The Elon vs. Twitter saga shows that the price to fight social network censorship is very high. The price: tens of billions of dollars, or at least in his case, $44 billion. I too was optimistic that the deal would materialize, and by mid April Elon alluded multiple times on his Twitter timeline that the deal was done. But for reasons that are still poorly understood and still developing, it fell through. Note, this is just the price tag for Twitter. Google, Facebook? Forget about it. Reddit is notably cheaper, at $10 billion as of 2022 according to its latest funding round (it’s probably lower thanks to the recent market downturn). But this is still high enough to exclude all but the 100 or so richest people in the world, and this assumes that said suitor allocates a sizable percentage of his or her net worth to the endeavor, which Elon evidently was unable to do with Twitter.
As many as 2 billion people depend or rely on social networks for business or personal use. Being banned means a loss of all these important contacts/connections instantly that took years to accrue, often with no recourse if it was for a rules violation. There is arbitration, but it’s kinda a joke given that it’s expensive and time consuming, and the terms of service of major social networks are written in such a way that losing is impossible. They will spend millions to not lose a single case for a single disputed banned account, because losing once would open the flood gates to more loses and invalidate the inviolable nature of such bans. Moreover, the bans are permanent and are a ban on the person from ever using the site again. Which means that making a new account many years later will not help (sooner or later it will be tied to the original and banned). Even being a billionaire will not help, as in the case of Trump being banned, unless said billionaire is either rich enough to buy the site outright or knows someone who can.
I can count on a single hand and still have five fingers remaining the number of famous, rich people who were able to use their clout to successfully reverse a social media rules violation. In other words, it never happens.
Since 2016 or so, social media censorship has gotten out of control, and people are being banned for the flimsiest of reasons now, which means everyone has to walk on eggshells to avoid tripping some sort of algorithmic livewire (even Jordan Peterson recently got temporarily suspended from Twitter for deadnaming Elliot Page). Drawing a line at targeted harassment (such as sending DMs at someone against his or her wishes), threats, or doxing is reasonable, but what exactly constitutes ‘Covid misinformation,’ ‘deadnaming/misgendering’ or ‘2020 election misinformation’ is unclear and seems like an arbitrary overreach of power. It’s also a moving target, because what is considered misinformation today may be true later (such as the CDC famously flip-flopping on masks). How much time has to pass before before it’s considered deadnaming? How does expressing skepticism about the outcome of an election constitute ‘hate speech’ or ‘inciting violence’? Rather than supporting the actual users, tech companies are increasingly deferential to the rich and powerful, be it celebrities whose feelings are easily hurt or governments that seek to quash dissent. This is why I was hoping that Elon would be successful, not because I necessarily agree with what he stands for, but if anyone is in position to do something about it, he is, because other possible solutions are even less viable.
How about section 230? Trying to undo or amend section 230 has been tried since 2017 and predictably has gone nowhere.
Antitrust? That too has been a nonstarter, predictably. The DOJ spent billions of dollars and nearly 5 years suing Microsoft for alleged anti-competitive practices, in which the latter ultimately prevailed by making small concessions instead of being broken up. Given the enormous investment of time and money, it’s not surprising that it hasn’t been tried again on another large tech company, and plus the burden for proving anti-competitive behavior is almost impossibly high to clear.
But what about alt-tech? It didn’t cost Andrew Torba billions of dollars to create Gab. But the reality is, alt-tech kinda sucks. There is not as much viralness, engagement, or content discovery. Andrew is avowedly Christian, but probably most people who are banned don’t care about defending Christianity as much as they care about having a platform that can replicate everything that made Twitter great. ‘Alternative’ implies that it’s like an inferior substitute of the original. All these right wingers who were banned from Twitter keep trying to come back, such as Roger Stone and Nick Fuentes, and even when they choose a username/handle that makes no reference to their original likeness, they still get found out and promptly banned. If alt-tech was such a good solution then they wouldn’t even think twice about Twitter…it would be out of sight and out of mind, yet they keep trying to come back. In the days following Elon’s announcement that the deal had closed, which of course we know it hadn’t, probably dozens of previously banned users flocked to Twitter to create new accounts, and were all banned. It also shows that if given a choice between an ideological echo chamber or a bigger platform, they would go with the bigger platform, which does not surprise me. Because when you’re tweeting hot takes, you want those takes to be seen by your opponents too, who will get ‘triggered’ by them and retweet or comment on them, boosting the virality. Also, changing sentiment means targeting people who are otherwise on the fence or skeptical, not just preaching to the choir.
Because Twitter is where 99% of people are (and the rest are on alt-tech), and there is no getting around that. It’s like “Linux can do almost everything Windows can do and is free” That’s great, but Windows still has 95% market share. It’s like “the open-source Google Play store alternative has almost all the same programs and functionality as the propriety store,” but no one uses it. It’s like “Duck Duck Go doesn’t track you” Except it does now, and it’s results are not that good, and a decade later its market share is still tiny compared to Google (most people prefer a better search engine over not being tracked anyway).