This past Thursday Elon Musk accused Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer and the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, of running a “propaganda platform.”
That’s the sort of upside down thinking we’ve come to expect from Musk, given Stamos is one of the most fair-minded and serious thinkers about content moderation and social media platforms today. So, on Friday, we had Stamos on the Dead Cat podcast to talk about Musk’s choreographed leaks about the old guard at Twitter.
Last time Stamos came on the Dead Cat podcast, he explained why the media had underplayed its own culpability in enabling Russian disinformation while playing up Facebook’s failures.
This time, Stamos helped Dead Cat co-host Tom Dotan and I do our best to steel man Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss’s purported exposés on Jack Dorsey’s Twitter, though none of us were particularly impressed by the seriousness of their reporting.
Taibbi documented Twitter’s handling of the Hunter Biden laptop story. And Weiss reported on Twitter’s decision to ban Trump after the January 6 insurrection attempt. (Since we recorded on Friday, the gang has continued to pump out new iterations of the Twitter Files.)
Stamos argued that the real essence of the critique that emerged from Taibbi’s reporting was the reality that governments across the world are actively trying to shape social media companies’ content moderation decisions.
“Government interference on platforms is a real deal,” Stamos said.
However, Taibbi didn’t show that in his tweetstorm. Joe Biden wasn’t in office, let alone the White House, when Twitter decided to briefly censor the New York Post’s story about the Hunter Biden laptop.
“Musk giving very selective data to a couple of very politically biased journalists is not the kind of transparency we would need if we wanted to be confident that there was no interference on this platform by government,” Stamos said.
“The kernel of truth is that every government on the planet, including ours in the United States of America, is trying to manipulate Twitter and all of the other major platforms. And so I proposed — here are things you can do if you’re Musk: You can have an open database of moderation decisions,” Stamos said. “You can commit to releasing — instead of just releasing emails from the Biden team, the DNC, not government actors — you could release all communications from all government actors globally. So the Modi campaign, the Indian government. I think it’s really important for somebody whose net worth is tied up in China, like Musk. Communications with the Chinese Communist Party is the kind of thing that if you really cared about this, you could release. But Musk apparently doesn’t like that idea.”
On the podcast, we talked about Musk’s extreme exposure to China and Musk’s unwillingness to criticize the Chinese government. (Even as Musk has been vocally critical of the United States’ response to the pandemic, he hasn’t said anything about China’s far more restrictive Covid lockdowns.)
“Tesla has a massive giga factory in Shanghai from which they will be producing cars to be shipped around the world,” Stamos said. “China is already 25% of the revenue. Clearly, if you look at discounted cash flows for the future, China’s going to be more than 50% of their stock price. And so yes, the [People’s Republic of China] has huge leverage over him. It’s like if Mark Zuckerberg, instead of having all his money in Facebook stock, his money was in a Chinese pharmaceutical company.”
Ultimately, Stamos predicted that the Musk fever in Silicon Valley would break. But for the time being, he said, Musk was playing the same role that Trump did at many Thanksgivings across America — dividing friends and families.
“I’m putting down a marker now. The Musk bubble in tech is going to pop,” Stamos told us. “Right now, it has become trendy to be seen as counterculture to be seen on Team Musk. And there’s a bunch of people who I used to work with, people who I’ve interacted with socially, who are smart, serious people who are now kind of waving the Musk flag. And just like with Trump. Just like with FTX. That bubble is going to pop. And you’re going to see all these people all of a sudden try to rewrite history.”
Stamos argued that Musk is unraveling before our very eyes. Tesla’s stock is down 60% this year while most of the media attention has been focused on Twitter.
“Musk is accelerating his breakdown here,” Stamos said. “If you end up with Twitter going out of business. Him having to give up Twitter to the bondholders or the debt holders. If you see him having to step down as CEO of Tesla. If you see some kind of massive moment — or you know, if there’s a horrible violent act that happens publicly. If there is, God forbid, something of the level of a Christchurch shooting or something that gets attached back to Musk’s moderation decisions — all of a sudden all these people who thought it was real cool to be on Team Musk are going to reverse themselves. And so I hope people are taking screenshots because it’s just a very scary. There’s a scary impulse in the Valley right now.”