities. They started to pretend to be Elon Musk. And that same blue verification badge that had only ever meant you are who you say you are all of a sudden now meant I have $8.
NEWTON: And so there was two days of just absolute chaos on Twitter as people sort of raced to see how much fun they could have with this ridiculous new system, wherefore, predictably, he pulled the plug and said they would start over.
GROSS: And one of the consequences of that was that he lost a lot of advertisers. Can you explain why?
NEWTON: Yeah. So advertisers are obsessed with what they call brand safety, which is basically just the idea that any of their ads are not going to appear next to something horrible, but also that they counted on verification to let people know that their brand was what it said it was. So, you know, one of the most famous examples from this disaster is that someone created a fake account pretending to be Eli Lilly and then saying, insulin is free. And then, the real Eli Lilly had to come along and say, oh, no, no, we're still going to, you know, massively overcharge you for insulin.
So in the wake of this, you have a lot of advertisers saying, you know what? Why are we spending money to be here? No one is even going to be able to tell if our brand is the real brand. And so you start to see this huge pullback in advertising as people just decide, you know what? We're going to sit this out for a while, while we wait to see what Elon is going to do.
GROSS: Twitter's largest brand advertiser is, or was, Apple. Apple pulled their advertising. Has Apple come back?
NEWTON: Yes. So there was a summit between Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, and Elon Musk a couple of days after Elon had started what seemed like a pretty unwise war against the company. And Elon Musk has since tweeted that Apple has resumed its advertising as normal. It's really important for Twitter. Apple is its single largest brand advertiser, so losing them would have been really hard on Twitter. It seems, for now, like that has been put to rest.
GROSS: Musk recently tweeted his thanks to returning advertisers. How many returned? And why did they return?
NEWTON: I'm still trying to learn the answer to this question. I don't understand what has happened on Twitter in the past two weeks that would make any advertiser say now it feels safe. You still have all of these, you know, accounts that have been brought back from the dead to say terrible things. You still do not have a clear answer on what their verification program is going to look like going forward. And so I don't really understand why these folks have come back. And I don't understand how many have come back.
You know, as I've been reporting on this, you know, my understanding is that Twitter's ad sales are still down from where they were expected to be. We're in the middle of what should be their busiest season. Not only is it the holidays, but the World Cup is traditionally one of the busiest times on Twitter, you know, every four years. And I think the advertisers are still down. So there are still some things I don't know there. But I would honestly be shocked if, you know, two months from now, Twitter's ad business was looking robust.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Casey Newton, who writes about tech for his newsletter, Platformer, which is hosted by Substack. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Casey Newton, who writes about the intersection of technology and democracy for his newsletter, Platformer. He's been reporting on the chaos at Twitter ever since Elon Musk bought it in late October.
So getting back to the idea that Musk is kind of blowing up Twitter to remake it his way, he's losing so much money in the process. I mean, other ways that he's losing money - 'cause you've pointed this out - is re-platforming people and making all these changes. They're really expensive. It requires a lot of engineering changes in order to make these changes on Twitter. Plus, there's no longer as many engineers there now. So it's almost like he's sabotaging himself in trying to remake Twitter.
NEWTON: Yeah, I think, you know, for some leaders, it's not a good idea unless they came up with it, right? And so people who worked at Twitter had all sorts of ideas about how you could improve the service, make it more profitable. Elon has gotten rid of most of those people, and he's fixated on a few core ideas that he thinks are going to be spectacular. Subscriptions is probably the biggest one although there are others. And he's just going to go for it.
You know, this is probably one of the most self-confident people in the entire world, right? Elon Musk does not have impostor syndrome. He wakes up every day convinced that he is the only person who knows how to fix this company. And, you know, as me - for me, an observer, I just sort of sit back and think, like, none of this is working, you know? And so to me, the question is, will he ever acknowledge that other people have better ideas for this company than he does? Or will he just sort of continue to charge ahead with his own ideas, you know, regardless of if they're successful or not?
GROSS: I'm wondering, like, did he ever announce projects and then, like, halt them or withdraw them at SpaceX or Tesla? Did he have a reputation for doing that there?
NEWTON: Yeah, I mean, sort of the most famous one at Tesla is - Tesla has some autonomous driving capabilities. Elon calls it full self-driving even though, you know, automotive experts, I think, quibble with whether it is actually full self-driving. But the rollout has just been delayed and delayed and delayed and delayed. And, you know, now, you know, who knows sort of when it will ever come. So, yeah, there is definitely a history of these companies and making grandiose promises and then not following up, right? You might also remember the Cybertruck, a big, flashy truck that he announced and, you know, began taking preorders for. You know, my understanding is the Cybertruck has still not shipped. So there's a lot of announcing and then delaying in Elon's world.
GROSS: You know, you also write that some CEOs are actually rooting for Musk. Why?
NEWTON: Well, you know, during the last decade, tech workers gained a lot of power, right? As the industry grew, engineers were in short supply, highly in demand, became very well compensated. And in order to compete for them, companies would offer them all these famous perks, right? - so, you know, on-site daycare and laundry and we'll send a barber to your office, right? And that was really great for the tech workers.
