On this episode, Bethany and Luigi discuss the recent release of the "Twitter Files" – a collection of internal Twitter documents released publicly by new CEO Elon Musk that reveal the company's internal processes and policies for dealing with controversial content, including contentious public health information and political revelations. Despite the potential significance of these documents, they have received relatively little coverage from the mainstream media. Our hosts debate and discuss potential reasons behind this, the possible implications at the intersection of social media, politics, and the mainstream media, as well as offer solutions to the underlying democratic issues at stake.
Luigi: As our listeners know, Capitalisn’t is dedicated to the discussion of what is working in capitalism and what isn’t. But from the very first episode of the second season with Bethany, we decided to also focus on the interaction between capitalism and democracy.
One of the essential elements of a healthy democracy is the existence of a marketplace of ideas. And the possibility of a marketplace of ideas depends crucially on the role of media.
These days, a big role in the media market is played by social media. In the last few months, the social-media platform under the most scrutiny has been Twitter, not only for the controversial takeover by Elon Musk, but also for the opening of the archives of Twitter’s previous moderation decisions, a series of articles that goes by the name of the Twitter Files.
If you’ve never heard about them, you’re not alone. A large part of traditional media has ignored the Twitter Files, labeling them a “nothingburger.” Some nontraditional media have discussed them as the greatest revelation since the Pentagon Papers.
Bethany and I decided that we should discuss them. Are they important or not? What do they reveal about the biases in the process of amplification in social media? And what do they suggest about how to regulate social media, if at all?
We thought hard about who to invite to discuss this topic with us, but we realized that it is basically impossible to find a neutral commentator. The world is so divided that we decided to do our own research.
First of all, our valuable researcher, Utsav Gandhi, prepared a very interesting summary based on the various accounts that he could find on the Twitter Files. If you want to see the entire story, you can find this account under “nothingburger” on promarket.org. In this episode, Bethany will present a short summary of this research, and then we are going to discuss the implications.
Bethany: I’m Bethany McLean.
Phil Donahue: Did you ever have a moment of doubt about capitalism and whether greed’s a good idea?
Luigi: And I’m Luigi Zingales.
Bernie Sanders: We have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.
Bethany: And this is Capitalisn’t, a podcast about what is working in capitalism.
Milton Friedman: First of all, tell me, is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed?
Luigi: And, most importantly, what isn’t.
Warren Buffett: We ought to do better by the people that get left behind. I don’t think we should kill the capitalist system in the process.
Bethany: What was the most stunning thing to me about this research was the fact that it is so polarizing and that some people can dismiss it as nothing, and others think it is this giant controversy. The reality is it shouldn’t be polarizing. It shouldn’t break down along the lines of left and right. It’s just pretty shocking and scandalous, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum. And what I mean by that is just the sheer number of times that people at Twitter have intervened to change the discussion, to block certain news, to make sure certain people aren’t heard, to elevate some discussions so that they are louder than others.
To me, the overall takeaway is that they do this in ways that are both explicit, by banning people, and not explicit, by what they call visibility filtering, which they say is not the same thing as shadow-banning, but I’m really struggling with how visibility filtering is not shadow-banning. I mean, if you make somebody so dark that you can’t hear them, then haven’t you sort of shadow-banned them? Anyway, we’ll get into that.
But again, I don’t understand that we’re not all discussing this, because to me there are two big things that jump out that are different about this than they were with the traditional media. One—and perhaps I have some unwarranted nostalgia for old media—but old media had a real sense, deep sense of responsibility about this. This was what editors did.
I think another point of difference is that it was really clear, when you read The New York Times, you know you’re reading what The New York Times considers as "the news that is fit to print." It wasn’t a secret that it was being curated by the editors, whereas in the case of Twitter, I think it very much has been a secret.
A third really important difference is that there’s only one Twitter, whereas in the days of old media, sure, there was The New York Times, there was the Wall Street Journal, there was the LA Times. It didn’t matter as much if some things were being suppressed because they were being heard elsewhere. Whereas on Twitter, because of its monopoly-like status, if they’re being suppressed, they’re being suppressed. And I think all of this is incredibly important for people to understand and to discuss openly.
Luigi: To be honest, I was quite shocked by the entire series of the Twitter Files. The thing that I found most interesting is the moderation of the COVID debate. Here I reveal my true nature because I’m an academic, and I do think that there is such a thing called real science, where you can have an objective truth.
