The Crumbling of Elon’s Little Digital Dictatorship

The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, has officially purchased the social media platform Twitter for the astronomical sum of $44 billion. It’s one of the most high-profile business transactions in recent memory, and the ensuing chaos has steadily unraveled both the myths Musk built up around himself and the myths we tell ourselves about billionaires and capitalist excellence.

Musk, age 51, was born into wealth. His father famously owned significant shares of an emerald mine, among other business and real estate ventures, while his mother was a fashion cover model. After college, the young Musk made a series of very savvy business decisions, helping to found PayPal and SpaceX and becoming the largest shareholder in Tesla. In the years since, Musk has invested heavily in his public relations, branding himself as a forward-thinking, genius inventor.

Until recently, that image largely held. But gradually, as Musk began making more peculiar and immature statements and as journalists dug deeper into his business practices and personal history, a different picture emerged. Now, with his acquisition of Twitter and all the ensuing, very public drama that’s entailed, it’s become clearer than ever that Musk isn’t a transformative savior who will guide mankind to a brighter future. He may not even be much of a businessman. He may, actually, be kind of a dunce.

Musk overpays for Twitter and scrambles to recoup his investment

For months after making his initial offer, Musk tried to back out of his deal to buy Twitter. The $44 billion price he paid for it is more than the GDP of most nations, and some $30 billion more than Twitter’s estimated value. Musk’s own net worth is estimated at around $180 billion, but it fluctuates dramatically as his unpredictable actions leave investors and stockholders in turbulence. To seal the Twitter deal, Musk put together $46.5 billion through a combination of personal financing, including by selling Tesla stock, and loans from a number of banks and investors.

Now that Musk is the owner, Twitter is delisted from the stock exchange. One of the world’s largest social media platforms, with some 240 million monetizable daily active users, is now Musk’s own privately held fiefdom. The company is no longer accountable to the usual bylaws or ethics, limited though they may be, of public corporations. And all that user data — pictures, direct messages, financial and personal information — is now in the hands of a man with utter contempt for the privacy and security of others, as is the platform himself.

Immediately after taking over, Musk began making big changes, all of which appear aimed at recouping his investment and paying off his creditors. He fired half the staff, ordered the other half to work 84 hours a week, and ended remote work. When it looked like Musk had laid off too many people, he tried to recall some of them. Senior people at Twitter have been resigning left and right.

Conservatives applauded much of this, viewing Musk as a decisive man of action and Twitter employees as spreading left-wing propaganda. Many of the laid-off workers were responsible for Twitter’s moderation of hate speech, communications, ethics, and advertising. Instances of the n-word skyrocketed 500% immediately after Musk’s takeover and right-wing conspiracy theories surged. Musk had previously complained that Twitter censored conservative voices in favor of liberal ones.

Shortly after taking over, Musk proposed an $8 monthly fee for verified users, apparently haggled down by Musk himself from an initial $20 in a Twitter thread with author Stephen King. Verification comes in the form of a blue check mark next to an account’s username that signals to readers the account is official. Charging for it is apparently an attempt to monetize Twitter’s users and sort of invert the site’s long-running business model. Before, Twitter’s users were the product and advertisers were the customers, paying for users to see their ads. Now, Musk wants users themselves to pony up as well.

Comedy is now legal on Twitter — except for this, this, and this

Musk has often branded his decision to buy Twitter as an attempt to restore free speech to the platform, proudly tweeting, “Comedy is now legal on Twitter.” Trolls and other users very quickly tested the limits of that theory.

After Musk began selling verification, a rash of phony verified accounts began impersonating official accounts, posting satire and parody from them. Many of these pretended to be Musk himself, posting about his association with convicted child sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell, his dodging of taxes, and offering to give away cryptocurrency. Musk quickly clamped down on these accounts and suspended them, but in some cases, not before they had significant, real-world consequences.

On November 10, an account impersonating pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly tweeted, “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.” The real company quickly put out a tweet correcting the information — they are not giving away insulin, despite the fact that its creators gave it away and wished it to be affordable for all — and Twitter suspended the phony account, but the damage had already been done. Eli Lilly’s stock, along with two other pharmaceutical companies, took a significant hit by the time the market closed.

