Musk and Managing the Message

Alina Utrata (she/her) is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge, looking at how Silicon Valley tech companies may be challenging or affecting the power of the state. She hosts a podcast, The Anti-Dystopians: The Politics Podcast about Tech.

Read her full bio at the Conversations page.

Alina Utrata: “The fact that Elon Musk is in charge doesn’t change the underlying problems with Twitter

Steve – Since we’re not actually at a baseball game right now, if we were to be at one, where would we be? Do you have a favorite stadium you like to go to?

Alina – I have to admit that even though I am an American, I never really got into baseball (don’t worry – you’re not alone…) But obviously since I’m from San Francisco, it’d have to be the SF Giants at AT&T – now Oracle – Park.

Steve – What was the first ballgame you attended and what do you remember about it? Also, what was the first election you voted in? What do you think has been the most significant  change in either institution since then?

Alina – My grandma was a big baseball fan, so I’m sure she took me to a Giants game when I was younger, but I have no specific memory of it. The first ballgame I remember attending was in high school for a friend’s birthday party. So it was a whole group of us girls at the stadium, which was fun. But they knew a lot more about the players than I did!

The first election I voted in was the 2014 midterms. That was when the discourse was all about whether Hillary Clinton was going to run for president, and everyone thought how boring the 2016 election would be if it was Clinton versus Jeb Bush, representing the American equivalent of political family dynasties. But obviously that didn’t turn out the way most people expected. . .

Much has changed since then, but the most important question I think has not been about how the boring political establishment controls our institutions, but whether white supremacist fascism has infiltrated our political processes.  

Steve –  Your academic work has evolved from conflict resolution to analysing technology’s pitfalls – both topics crucial to creating and maintaining a healthy democracy anywhere. Yet I’ve been hearing people talk about the “digital divide” between rich and poor, between the northern and southern hemisphere, for the past 20 years and that gulf seems to be permanently with us. I’ll ask you the same question as I asked in another recent Q&A – are we at a point where technology now moves too fast for regulators and policymakers to keep up? Are governments – across the world, not just in the US – fit for purpose when it comes to deciding the rules for how technology is applied? If not, what can the rest of us do about it?

Alina – I think it’s an interesting question—Jennifer Cobbe who does legal analysis of tech (and actually got her PhD at QUB) recently came on my podcast and said that there is this idea that law “can’t keep up” with technological developments, when really law and regulation are part of the architecture that shapes how technology can and does develop.

Look at the debate in the US over Section 230 (of the Communications Act), for example; that is a legal regulation which basically means online platforms can’t be held liable for content posted on their sites. If the law didn’t exist in the way it did, Facebook, Twitter, AirBnb, Yelp or even Amazon, or any site that relies on customer reviews or user content, simply could not have developed. So law and technology are co-constituent processes. On the other hand, I think there is a kind of naivete among Western states about how much power is being consolidated in the hands of corporations in ways that may threaten or challenge the state.

If you look at China, for instance, the CCP is very aware that although powerful corporations can be an asset or an ally, they can also threaten the power of the state. Whereas I think the US government and to some extent the EU, while concerned about the geopolitical power of Chinese tech companies like Tencent or TikTok, are less concerned with how “American” corporations like Amazon or Facebook have consolidated a kind of infrastructural or political power over their citizens.

Steve – Obviously the big recent news has been about the world’s richest person taking over one of the world’s biggest social media platforms, accompanied of course by fine statements about protecting “free speech”. The sheer reach of Twitter and its immediacy has implications for the nature of our political discourse – but hasn’t that damage already been done regardless of who owns the platform? Is the algorithm more important than who’s in charge?

I mean, the second-richest person owns one of the nation’s most influential newspapers (although sadly it feels strange to even say the word “paper” these days…)

Alina – I agree to the extent that I don’t think the fact that Elon Musk is in charge changes the underlying political problems of Twitter. With the newspaper example—obviously, an individual who owns a newspaper does have the kind of media power that can shape or influence political discourse. Whereas Twitter is not a newspaper, but a communications platform—it’s amalgamating what information you see and how you communicate with other people. So it’s not a newspaper, but infrastructure (although Paul Fairie reminds us here of the story of Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent…)

Twitter is a really important communications tool on which communities organize and network – for the book publishing industry, for instance, Twitter is a way to connect with agents and editors and pitch and promote your book.

The problem isn’t the algorithm, the problem is that a single corporation has centralized control over the architecture of a communications infrastructure. Compare Twitter to a bulletin board site like Wikipedia, where the architecture of the site allows for users to engage in more egalitarian – some would say anarchical – processes of control over what information is posted and promoted. Elon Musk might more visibly use or abuse the power that comes with owning that centralized communications infrastructure, but the problem exists whoever owns the company.

Steve – There seem to be new things to be concerned about with this deal with each development: the impetus for revenue-generation, for example, or crucially, the approach to content moderation, particularly so close to the midterm elections – when the volume of traffic on the platform is likely to be huge; (although we shouldn’t sleep on the potential impact of TikTok too).