Now, if you debate whether Bernie Sanders is a socialist or Trump is a fascist, we can disagree to the end. But if I say the vaccine is helpful or not helpful, or the vaccine fights this or doesn’t fight that, these are propositions that can be tested, rejected, or confirmed.
Now, my reading of the Twitter Files is Twitter did a terrible job even on this front, where they not only blocked certifiably wrong information—which we can discuss whether it’s right or wrong, but at least it’s justifiable. But they even blocked objectively right information for fear that it could be misinterpreted by the public.
This, to me, is the ultimate patronizing thing, in which you don’t want to tell the truth because you are afraid that the truth can be misinterpreted. That’s the ultimate Big Brother kind of approach.
In one of the Twitter Files, a professor of virology at Harvard said, “Natural immunity is as good as a vaccine.” First, they added a notice, “This is not a correct statement.” And then they made it difficult to amplify that message. The worst part of all is that part of this was done under pressure from Scott Gottlieb, who is a board member of Pfizer, so there is even a financial interest. “I don’t want people to even think about the idea that there is a substitute for the vaccine. I want everybody to be vaccinated.” And, by the way, the guy who’s pushing it makes a lot of money from the vaccine. Now, you can say they were doing it because of some superior motive, but it’s funny that there is also this conflict of interest.
Bethany: Yeah. I think you might be mixing and matching two issues. These were unearthed by a guy named Alex Berenson, who himself was banned from Twitter for spreading vaccine misinformation. But one part of this was a guy in the White House named Brett Giroir tweeting that natural immunity was superior to vaccination. And he went on in his tweet to say, “By the way, if you haven’t gotten COVID yet, please get vaccinated.”
Scott Gottlieb went to Twitter and got that tweet marked misinformation because he said it was wrong. And here we are a couple of years later, and it’s still unclear whether natural immunity is better than vaccination or not. There’s an ongoing debate about that. But what’s for sure clear is that there is a debate. It’s not, “Natural immunity is actually worth a lot,” and that should have been a debate back at the time. And instead, it wasn’t allowed.
And I remember sitting at a dinner party in California with very politically correct people and having them all say, “Oh, those Trumpian idiots who believe natural immunity does anything.” And I thought to myself, “Doesn’t it? I think I better keep my mouth shut. I don’t know.”
But it became this thing that you weren’t allowed to say. And that thing that you weren’t allowed to say was reinforced by Twitter and reinforced because Scott Gottlieb, a board member of Pfizer, was asking Twitter to do it. And there’s just nothing about that that is good. It turned out that was a valid source of debate.
And then the other part of it was the virologist at Harvard pointing out that COVID was not that dangerous to healthy children. And, again, Scott Gottlieb intervened. It was right before the vaccine got approved for under-five-year-olds. And Gottlieb intervened to get that tweet either blocked or the guy banned for having tweeted it.
And the fact is that’s true. If you have a healthy child, if you’re lucky enough to have a healthy child, COVID is not that dangerous to them. And again, I’m not sure what you decide to do with that, but for sure there has to be some disclosure that this is happening because a board member of Pfizer is asking for it to happen. I myself find some of this very confusing terrain to navigate the rights and wrongs of it, but I do think, again, the disclosure is one of the key problems here. When I found out that that happened because of Gottlieb’s intervention—without disclosure—it’s just deeply, deeply upsetting.
Luigi: What do you think we should do? Because you’re not in favor of having every opinion spread widely. We have right of free speech but not right of free reach.
Bethany: Right. Well, I think there are one of two ways to go. And I’m tossing this out there; I’m not sure this is right. So, let me say it, and let’s debate it. I think that one of two ways to go is to say, all points of view are allowed. Hate speech aside, hate speech is something different. That is against the law. That’s different than, say, vaccine misinformation or what is labeled vaccine misinformation. But one way to do it is to say, it’s all allowed. We’re not going to amplify some of this and ban some of this because somebody who’s on the board of Pfizer intervenes to get this banned. It’s going to be a content platform, and we’re going to put it out there.
The other way is to have people at Twitter shaping it and shaping what’s allowed and shaping what gets amplified. But then that has to be disclosed, and it has to be disclosed exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, so that users know and understand what’s happening. And so, I’m going to put that out there as a framework, either/or but not both, which is we pretend to be a content platform where all points of view are out there, but actually, secretly, we’re anything but.
