[M]ost of Twitter’s pathologies that people are pinning on Musk predate his ownership. I know this from personal experience. During the 2016 presidential-election campaign, I was inundated with anti-Semitic invective on Twitter over my critical commentary on Donald Trump’s candidacy. An Anti-Defamation League study found that I received the second-most abuse of Jewish commentators on the site during that cycle. Twitter subsequently vowed to clean up its act, but though some strides were made, most anti-Semitic bigotry remained. After the election, I built a bot that exposed neo-Nazi accounts impersonating Jews and other minorities on the platform. In 2017, Twitter banned the bot and left the Nazis. In 2019, an account impersonated me and Photoshopped a swastika onto a photograph of a baby, claiming that it was my son. When I reported this content, Twitter said it did not violate their terms of service, and backtracked only after embarrassing media coverage.
And that’s just the obvious stuff. When the bigotry moves beyond swastikas and slurs to conspiratorial anti-Semitism—the sort made infamous most recently by Ye—Twitter, like most social-media companies, has never really tried to fix it. The same is true of other bigotries; once hate is cloaked in coded language and euphemisms, it typically goes unchallenged.
I don’t recount these stories for sympathy. I take my targeting by bigots as an indicator that my work is upsetting the right people. But my experience demonstrates that what is happening on Twitter now is not new, and that scapegoating Musk for the site’s issues sidesteps the real reasons for its fundamental brokenness.
Twitter’s problems run far deeper than a problematic owner. To begin with, it’s structurally designed to impede complex discussion by forcing users to reduce all topics to 280-character sound bites. This can be a fun way to react to Game of Thrones, but it is not a good way to litigate economic policy or geopolitical conflicts. The constricted format impedes free-flowing conversation while privileging performative sloganeering. This is why Donald Trump, who seemingly never had a complex thought in his life, loved Twitter. Why our intellectual elite has decided to yoke the public discourse to a site whose most successful users are people like Trump is less understandable. [Continue reading…]