And the tech workers went a step further, and they started talking about issues like, you know, this company isn't really very diverse; we should try to make it more diverse. Or, you know, it seems like our company has a lot of dealings with the Chinese government; that makes us uncomfortable, right? So you saw walkouts. You saw worker organizing. And for the tech workers, I think that was a really positive thing.
But there's this whole class of CEOs who regards that as a terrible mistake. And I think what you see in a lot of the CEOs rooting for Elon, which they're doing mostly quietly and behind the scenes, is they love the idea of a CEO who can begin to claw back some of that power - right? - someone who can put workers in what they see as their proper place, which is sort of silently working away for whatever the boss wants and no longer bringing up issues like diversity, equity and inclusion, complaining that they're not getting enough perks, right? This really is, I believe, about clawing back some of those gains that workers have made over the past 10 years and restoring this sort of more traditional everybody-just-do-what-the-boss-says kind of work experience.
GROSS: You're still on Twitter, and you cover tech including Twitter. You have every reason to be on Twitter. So beyond your work as a journalist, why do you feel like you need Twitter?
NEWTON: You know, Twitter is really the only social network I ever felt like I was good at. You know, I think I'm not pretty enough for Instagram. I'm not a good enough dancer for TikTok.
NEWTON: Like, I work in text, and Twitter has just always been a great place for people who like to write sentences. I've often thought that it's the funniest social network. You know, people just wake up every day, and they just tell jokes on Twitter in a way that makes me laugh, right? It's like you don't often laugh intentionally when you go on LinkedIn. So I've just always loved that about Twitter. And I hope that, you know, if Twitter doesn't survive all of this, that there is still something Twitter-like in the world for those of us who like to write and read sentences.
GROSS: Do you think there's a chance that Twitter won't survive?
NEWTON: You know, I try not to be too excitable on this point 'cause on one hand, I look at everything that's happened, and I think, well, how could it survive? (Laughter) Like, none of this seems like this is sustainable to me, you know? But at the same time, you know, Yahoo still exists. There are all sorts of websites from, you know, even the dot-com era that are still around in one form or another. So I think that Twitter will probably still be around in some form for some time to come.
However, I also think that there's probably never been a better time to start a Twitter competitor. I do think that there is an opportunity for folks to understand what is powerful about Twitter to come in, rebuild it, probably change some things, probably not make it exactly like Twitter, but just sort of do it in a sort of straightforward, normal, less chaotic way than Musk is doing. And I think they might find some success. So that's sort of one of the big things I'm looking for in 2023, is who seizes opportunity and how well do they do?
GROSS: You've also been writing about two cases that the Supreme Court will decide next year that you say could make life more difficult for tech platforms without doing much to address the harm that those platforms create. And this has to do with people who are suing platforms for saying that the platforms and what they posted encouraged terrorism and may have helped lead to terrorist attacks. In one case, the plaintiff's family member was killed in an ISIS attack. So tell us what the basic premise of these lawsuits are.
NEWTON: Yeah. So you know, in the United States, we have this important law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. And it protects platforms from liability, in most cases, from what their users post. So even if you post something really terrible on a platform, generally speaking, you cannot sue a platform over that. What makes these cases interesting, particularly one of them, the Gonzalez case, is that the Gonzalez case is the first time the Supreme Court has agreed to take a case that could limit Section 230. And specifically, what the Gonzalez case is saying is that Google and YouTube should be held accountable for the videos that it recommended to people about ISIS and sort of recruiting people to ISIS.
So why is that a big deal? Well, YouTube recommends millions and millions, if not billions, of videos to people. And if it is going to be legally liable for every video that it promotes, that is going to be terrifying to the company because much of the modern internet, most of the platforms that we use, are all built on things being recommended to us. And platforms have never before had to worry that what they recommend could get them into legal trouble.
GROSS: So I guess the question is a recommendation free speech? Is it a free speech issue?
NEWTON: Yeah. And, you know, I have spoken with First Amendment scholars who believe that recommendations are absolutely speech, and that it goes against our understanding of the First Amendment to suggest that a corporation could not say, watch this video, because in a lot of ways, that doesn't seem very different from a publisher of a newspaper telling you to read this article, right? But at the same time, we know that there are voices on the Supreme Court, led by Clarence Thomas, who have argued that Section 230 gives platforms too much protection and that it's time to start clawing some of those protections back. So scholars are really watching this case because there's not - we just really don't know how this one is going to go.
GROSS: If the plaintiffs win and platforms like Google and YouTube are held responsible for recommending videos or text, that would be in conflict with laws in Florida and Texas that prevents social media platforms from taking down posts because of content. Can you explain the predicament that platforms would be in if the plaintiffs win the Supreme Court cases but a case comes up in Florida or Texas (laughter)?
NEWTON: Yeah. And so these Florida and Texas laws that were passed this year essentially seek to make content moderation illegal. And this is very much in the Elon Musk school of thinking - right? - which is that we should just sort of have free speech and nothing else. And so, as you know, we could be in this world where platforms will be forced to carry speech, including hate speech, in places like Texas and Florida because it will be illegal to remove speech.