Luigi: I think it’s a good idea, but one of the problems is that some of this amplification is done algorithmically, and that’s a little bit more difficult to be transparent. I think what we discovered—and this is, by the way, one of the most important facts that emerged from the Twitter Files that deserves a debate—is the fact that Twitter was not working only algorithmically. There was a lot of human intervention.
So, when you hear Facebook or Google say, “Oh, but everything is done algorithmically,” now, maybe they’re better organized than Twitter. I would like to see . . . I would like to have a sort of investigation into that. But I doubt that there is not some pressure, in the same way in which there was pressure at Twitter. And that becomes sort of a trading market for favors rather than a transparent system.
If there is one thing you remember, one thing you want to discuss, I think this is it. I think that after the Twitter Files, the FTC should go after Facebook and Google and say, “We want to see your mechanism of amplifying or selecting. To what extent is it algorithmic? To what extent is there human intervention? And under what pressure do you exert human intervention?” I think that we want transparency. We should have transparency on all the major, big tech media.
Bethany: I did want to back up to this point because I think it’s important. You may not agree with it, but one of the reasons that I don’t think the Twitter Files are a partisan scandal and why I’m so surprised that there is this partisan divide about them is we actually don’t know. It’s sort of the same problem that plagued our McKinsey episode, in a way. There simply isn’t the data to know how bad McKinsey is, both in the scope of its overall engagements and as ranked relative to other consulting firms. And there isn’t the data in the Twitter Files to understand whether Twitter was biased Democrat or biased Republican.
We’ve got sort of selective disclosure. In some places, it looks like they were biased toward Democrats. In other places, it looks like they were biased toward Republicans. For sure, they were biased on COVID toward filtering speech that they viewed as misinformation. But to me, more broadly speaking, it’s not really clear that Twitter is a political scandal one way or the other.
And even the episode that I thought going into this was the clearest evidence that it was a political scandal, which is the Hunter Biden episode, I came out thinking that it wasn’t.
Luigi: Honestly, the Hunter Biden episode for me is scary not so much for Twitter but for the role that the FBI played. So, for those of you who have not heard about this episode, Hunter Biden left a laptop at a repair shop and never returned to get it back. And so, after a year or two years, the owner of the repair shop actually opened it up, saw there was something controversial and called the FBI.
And the FBI took hold of the computer, and this was December 2019. Before he gave that computer back to the FBI, the owner made a copy. And so, when it came to July or August and the FBI was not doing anything, he decided to give that copy to Rudy Giuliani, who then gave it to the New York Post, and then the New York Post wrote an article.
Now, what is interesting is the FBI had this piece of information in December 2019. When the news of this scandal was starting to emerge, the FBI went out to Twitter, Facebook, and everybody saying that you have to be careful about Russian misinformation. We think this is a piece of Russian misinformation.
It was preparing the various social media that if they were to repeat that, they would be part of a Russian misinformation campaign, when they knew perfectly well that this was authentic because they had the laptop six months before.
Now, this is the FBI under Trump as president. So, first of all, even if Biden had been president, this was a scary thing. The fact that this is the FBI under Trump as president suggests that the FBI plays a political role that has nothing to do with who is the president, so it has its own political game. If you wanted the Exhibit A of a deep state, this is the biggest Exhibit A.
Bethany: So, yes, the second aspect of that is why I was saying it isn’t a political scandal at Twitter. Because I think, at least based on what I read, nothing has emerged that suggests to me that Twitter didn’t buy into this idea coming from the FBI that it might be part of a Russian disinformation campaign. And, of course, based on what happened in the election, in the Trump versus Hillary Clinton election, where the FBI arguably did play a pivotal role by forcing the release of the Clinton investigation right before the election, you can see that everybody was on high alert about this. And that’s why I originally thought, not knowing the whole story, I originally thought that this was a clear example that Twitter was biased in favor of Biden and that they were deliberately suppressing this story in order to help Biden win the election.
And that’s not what happened. That’s very clearly not what happened unless there’s other evidence that I haven’t seen. I shouldn’t say very clearly, given the murkiness of all of this. But it seems to me they were genuinely worried that it was Russian disinformation.
