TechFreedom Internet policy counsel Corbin K. Barthold joins Brian Anderson to discuss Elon Musk’s successful bid for Twitter and its implications for free speech, tech regulation, and the Internet.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Corbin Barthold. Corbin is the internet policy council and Director of Appellate Litigation for TechFreedom.

He's written for City Journal, both long articles for forthcoming issue and some shorter reactions to the web. The most recent of which is on Elon Musk's Twitter takeover, which everybody's talking about. And that's going to be the subject of today's episode. So Corbin, thanks very much for coming on.

Corbin Barthold: It's great to be here.

Brian Anderson: So let's indeed start with the news that's sent a shutter through not only the tech world, but also the political and media spheres. Last night, or I should say Monday night, Twitter approved Elon Musk's bid for control of Twitter, which he will purchase at $54 and 20 cents a share. So that's considerably above its current market price.

And it's true that Twitter's business model has struggled for years to match what is an extraordinarily large cultural footprint, I think we'd have to say. So this combined with Musk's not so subtle declarations of his intent to bring freeze speech back to Twitter has led many to suggest that he has motives beyond simply making money.

So let's talk this through, how did the deal come together over the last week, and did Twitter's shareholders and board work to stop the takeover, that's certainly what it looked like, or was the whole poison pill idea that they set forth just kind of standard corporate maneuvering? And what's your take on Elon Musk's intentions here?

Corbin Barthold: Sure, sure. Well, starting with how things look with the deal now that the dust has settled a bit. I am inclined to think that the real stopping point or the source of the poison pill was a skepticism about whether Elon Musk was actually going to pull together funding for the deal, whether this was another yank of the chain.

We all recall when he said that he was going to take Tesla private, and then that didn't happen. And once he actually started to put money on the table and show that he was serious, it's clear that the Twitter board started to take him serious in return.

And once the deal started to coalesce and it looked like Musk was serious, I think the flaws in Twitter and its management and its product that have been very apparent over the years, certainly attracted the attention, say of Elliot Management, brought them in as an activist investor to try to buck up the share price. Those started to come to the for. And I think Twitter had to take those seriously.

I believe that Goldman Sachs gave them a report telling them that it was a good deal, that the price was good, that Twitter was going to struggle to meet that price on its own terms, trying to implement the improvements that Elliot Management had pushed them to implement.

And here we are. Well, it is fascinating to me though, because I am not an investment banker. I don't work for Morgan Stanley, but I wonder about the conversation where some, I don't know, mid-level Morgan Stanley banker is talking to his boss saying, "Yeah. I'm proposing we loan out billions of dollars to Mr. Musk."

And the boss says, "Okay. Well, what has Mr. Musk said?" Well, Mr. Musk says, he's not worried about money. He's not worried about making money. That's not his priority for this deal. And yet they got on board along with several other blue chip banks. Your guess as to what they see there is as good as mine.

Brian Anderson: So this takeover, if it indeed happens, it certainly looks like it will over the next few months. And Musk's forthright advocacy of free speech on the platform as occasioned a lot of panicked commentary from progressive commentators, politicians, Twitter employees, many of whom seem to have jettisoned any past verbal commitment that they'd ever made to free expression.

So you could honestly fill up a book pretty quickly with examples of outright hypocrisy though. So there's the MSNBC anchor who's worried that Twitter in the hands of Musk could tip the political scales in favor of certain candidates or causes via the algorithm.

There was the journalist who compared the atmosphere on Pre-Musk Twitter to Weimar Germany. So how has something as straightforward as the intention to widen the range of permissible expression on Twitter come to be so incredibly controversial? The Twitter's content moderation apparatus, at least the scale in which it has been operating is a relatively new addition to the site.

Corbin Barthold: I mean, I think the simple, honest fact is that our culture moves rapidly these days. And the notion that Twitter was the free speech wing of the free speech party. Oh, that was so five years ago. And as I said in the first article on this that I wrote for you, I think there is a degree on the left, and the right has its own pathologies, but they are very used to winning.

They'll never admit that. That is totally against their identity, but they have an implicit assumption that in cultural battles over a long enough timeline, they will always get their way. And there's some pretty decent basis for that.