But then if they recommend that speech via some sort of algorithm, they could also then be held legally liable for recommending that thing, which they are forced to carry and are not allowed to remove. So you know, I talked to the people who work on this stuff at platforms. And they have no idea how they would comply with these laws. They're completely at a loss.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Casey Newton, who writes about tech for his newsletter, Platform. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Casey Newton, who writes about the intersection of technology and democracy for his newsletter, Platformer, which is hosted by Substack. He's been reporting on the chaos at Twitter ever since Elon Musk bought it in late October.
A related issue to the issue we've been talking about - about the responsibility of social media to have content moderation - TikTok is facing lawsuits about things like the blackout challenge. Would you describe what the blackout challenge is and what these lawsuits are saying?
NEWTON: Yeah. So you know, this is a really dangerous stunt that's, you know, been around since I was a kid where kids will encourage one another to sort of use household objects to choke themselves unconscious, to then experience the adrenaline rush of suddenly regaining that consciousness. It has proven to be particularly dangerous on TikTok, in part, I think, just because it looks fun, you know? Kids see kids doing this. Of course, in the videos, everyone comes right back awake. And they are laughing and giggling. And you look over, you know, on the right side of the screen and that video's getting lots of likes. And it just sort of seems like everybody is having a good time.
In reality, of course, this is a really dangerous practice. And there was a wonderful investigation in Bloomberg Businessweek by a reporter named Olivia Carville recently who went into the many lives that have been lost according to this challenge. And now some folks are starting to sue TikTok, saying the company should have done a better job removing those videos before they could be seen by kids who in many cases were under the age of 13. And kids are not supposed to be using social networks before they turn 13.
GROSS: So what's the state of these lawsuits now?
NEWTON: They are in process. I think it's relatively early. And, you know, this will be one where the platform will say, because of Section 230, you can't sue us for what was on our platform. And one of the reasons I have my eye on those cases is because of these other lawsuits that are before the Supreme Court that could potentially remove some of these protections from the platform. So, for example, if TikTok is found to have recommended videos to one of these, you know, poor kids who died doing this challenge, that could potentially become the basis for a lawsuit against TikTok that actually, you know, goes all the way to trial.
GROSS: What's TikTok's approach to content moderation?
NEWTON: TikTok moderates content quite aggressively, and I think it's probably fair to say that they moderate it more aggressively than any other platform. So one of the things that Bloomberg reported, which I hadn't known before, was that whenever a video on TikTok gets about 3,000 views, it gets sent to a human moderator who looks at it just to make sure that it is not too dangerous. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, they're not doing that, right? You know, they have other moderation systems in place, but they're not getting eyes on every piece of content when it crosses that threshold of views.
And I think one of the really tragic things about this story is that even when you're doing that, you're still missing videos that may have under 3,000 views that, for whatever reason, are still getting recommended to these kids. And I think it just goes to show that when you run a global-scale social network, there are just going to be harms associated with this. And we need to keep thinking through how we can do a better job preventing that really harmful stuff from reaching vulnerable kids.
GROSS: Since we spent a lot of time talking about Twitter, what do you want from social media now in 2022, going on 2023? And how different is that from what you wanted when you first started using Twitter and Facebook?
NEWTON: You know, I love that question because it took me such a long time to figure out what my answer to it was. I think what I've decided is that I want the internet to be as good for everyone else as it has been for me. You know, the internet is a place where I have learned to make friends. It's where I've been able to express myself. I was able to build something of a following. And I was able to turn that into a business which has now given me this wonderful life. And it's all because of the way that these social networks can connect us to audiences that are like-minded, who think that we're interesting. And in order for that to happen, those places need to be safe. They need to make me feel comfortable speaking. They need to get good at recommending me to people who might be interested in me, right?
And so that's really what I want, right? I want all those systems and mechanisms in place so that if you're just kind of a good citizen of the world and you want to meet people who share your interests and maybe even want to make a little money on the internet, you should be able to find those people and you should be able to have those tools. I think 10 or 12 years ago, when I started using Twitter really intensely, I just thought of it as like kind of a fun thing, you know. I thought, well, you know, I'll paste a link here to something that I wrote and hopefully some people will read it.
But over the past 10 years, we've seen how powerful it can be for good reasons as well as bad. And my hope is that, you know, as the world continues to evolve, we really keep pushing hard on those good uses of the internet because there are a lot of them. And while it's in the nature of us as journalists to focus on everything that's going wrong, in my everyday life, like, I live a way that it can go right. So that's how I think about that.
GROSS: Casey Newton, it's been a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
NEWTON: Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Casey Newton reports on tech issues for his newsletter Platformer, which is hosted on Substack. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Mike White, the creator, writer and director of HBO's "White Lotus," or with comic actor and screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani, who's now starring in "Welcome To Chippendales," playing the founder of Chippendales, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And don't forget the FRESH AIR newsletter, which comes out on Saturdays and gives you a look at what happened on the air and behind the scenes in the past week on our show. You can get it in your email by subscribing for free on our website, freshair.npr.org.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer as Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.