But you’re right, the role played by the FBI, that is supposedly this apolitical investigative entity and clearly has its own biases at work in all of this, is what should be investigated in the course of this. Again, another story that people aren’t looking at because no one wants to look past the obvious headlines about Hunter Biden and whether this is a scandal reflecting on Twitter trying to get Biden elected as president, to look at what the real underlying issue is. And I agree with you, that’s the real underlying issue.
Luigi: I don’t think that Twitter wanted to influence the election. I think that Twitter was, as you said, number one, scared by the possibility of having a role and a bad role in the election. But number two is influenced very much by the people at the top. They have a view of the world, and they feel they have to play a role.
I think there is no remedy. If you give too much power to a firm, somebody has to exercise this power, whether it is the owner like Elon Musk or whether it is a small team of employees. They have their own biases, their own views, and they are going to be very influential in how things unfold. So, the bias against Trump was shown more in the banning after January 6. That, to me, was inconsistent with the way Twitter behaved with other dictators . . . with dictators around the world. Trump is not a dictator, but other sorts of presidents or other sorts of—
Bethany: That was a nice Freudian slip, Luigi.
Luigi: Yes, yes, it was. But you see what I mean.
Bethany: Yes, but let’s come back to that. But I do think, again, I can’t believe I’m somehow playing the role, at least on this one narrow aspect, of Twitter defender. But the traditional media did not cover itself in glory over the Hunter Biden episode, either. Because after the New York Post published that story, the rest of the media said, “No, no, no, no, no. The horrible New York Post.” And only belatedly, I think the Washington Post is the only one to really have done a mea culpa and say, “No, this was real.” So, I think for all that I set up at the beginning of this discussion a distinction between the traditional media and Twitter, the traditional media did not cover itself in glory on this, either.
And I do think, just one layer behind that, before we move on to the ban against Trump, I do think that it is scary when the FBI comes knocking at your door. It just is. Whether you should be scared of the FBI or not, they do have this unique role in American life that when the FBI calls or you get an email from somebody at the FBI, you just have this . . . I actually think that is a whole separate subject of investigation.
But anyway, what’s your view of the ban against Trump, and how did what was unearthed in the Twitter Files change your mind, if at all?
Luigi: I don’t think I was shocked by what I learned in the Twitter Files. If there was incitement to violence, like there was in, I think, a couple of cases with Alex Jones or other people, then it’s clear that you want to stop somebody. My understanding of the Twitter Files is that it’s not that Trump violated any particular policy; it is that there was a huge pressure from the headquarters of Twitter to basically stop Trump. It was relatively easy because he had lost the election, so he wouldn’t be president for long. I think that was something easy to do and very satisfying for the employees of Twitter, and that’s what they did. But it was inconsistent with what they had done with other heads of state in situations that in some cases were much, much worse.
I think it’s worrisome that a private entity, whether it is ruled by a billionaire or ruled by a few millionaires . . . because it’s not like employees of Twitter, especially the higher-ups, are men of the people. They are millionaires. So, whether you have one billionaire or a few millionaires making the decisions about whether the head of a state can diffuse information, I think it is a mistake. And particularly when this is done in coordination with the other sources, so it is basically a form of collusion to not let him talk.
Bethany: Yeah. God, I have such mixed emotions around Trump being banned from Twitter. But this did change my mind on it because I don’t think I had ever quite understood how hypocritical that was, which you alluded to. But Twitter announced Trump’s permanent suspension “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” And at the same time, as Bari Weiss pulled up and Utsav has highlighted for us, they have let tweets that are equally, perhaps worse, go unpunished.
For example, in June 2018, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted, “Israel is a malignant cancerous tumor in the West Asian region that has to be removed and eradicated. It is possible and it will happen.” Twitter neither deleted the tweet nor banned the Ayatollah.
In October 2020, the former Malaysian prime minister said it was a right for Muslims to kill millions of French people. Twitter deleted his tweet for glorifying violence, but he remains on the platform. And so, the hypocrisy around all of this is pretty astonishing to me. And again, it just shows the randomness of the decision-making that is disturbing.
The thing that actually got to me the most—and I’d love to hear, Luigi, if you think I’m overreacting to this . . . but Hamilton 68, which was this digital dashboard that claimed to track Russian influence and was the source of hundreds, if not thousands, of mainstream print and TV news stories in the Trump years . . . And Hamilton 68’s analytical method was nothing more than a list, a sort of proprietary analysis linking Twitter accounts to Russian activities online. And Hamilton 68 became very credible in the press. And all these reporters and TV personalities who are making these claims about Russian bots never really knew what they were even describing.