In many ways, these parody accounts are laudable. They have given high-profile spotlights to corporate misdeeds. But the companies themselves certainly don’t like them. And Musk’s own behavior can’t be reassuring — he posted laughing emojis under a tweet spotlighting parody accounts of Nintendo mascot Mario giving the middle finger and President Joe Biden talking about self-fellatio. Especially at first, it seemed to be primarily his own image that he’s dedicated Twitter’s resources to upholding.

All the chaos has sown distrust and made advertisers wary of Twitter. In addition to the brand risks they face from impersonations and less-regulated hate speech, there is Musk’s personal brand, now inextricably linked to Twitter as a platform, which has slowly morphed from visionary savior of humanity through capitalism to right-wing, anti-woke, sophomoric man-child and reckless business tyrant.

Musk’s behavior at Twitter is high-profile because of the nature of the platform and his own inability to keep quiet on it. But it’s perfectly in line with his practices elsewhere. His companies have committed a litany of labor and product safety violations, including active union-busting, illegal retribution, unsafe work spaces, and flammable solar panels. It’s tempting to buy into his hype, and believe that he is a benevolent billionaire who offered the market cleaner, more sustainable choices. But that doesn’t seem to be who Elon Musk is at his core.

The future looks chaotic

No one knows what will ultimately happen with Twitter. Musk himself has already floated the idea that it could go bankrupt next year. All the dumb decisions — to amplify voices that pay over those that don’t, to fire employees responsible for curating a minimally decent public space — are Musk’s own. The average user experience hasn’t dramatically changed yet, but if the company can’t pay its workers or its bills, anything could happen.

Twitter has always had issues. Social media itself is inherently problematic. But it’s still remarkable to watch Musk transform a potentially viable digital town square into a wasteland, at enormous financial expense to himself and his investors. So far, the whole debacle been a spectacular illustration of just how far the myth of the genius billionaire is from the reality. And, just maybe, it should give us cause to reexamine how we exalt rich people in general.

We’re Barreling Toward Nuclear War, and No One is Hitting the Brakes

The ongoing war in Ukraine recently escalated to new and more dangerous heights. Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden have both begun openly discussing the prospects of nuclear war, with Biden suggesting we were closer to nuclear war – and nuclear Armageddon – than at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

To some degree, Putin’s recent nuclear threats have been sensationalized. Headlines like “Putin Raises Specter of Nuclear Weapons Following Battlefield Losses” make it sound like he’s a desperate madman preparing to nuke Kyiv. In reality, Putin reaffirmed his longstanding nuclear posture: that he is prepared to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory is threatened.

Still, this is an extremely dangerous, perhaps unprecedented, moment. U.S. intelligence places the likelihood of nuclear weapon use in Ukraine at around 25% – infinitely higher than any human being should tolerate.

Putin claims the Donbas, raising the possibility of war on Russian soil

Among many big stories coming out of the conflict in recent weeks, the most geopolitically significant concerns the Donbas. Made up of quasi-independent regions including Luhansk and Donetsk, the Donbas lies between Russia and Ukraine and has been a focal point of tensions between the two countries. The international community officially recognizes the Donbas as part of Ukraine.

Home to a large population of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people, the Donbas has been embroiled in a bloody war for years between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the situation in Donbas, citing civilian casualties, repression of civil liberties, torture, discrimination, and other human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides.

In September 2022, four Russian-occupied regions of the Donbas voted in a referendum to leave Ukraine and join Russia. Western leaders and media quickly labeled the referendums a “sham” and declared that Putin had “annexed” the Donbas. Putin declared the people of the Donbas to be Russian citizens “forever.”

Regardless of the validity of the referendums, Putin has made it clear that he considers the Donbas to be Russian territory. His claim, though contested, should give Western leaders pause. As the NATO-backed Ukrainian military reclaims territory toward and into the Donbas, they could violate Putin’s red line and trigger a nuclear response.

Tensions are escalating with no end in sight

None of the principal actors are doing anything to cool this highly combustible situation. Putin recently called up 300,000 reservists and launched more missiles at Kyiv, demonstrating no desire to pull back his troops or end his offensive. The United States and other NATO nations continue to pour billions of dollars in arms into Ukraine, effectively turning the conflict into a proxy war between NATO and Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky formally applied for full NATO membership, an application which, if granted, would draw every NATO member into direct military conflict with Russia, per NATO’s collective defense protocols.