They can celebrate the civil rights movement going back to the sixties, but they have this time horizon that goes over the last 70 years or so where they think that there's an arc of history. That just means wherever they're headed is where things are going. And when that's your attitude, you don't really need to hash things out and have debates and arguments and assume that things are unsettled and you might be wrong and things might turn in a different direction.

And I think we've seen that lately in the sort of shift from open debate, including a lot of speech you don't like to a speech that you don't like harms you. And as I mentioned in one of the pieces, it starts from a decent place. I mean, anybody who's on Twitter long enough understands there's a lot of her harassment and misbehavior, and it's not always the most pleasant place in the world.

Which ties into their struggles to get their market cap up and their user base up. But my sense, at least in the last couple of years, is that we were really starting to shift from a genuine attempt to tamp down on real harassment, legitimate issues and tipping into this attempt to play hall monitor basically.

And I don't think it's nefarious either, but I think if you have certain priors and you come to the room and the only people in the room share your priors, of course, you're going to say that misgendering is a terrible thing and should be dealt with. But then calling someone some, I don't know, baselessly calling someone a white supremacist is not on the same level. I'm just pulling that out of a hat, but there are dozens of different kinds of ways that you can slice that.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. No, sure. Twitter's influence on American political life, cultural life has from some perspectives, been unfortunate. The medium inherently privileges brevity at the expense of thoughtfulness. And that seems to intensify anger. I wonder if you could advocate a particular change to the user experience or business model of Twitter, one that would improve ideally the quality of the conversation on the site, what would it be?

Corbin Barthold: I think maybe the most promising idea is playing around with subscription models. There's really at its root more of a revenue raising motive behind that, I think. A lot of... Take Musk himself. Musk, think about the amount of free advertising he in effect gets for Tesla by using Twitter. And now consider all the brands that are on there doing that.

And I think maybe the main motivation behind subscription is to start to maybe claw back some of that consumer surplus. But there's also the potential that, and we've seen this in other areas. I think Substack, you see where people who've had to pay and put skin in the game engage in a healthier dialogue.

I think it may be just a small example of, you will cut a person off in traffic because you've got kind of the protective sense of your car and you probably are not going to cut someone in line right to their face at the post office. And various kinds of measures that make the experience a little more like the post office line, a little less like traffic, I think that's the direction to go.

Although having said that, I think the changes are going to be around the edges. Ultimately, I think we have a fracturing culture and we're learning to grapple with new technologies. And I certainly would not claim that Twitter can suddenly make a polite civil platform.

Brian Anderson: Well, what about the idea of using some kind of micropayment system for responses or fees of some respect? Wouldn't that cut down on... Certainly would cut down on the bots that have plagued the system. I've seen this idea come up a few times in conversations about the direction Twitter might take.

Corbin Barthold: I suppose it could. Twitter's generally been pretty careful with roll outs. They test these things. It's not like they've been entirely just sitting on their thumbs up until Elon Musk showed up. So I'd be interested to know if they have sort of spot tested that somewhere on the platform. It certainly has potential.

I mean, it is another form of friction. I mean, the platforms in generally are learning to try and implement friction in ways that get people to maybe think twice. I mean, one thing that before sending that snarky tweet, I was actually kind of surprised.

Apparently they've had real success with just simple, passive, aggressive little notices of people on Twitter don't generally send things that are this mean, do you still want to send this? And I wouldn't have expected that to do much, but apparently it actually has tamped down a bit on some of the snarkiest material.

Brian Anderson: Back in the nineties, the techno utopians of that era wrote about the idea that information wants to be free. And they looked at the web in a kind of utopian way, as this kind of world historical tool for decentralization, for the liberation of knowledge. You look at today's internet, I think it hasn't exactly developed that way, larger sites have cannibalized smaller communities.

Much of our national conversation is now being said in terms of its boundaries by very large private companies. So then what is the next generation or evolution in the internet era going to look like? Does Musk's bid represent a reversal in this respect or a new stage? Or does the future look, I don't know like TikTok, so murky speech standards, algorithmically determine content, dumbed down, primarily visual and owned by China?