And that was all was a scam. Hamilton 68 wasn’t actually tracking how Russia was influencing American attitudes. They were simply collecting a handful of mostly real, mostly American accounts and describing their conversations as Russian scheming. And Twitter recognized right away that this was a problem. Their head of security wrote, “Real people need to know they’ve been unilaterally labeled Russian stooges without evidence or recourse.” And even Harvard and Princeton and NYU and other universities were promoting Hamilton 68 as a source.
I mean, it sounds worse than McCarthyism, right? In the sense that you could get labeled a Russian bot or under the Russian influence by Hamilton 68. You’d never know, and you’d never have any recourse against this. And it was all secretive and supposedly driven by science, by science once again. And it was all just made up. I mean, I think that’s insane. Do you not think it’s insane?
Luigi: It is insane. So, do you know, Bethany, whether you were labeled as part of the Russian propaganda by Hamilton 68?
Bethany: Oh my God, I wonder if I was, that’s hilarious. Particularly early on in the pandemic when I was really, really outspoken about the need to get schools open. And then even my friends in the media said, “I didn’t know you were a Trump voter.” When did a position on children in education become aligned with one’s status as a Trump voter?
But anyway, maybe that did get me. Maybe I’m on the list of Hamilton 68, too. I think I might be giving myself too much credit. I doubt anybody cares about me that much.
Luigi: You’d be surprised. But no, I think that you are absolutely right. What is unbelievable is that in a period of science and technology, where we could have some systematic way to select this information, and even if you wanted to make it up, you could at least have some dignity and some filtering of this. No, we are back to, as you said, McCarthyism, in that, “Oh, I heard that this guy is a friend of . . .” Boom, you are a communist. You are considered a persona non grata who cannot participate in any activity. And we are back to that world amplified by social media, because the power of blacklisting you on social media is enormous.
Bethany, you are an experienced journalist, so I want to ask you the question you opened with, which I think is probably the most important one to understand where we are today, which is, why is nobody talking about this? Because what we described so far, it seems to me they are not particularly partisan issues. And they are issues that are at the core of the media world, at the core of our democracy, and nobody is talking about it.
Bethany: I know. I don’t have an answer. I have a few theories, so I’m going to toss them out there and then we can see where we go. I think that as a society, people are increasingly unwilling to think for themselves. So, just like wearing masks became a sign of your political status, your view on the Twitter Files also became an immediate tell as to who you are as a person.
In certain circles, if you give the Twitter Files any credence, well, then you’re obviously a bad human being who shouldn’t be permitted to speak. I think it doesn’t help that it was released under Elon Musk. And Musk himself has been a complete hypocrite about this, because while ostensibly pushing for the right to free speech, he himself banned a journalist he didn’t like for disclosing, by the way, completely public records about where Musk’s private plane has been.
So, I think that adds an element of just sleaziness and lack of trustworthiness to the whole thing. I think Musk’s choice of where the Twitter Files went was also, at least initially, shaped the debate in a way that perhaps wasn’t helpful. But he gave them to journalists he thought would be friendly to various causes. That’s not really fair. I have a lot of respect for Matt Taibbi, for Bari Weiss. He didn’t give them then to The New York Times as well. And so, by the way in which the information was originally doled out, it created this idea that you were taking sides to write about it. Whereas if he had just tweeted, “Here, I’m putting all this stuff online, find in it exactly what you want. Nobody’s getting anything,” maybe that would have opened the door to a more even-keeled conversation.
Luigi: I think they are all probably right. I like the first one, and as you were talking, it occurred to me that this issue that we decide on what side of the fence you are based on your opinion, it always existed, but now it has exploded. And I think it’s the result of information overload.
In the old days, we got a lot of filtered news. We could have our own opinion because we already had a limited amount of information. Today, you basically drink from the hose. Every topic you look up on the internet, you have millions of options. It is very hard to filter.
At the beginning of COVID, as was probably the case for most people, I was obsessed with news and trying to figure out what was the truth. You could spend day and night trying to make up your mind and still not know what the truth was.