It’s important to understand that, though Putin fired the first shot and has committed monstrous war crimes during this invasion, he has legitimate grievances with NATO. Foreign policy analysts have long known – and Putin has made explicitly clear – that Russia would not stand for Ukraine joining NATO. Ukraine joining NATO potentially means U.S. military installations, and possibly even nukes, right on the Russian border. Just as the U.S. wouldn’t tolerate Putin placing Russian weapons and soldiers in Mexico, Putin doesn’t want to see NATO forces in Ukraine. When a similar situation played out in reverse in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. nearly went to war.

Biden is seemingly uninterested in diplomatic solutions, making it clear that the U.S. is “not about to, nor is anyone else prepared to, negotiate with Russia about them staying in Ukraine, keeping any part of Ukraine.” He accused Putin of war crimes and said, “I don’t see any rationale to meet with him now.” State Department Spokesman Ned Price likewise dismissed proposed peace talks with Russia as not “constructive” or “legitimate.”

We must do whatever it takes to avoid nuclear war

This is not some childish conflict of good vs. evil where we demand that the heroes triumph no matter what the cost. It’s not possible for either side to win a war against the other without mountains of dead bodies. Putin is a powerful leader. Russia is huge, its resources are vast, it has thousands of nuclear weapons, and it is allied with China and India. It’s possible to hate what Putin has done while recognizing that his interests need to be respected.

Opponents of diplomacy have suggested Putin is using “nuclear blackmail” to get his way. They argue that if other nations see Putin scoring a win over NATO by threatening nuclear war, nuclear threats will become common in international affairs. But Putin has only affirmed his intention to use nukes to defend Russian territory, including the contested Donbas region. This kind of deterrence has long been understood as precisely the point of nukes, including by NATO itself.

Nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands and be used to make unreasonable claims and demands. That’s always been a risk. We unleashed this horror on the world and now we have to live with it. For now, we have to find ways to de-escalate with other nuclear powers while we work towards eliminating nukes from the face of the earth altogether.

Like it or not, the U.S., Ukraine, and NATO should negotiate with Putin. A potential deal could include ceding the Donbas, rejecting Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, and offering Putin an “off ramp” so he can withdraw gracefully. It may sound ugly, but the stakes are too high for any other course. People who want the U.S. and NATO to be the only ones getting their way in the world are barreling us toward a nuclear World War III.

If leaders can’t be counted on to take these responsible actions, their citizens must compel them to. This is already happening in some ways. Some 200,000 brave Russians recently expatriated to Kazakhstan to avoid being conscripted into Putin’s war. Americans should welcome with open arms any deserters from the Russian military and clog every major city with protests demanding that our country stop fueling the conflict by pouring arms into it and seek diplomatic resolutions.

Briefly, when COVID-19 first broke out into a global pandemic, there was a significant, coordinated response, because everyone felt the danger. The world learned that people and societies can, under the right pressures, work together. Unfortunately, even though nuclear war is infinitely more dangerous than coronavirus, the problem hasn’t received the same degree of urgency. Perhaps we’re too distracted, or too misinformed by war propaganda. Perhaps the problem feels too big, too depressing, or too outside our capacity to influence.

It’s tempting to simply close our eyes to nuclear threats, even to pray for ignorance, as many have – to wish that, if we’re to die in a nuclear war, we know nothing about it until the bombs have already incinerated us. Death is inevitable, after all, and it does no good to dwell on it.

Nuclear war, however, is not inevitable. Leaders around the world, from Putin to Biden, are making conscious decisions to increase the likelihood of it, playing a potentially apocalyptic game of chicken not just in Ukraine but in China as well. Every man, woman and child on earth should be passionately, actively involved in efforts to stop it by any means necessary. Territorial losses and geopolitical wounds are bitter, but they are not as grave as the infinite, potentially final cost of nuclear war.

US Outbreak: How Monkeypox Spread in a Failing State

The new order of our times seems to be that everything must get worse. Because one plague was not enough, we’ve added another: monkeypox, a close relative of smallpox that causes flu-like symptoms and painful, pus-filled blisters. Making matters even worse, it’s spreading primarily in gay communities, giving new life to old bigotries and complicating public health messaging.