Andrew Gawthorpe had an interesting thread about what might be Musk’s political motivations in all this.

But lots of people  still appear to be fixated on peripheral things like whether or not the former President will be allowed back onto the platform (despite having famously started his own). What do you think is a *bigger* question we might be missing? As a student of the disinformation technology environment, what do you think is the most important thing about this change of ownership, and/or direction for Twitter?

Alina – I think what people are missing is the problem of the cloud computing architecture that underpins a lot of the social media platforms. Yes, It would be bad if Trump comes back on Twitter, although that’s in part because the media establishment spends so much time on every one of his deranged tweets.

But the internet and much of our digital infrastructure have now become highly dependent and centralized on cloud computing providers like Amazon Web Services. After the Capitol Hill riot, AWS suspended its service agreement with the alt-right social media site Parler—and the entire platform went offline. That’s a huge infrastructural power, but we’re not really talking about AWS or other cloud computing providers in this discussion over speech.

Steve – One of the first things Musk did after taking over was to Tweet out a less-than-dignified response to the violent attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband. Are the guardrails around the idea of what is acceptable speech more in flux than ever or does it just seem to be getting worse? What are the implications for what gets said on a platform if the people who are supposed to be setting standards abdicate that responsibility?

Alina – Of course it’s shocking when someone who is in charge of a major platform is posting conspiracy theories. But at the same time, the whole discussion of “free speech” is a bit misleading. Free speech applies to government limits on speech — not corporations. Corporations can and do limit speech on these platforms all the time.

Regardless of whether it is Musk or Mark who is in charge, the problem is that private individuals who control private corporations have the power to set the standards of what content can be posted and boosted in public debate around the world. That kind of power is a problem for civil society everywhere, whether anyone agrees with their specific decisions or not.

Steve – Are there any books or other sources you’d recommend for people like me who might want to better understand this world that inescapably affects them, whether or not they realize to what extent?

Alina – For book recommendations, here’s a review I did of my favorite series on tech; while I have some associated readings organized by topic on the Anti-Dystopians substack that might be of interest as well.

Steve –  As we said before, we’re just a few days out from the midterms. Have you already voted absentee in California? What for you are the main issues driving these elections, and – even though we often hear that Twitter “isn’t real life” – will they turn out to be as important in the longer term as the platforms we have for discussing them?

Alina – I have filled out my absentee ballot, but I still need to mail it! I think many people will be looking to see what the Democrats do about codifying reproductive rights after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. They had decades to pass legislation on reproductive rights, and they didn’t. Still, I don’t think platforms can substitute for organized action. I think it’s really encouraging that we’ve seen so much union action across the US, from Amazon warehouses to Starbucks (and just this week a walkout at newspaper publisher Gannett) Political change only comes from organizing, not tweeting! 

Steve –  Finally, back to baseball, sort of… Some academics (infamously like Noam Chomsky) have believed that sport is a distraction from the “important” things in our lives, or worse, a means for encouraging negative sentiments like tribalism or jingoism. Others – obviously – disagree: Dave Zirin once wrote about sport’s ability to act as a fulcrum for social change, and that it is inherently valuable the same way art is. He said: “Like all art, sport at its essence – what attracts us to it in the first place – holds within it a view of human potential unshackled, of what we could all be in a society that didn’t grind us into dust.”

These days, it’s not unreasonable to argue that we need all the distractions we can get. So even for people who aren’t baseball fans, do you think there is positive value in the passion the game inevitably creates – especially now, with the World Series happening at the same time as the midterms?

Alina – A few months ago, I would have admitted I don’t really *get* sports. But my girlfriend has recently gotten me into women’s football. It’s been really amazing after England won the Euros this summer to see how popular the women’s game has become and, as a woman and queer person, to feel more included and explicitly a part of a sports league. I think obviously sports has the potential to create community and develop community ties.

But obviously sports are unavoidably political – you can see that in Iran, where women have not been allowed to attend football games. Or here in the UK or US, where women’s sports are not given the same kind of resources or respect, or trans athletes may be banned from competing. That’s a political statement about who we feel should be included and valued in society. So the types of communities we cultivate and the messages we send – even when it’s centered around entertainment – that not just men can be athletes, that queer people are welcome on sports pitches, is so very important.

You should do one of these Q&As about a women’s softball game sometime!

Steve – Great idea… I’ll definitely try to do something like that next season.

Stanford Womens’ Softball


You can keep up with Alina’s work here

Read also the Q&A with Mike Uy ‘It’s all entertainment, really..’

“Every major societal shift follows big technological changes in ways no one could predict or would have tolerated if they’d known in advance. From the printing press to telegraph to radio to TV to internet or from trains to cars to planes, at first we think it’s freedom, then it’s profit, but then the machine catches up and co-opts it and figures out how to exploit it and it becomes both the very thing upon which we are dependent and which ends up being used to oppress us.

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