And I think that in this world where the information in the past was scarce but now is plentiful, you need a way to filter information, and then you resort to the most partisan thing. Are you a friend or a foe? If you are a friend, I accept your information. If you are a foe, I don’t want to waste my time listening to your information because I have too much information. But that leads to the paradox that in a world where information is abundant, we are all very ignorant.
Bethany: Yes. And I think that’s exactly right. I think that is most of the explanation. It’s complexity and overload. It is far easier to just accept the opinions that belong to what you think is your tribe. And I remember when I first learned the term virtue signaling, I thought it was just so amazing. And I think that all of this is also a form of virtue signaling. It’s also a way of conveying to others in a room who you are and where you stand. So, by refusing to acknowledge the Twitter Files, you stand in a certain place. You’ve labeled yourself a certain kind of virtuous.
Luigi: I think the virtue signaling is correct, but the question is, why do we need virtue signaling more today than in the past? And again, I think it’s part of the fact that we need to process so much information, or we need to know about so many people. In a group that where you are a repeated player and you know each other well, you don’t need to virtue signal. But on the internet, where you have millions of people you don’t know, you have a desperate need to virtue signal.
In the old days, we actually looked for provocative news because all the news was the same, so you liked somebody that said the alternative. Now, you are bombarded with all the crazy theories on the face of Earth. And so, you switch off, you don’t even pay attention. If someone starts to say, “Oh, I actually have doubts about the origin of the COVID virus,” boom, you are immediately a kind of conspiracy theorist, and I won’t listen to what you say in the minute after that.
I wanted to discuss . . . Did you see that the chairwoman of the FTC basically asked Twitter to share the information that they shared with the various journalists of the Twitter Files with the FTC? As a response, the Republican-dominated Congress said that this was a weaponization of the FTC.
I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is the reason why the FTC or the chairwoman, Lina Khan, claimed that she has the authority to do that is because there was a consent decree in 2011, and then, I think, renewed in 2019, between Twitter and the FTC about how Twitter was handling the privacy of its customers.
The argument is, by sharing some of this information with the journalists, Twitter somehow violated the privacy of its customers, and that’s the reason why the FTC can intervene. I think that there is an issue I’m not privy to, which is, what is the status of the ownership of the information on Slack? Because the real revelation was what was written on Slack between or among the employees of Twitter.
My understanding is that the legal authority is pretty shaky. However, from a public policy point of view, I think that she’s doing a service and paradoxically, even a service to Twitter because I think that forcing to share that information with everybody will make the Twitter Files more relevant, and as you said, will bring more transparency that is badly needed in this case.
Elon Musk started the Twitter Files in the name of transparency, and he should live by that name and not just, as you said, be hypocritical. I think that Lina Khan forcing him to live up to his principles will be a good thing for him. And if I were Lina Khan, I would do the same with Facebook and Google. In this way, it would completely remove any fear of partisan elements and would do a service for all Americans.
Bethany: Yes. I think that’s absolutely right. And I think some really systematic look at this would be incredibly helpful. Total transparency and a really systematic look, because I suspect that that’s going to abolish the idea that this is partisan somehow. I think Twitter staff clearly were left-leaning on all sorts of issues, but I think they faced a lot of pressure from Republicans to edit, to amplify, to do the same things that we are now aware that they faced pressure from Democrats to do.
And I think a really thorough look at this would lay to rest the question, who’s been more aggressive about this, Republicans or Democrats? Is this a partisan scandal? Is it not? And I think clarity is really important on this issue, particularly because we are living in a monopoly world in terms of information.
So, Luigi, if you were Elon Musk . . . No, maybe that’s not right. If you were the supreme ruler of the world, how would you reshape Twitter? What would you do from this point forward?
Luigi: I’ve been thinking about Twitter and Facebook, et cetera, for a while. And I think, to me, the only solution is to separate the posting side from the editing side. Think about Twitter. There are two functions. One is that I post on there, and the other is that my post is suggested to you or amplified or shadow-banned or whatever. From an economic point of view, the posting has huge network externalities, so I want to post where you are and vice versa.
The editing has no network externality. So, the editing can support a competitive market in the same way as newspapers were roughly competitive. The only reason why we don’t have a competitive market there is because the posting and the editing are integrated. And so, you make all the money through the integration, so you subsidize the editing through what you get in the posting, and as a result, we end up with a monopoly or an oligopoly.