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Why Overturning Roe Could Be the Last Straw for Many

On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that has been the focus of America’s abortion debate since 1973. In that decision, the 1973 court ruled that the Constitution protected a woman’s right to an abortion, with some limits. By overturning that decision, today’s court leaves abortion laws up to individual states, allowing them to ban abortion under any circumstances and at any point during pregnancy. In doing so, the Supreme Court has placed millions of women across the country at grave risk.

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War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Clusterf*ck

After months of tension and speculation, on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded his neighbor Ukraine. Putin’s troops started in the Russia-friendly separatist region of the country known as the Donbas and have since made their way toward the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv, which remains under siege.

The invasion has put the world on high alert. Western nations have imposed sanctions on Russia, markets have spiraled, and politicians have begun openly wondering whether the end result of all this will be a nuclear World War III.

No one can predict the future, but to make even an educated guess requires an understanding of Ukrainian/Russian history and US/NATO influence in the region.

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Washington wants you to warm up to the idea of a nuclear war with Russia. Don’t.

As tensions on the border of Russia and Ukraine escalate, the United States is getting more deeply involved. Over the last two weeks, US cargo planes have delivered nearly 600 tons of military equipment to Ukraine. Last week, President Biden announced the deployment of 3,000 US troops to eastern Europe. The United States is pushing toward a nuclear World War III, and American citizens must raise their voices to stop it.

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“Don’t Look Up” review

Billionaire CEO Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) and President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) concoct a ludicrous plot to cash in on a comet that’s about to destroy the earth.

Adam McKay and David Sirota’s Don’t Look Up, about a planet-killing comet on a rapid crash course with Earth and an America that is too distracted to do anything about it, is an allegory for our inaction on climate change. As a satire of government corruption, billionaire egomania, and celebrity culture, it is effective. And while the message is critical, the focus on parody sometimes comes at the expense of fleshing out the characters.

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Corruption and carnage: Why Biden is right to withdraw from Afghanistan

America’s longest war, the war in Afghanistan, is coming to an end. President Joe Biden announced that US troops would fully withdraw by August 31, almost 20 years after President George W. Bush invaded. After Biden’s announcement, the Taliban rapidly seized control of nearly every major institution and facility in the country. In the weeks since, the world has witnessed chaos unfold, particularly at the airport in Kabul as at-risk citizens, officials, and diplomats attempt to escape the incoming Taliban regime.

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Why we should think beyond “returning to normal”

The COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly everyone on the globe, bringing with it a great deal of suffering and significant changes in the way people work and live. Despite the initially dismal US response to the pandemic, we are now among the most vaccinated countries on earth. All across the country, restrictions are relaxing, masks are coming off, travel is resuming, and people have begun returning to normal.

Unfortunately, “normal” in the US is a dire situation to begin with.

As bad as COVID was, it also brought with it several silver linings. The scope and horror of the situation forced us, for the briefest moment, to prioritize something other than profit. The rich weren’t immune to COVID-19. A far-right Republican government temporarily instituted an eviction moratorium and student debt relief, issued stimulus checks, and expanded unemployment benefits. Some essential employees received pay increases. Those who were able worked remotely, reconnecting with their families, clearing up the roads, and allowing nature some respite from our constant hustle.

For a while, it seemed like some of these changes might become permanent. Pundits and politicians seriously discussed universal basic income and student debt forgiveness. As we realized society is only as healthy as the least-healthy among us, the need for a Medicare-for-All system became apparent. Businesses explored more flexible work models, and some made work-from-home permanent.

Now, there is no “new normal.” Instead, we are rushing back to the old normal as quickly as possible.

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How progressives should navigate their Biden conundrum

If current polling is accurate, former Vice President Joe Biden could cruise to a crushing victory over President Donald Trump on Election Day, November 3. Much can change between now and then. As the world learned in 2016, nothing is certain. But barring a significant reversal of Trump’s fortunes or interference with the electoral process, America will likely inaugurate a new president in 2021.

For many of the country’s liberals, that’s the endgame. Especially after the numerous catastrophes and close calls of 2020, they want to relax, be rid of Trump, and breathe a sigh of relief. But as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez warned, “There’s no going back to brunch. We have a whole new world to build. We cannot accept going back to the way things were, & that includes the Dem party. We must deliver transformative, material change.”

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