Corbin Barthold: Well, that, when you paint it that way, I mean. I am a naive soul who actually happens to think that information still wants to be free. And if anything, I subscribe to Martin Gurri's view that the public is finding ways to speak and share ideas that kind of go beyond any ability of top town control to limit.

You mention that a few companies have a lot of control. And that's true, but I get a lot of my news these days from Substack. I can't say that there's anybody whose views I'm interested in on the internet that I cannot go and find them and figure out what they're thinking if I want to.

The question for the future, I suppose, is the one that everybody wants to talk about, are we going to continue to be in sort of a web two world where the next competitors who succeed like TikTok are sort of the same centralized model, but doing something differently. Or whether we are going to see greater decentralization.

I mean, one of the weirdest things to me is that Elon Musk has not talked so much through all of this about Blue Sky, which is Twitter's independent company that they're supporting that is trying to basically restore user control and set up a protocol so that there are competing algorithms for content moderation and competing algorithms for news feeds and people can choose the ones that they like or that they trust.

I would like it if that would be the future. Unfortunately, Blue Sky has moved at a snails pace, so we shall see. I have no crystal ball. Although I would say, finally, also everybody always says that culture is being dumbed down, I mean, eternally. I mean, people said that the radio was going to break people's brains and make them into rubes.

People worried of about television, the kill your television bumper stickers that were on the cars when I was a kid here in the bay area. So I am already old enough that when I look at a econ TikTok, which I'm not kidding is a thing. People doing little mini econ lectures on TikTok. That doesn't really, it's not my bowl of soup, but I don't actually worry too much about the kids are going to be dumb because they're on TikTok.

Brian Anderson: Last question. One of the forces that I think it's fair to say has pushed Twitter seemingly anyway to the left over the years has been the views of its own employees, so that employee pressure. We're seeing this not just with social media platforms, but with a lot of different companies. What's that going to look like with Musk's takeover, I wonder? How would you handle something like that where your employees really do have a different vision of the company than you do?

Corbin Barthold: I think that's really the big question. That's the $44 billion question here. As I mentioned in my more recent piece for CJ, I'm skeptical that the content moderation on Twitter is going to change in such a way that either partisan side is suddenly really happy with how things go. I think we talked a lot about the quick shift on the left and their horror and their hypocrisy at this.

I don't think the right has been quite as bad in that regard, but I will be interested to see if people maybe back away a bit from their claims that these platforms should basically just adhere to the first amendment. I think we're going to continue to need content moderation for these products to be valuable or useful. And the question's going to be, is the platform trustworthy?

I think that's really what Elon Musk should focus on. And the reality is that a lot of the conservative complaints about content moderation, I think it's actually, they tend to be a little bit weak on the merits, but get at a fundamental truth, which is it's fair and reasonable to be suspicious about the decisions, even if they're made honestly and in good faith made by a platform regarding free expression.

If everybody who runs that platform comes from a specific political party. I mean, I think the donor breakdown for the midterms at Twitter right now is 98% to Democrats or something like that. And so if Twitter, if Elon cannot change the sort of makeup of who's setting the content moderation standards at the higher level, obviously the people who make the individual decisions low down are... I'm talking about the rules that they are assigned to follow.

Those people need a wide set of priors so that people have trust. And if that doesn't exist, there's really no way that he can get people to just like the individual decisions and be satisfied with them. Content moderation is just too contestable. And can he do that? I mean, is he going to face a revolt? Is he going to face a brain drain?

Coinbase shows an example of a company saying we're purging politics from our company and seeming to make some progress with that. Other companies have had sort of notorious employee revolts. The New York times comes to mind of this constant roiling battle between the employees and the upper management. I do not have an answer for you about how this is going to go, but I do think in my mind, setting up a perception that Twitter is not just Bay area, Silicon valley, progressive setting the rules. That's going to be Musk's big challenge.

Brian Anderson: Very, very interest. Well, thanks very much Corbin. Don't forget to check out Corbin Barthold's work on the City Journal website. He's been writing for us on these issues now. Has a couple of big pieces on the horizon, which will appear in the physical journal. We'll link to his author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as usual, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a nice ratings on iTunes. Corbin, thanks very much for coming on.

Corbin Barthold: Brian, it was an honor. Thank you.

Photo by AMY OSBORNE/AFP via Getty Images

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