Imagine that you have a public platform where you do the posting, and then everybody can choose their own editor. So, I buy the Wall Street Journal editor, and I receive an edited set of news. I am not going to receive any news about sports because I don’t care. I’m not going to receive any news of pornographic material. I’m not going to receive any news of super-crazy material because the Wall Street Journal does the editing for me. And if I don’t like the Wall Street Journal editing, I subscribe to The New York Times or to the Fox News editing.
Now, this can only take place if the government intervenes, forces the separation, and then regulates the payment. Because, in my view, the question is, who appropriates all the information, and how do you support the business model of the editors? I think a subscription model probably is not going to get a lot of money out of it, but that remains to be seen.
Bethany: I think it’s a lovely idea theoretically. I think it would not work in practice, and I’ll tell you why. I think that if you knew, as somebody who was posting on Twitter, that your tweet was likely to be chosen by either a left-leaning publication or a right-leaning publication, you might be far less likely to tweet in the first place because of the chance of being misinterpreted and the horror of finding yourself on a platform that is not in accordance with your beliefs because the editor of that platform decided that your tweet was in accordance with their beliefs. I think it might shut down the whole thing.
Luigi: Wait, let me understand because I don’t understand. First of all, if you follow me, you’re going to get my tweet no matter what. So, the only issue is if, all of a sudden, a right-wing or a left-wing publication decides to reproduce and amplify it.
Let’s take the worst that can happen to you. A neo-Nazi editorial site decides to take your tweet and spread it. Again, if people understand that you have nothing to do with it, and we are not engaged in extreme virtue signaling, I don’t think that’s a problem because the next time around, people will not follow you because they read what you do, and it is not neo-Nazi material. They don’t take you.
Bethany: I think you’re thinking like an economist. I think you’re giving the world credit for being entirely too rational. I don’t think I would give people credit for that rationality, and I don’t even know that I would give myself credit for it. In other words, I know that if my tweet were chosen to be amplified by a neo-Nazi site, it would cause all sorts of issues for me, and I might even get disinvited from some of the speeches I’ve been invited to give. Even though that was absolutely not my fault that my tweet was chosen by that site, it still would have an enormous number of real-world repercussions.
Luigi: Wait, but this is the same thing as saying that if you get liked by a neo-Nazi, that’s a problem.
Bethany: It’s different because if you get liked by a neo-Nazi, not everybody knows. You’d have to go through and actually check every tweet to see if it’s liked by a neo-Nazi. This is extraordinarily public. I’m speaking for myself. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps most people would think like you, and they would be totally willing to take that chance and totally OK if that happened. I don’t know that I would be. I have a little squeamishness around that. But I don’t know, I could be the only one who feels this way.
I personally really like the idea of just a really deep dive into Twitter, Facebook, and Google, where they have to reveal everything. And not just the possibly selective Twitter Files, but everything: all the requests from the government, all the requests from lobbyists that have been made to amplify this or shadow-ban this or do this, and have just complete and total transparency about the whole thing, even if it’s just a massive data dump, so that there is a way to answer these questions. Is it ideological? Is it political? How are decisions being made? Who’s making them? Who’s been most hurt by this? Who’s been helped by this? But so there really is a systematic, big-data way to look at this and answer the question for once and for all.
Luigi: I think you’re right. And credit-rating agencies, of course, they are very arbitrary in the way they rate. However, they have a very clear procedure. And I testified in a case where a credit-rating agency was involved. And so, I went through the excruciating steps that they follow and how traceable they are, because if there is a legal case, they can document who made that decision, why and what authority and for what basis, and so on and so forth. Why? Their opinion is very important. If I downgrade the US government, this has dramatic consequences.
And they even have independence of the analysts from the commercial people. The commercial people cannot talk to the analysts in order not to influence that decision.
If we don’t go with my solution, which I think is the first best, we need to, at the very minimum, go with your solution, which is a very reasonable second best, to have a very strong procedure and transparency of the procedure in the way you filter material. And then people might decide to opt in or out of the platform based on how legitimate that procedure is. But certainly, we cannot give that discretionary power either to one billionaire or to a few millionaires.
Bethany: Yep. I completely agree with that. I think that’s a hundred percent right. And by the way, I really do, of course, I like your solution, Luigi. I think it’s absolutely perfect. I’m just not sure it’s practically doable.