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March 27, 2023, 2:01 p.m.

Leaked code, blocked journalists, and billions gone: It’s just another few days in late Twitter

Or how to lose $24 billion without even trying.

If you read much about politics online, particularly on the left, it’s a phrase you’ve probably seen: late capitalism.

Its meaning isn’t always clear — it’s shifted over time — but contemporary usage derives from Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.”1 A fair description might be the absurdities and indignities of 21st-century economic life — one where pervasive consumerism, technological targeting, and rampant inequality combine to make the individual feel worked over by an ostensibly “free” market. Late capitalism means industry-friendly deregulation followed by industry-friendly bailouts. Technological genius put in service of perfectly targeted ads. Social platforms funded by user surveillance. Paper fortunes built on meme coins.

There’s a decadence to it all — Nero, bored and legless in the metaverse while Rome burns. And for those with vaguely Marxist leanings, the “late” in late capitalism suggests the absurdities are approaching a point of self-collapse — the revolution is nigh! Interest in “late capitalism” among Google searchers hit a new peak last month, unsurprisingly.

Whatever you think of its usefulness as a term, I’ve been thinking late capitalism may be ready for a sibling: late Twitter.

Like late capitalism, Elon Musk’s Twitter offers no shortage of absurdities and indignities. (Email press@twitter.com for more details!) A platform that offered at least the illusion of an even playing field — maybe even democratic empowerment — has become a plaything for a billionaire’s whims, where consequential decisions are made by Twitter poll. (Except when they’re not.) A platform where identity verification is redefined as “has $8.”

Could there be anything more late capitalism than the richest2 man in the world demanding one night that his tweets be made 1,000 times more popular?

And “late Twitter” shares with “late capitalism” the irony of time. People have been talking about late capitalism for more than a century — but it doesn’t seem much closer to an end today than it did then. For those of us who love (loved?) Twitter, each new indignity is a note in a growing crescendo — the sort that must be leading up to some sort of grand finale. But instead it just keeps climbing, from forte to fortissimo to fortississimo to…whatever come next, short of deafness.

Let’s look at just the past few days in late Twitter.

Twitter says it will revoke “legacy” Verified badges in April, leaving only paying subscribers…

Once upon a time, verification meant that the person claiming to be Barack Obama on Twitter is, in fact, Barack Obama. But Musk’s $8/month Twitter Blue subscription turned the blue check into more of a symbol of fealty than a marker of identity. After months of threats, Twitter now says that the old verified accounts — the “legacy” accounts Musk was proud to declare “may or may not be notable” — will be going away on April 1. (Product rollouts on April Fool’s Day are always a good idea.) “Far too many” of those legacy blue checks were obtained “corruptly,” he has claimed repeatedly without evidence. News organizations and other companies are being asked to pay $1,000 a month for a special gold check, which is sure to impress everyone down at the club.

…but those paying Twitter Blue customers may be able to hide their shame.

The flip side of this move is that some Twitter Blue subscribers are…kind of ashamed of it. A Verge report Friday noted that Twitter is testing a setting to “show or hide your blue checkmark on your profile.”

Depending on what part of the site you’re on, the blue verified checkmark can make you as much of a pariah as having an NFT profile picture. If a tweet from a Twitter Blue user goes viral, the comments are likely filled with memes about how “this mf paid for twitter,” and there are even tools to block everyone who has the subscription.

Twitter is blocking independent journalists in India.

The major social networks all field streams of requests from governments about content and users they don’t like. Since they must obey the laws of the countries they operate in, they often end up giving in to demands to block certain users or material. Pre-Musk, Twitter was known for offering the strongest pushback of any platform to such requests. Last July, for example, it filed suit against the Indian government to fight several such demands, arguing they violated Indian law.

Last July, Twitter announced the release of its 20th semiannual transparency report. Every six months since mid-2012, Twitter has reported on all the government requests it has received and how it responded.

Why does this matter? Over the last 10 years how governments attempt to control free expression, remove content, and reveal the identity of account owners on Twitter has evolved significantly. Meaningful transparency helps people understand the rules of online services and hold governments accountable for their actions, and in turn, helps keep us accountable for principled content moderation and responsiveness to government demands.

Musk calls himself a “free speech absolutist” and has promised “transparency” over and over again. But when it came time for Twitter’s 21st transparency report, in January, it was nowhere to be found. (“That shit went out the window right after Elon came in,” one former staffer told Rolling Stone.)

On Friday we learned, via Rest of World, that Twitter is back to going along with Indian government requests for blocks.

Twitter blocked 122 accounts belonging to journalists, authors, and politicians in India this week in response to legal requests from the Indian government.

On March 23, the government issued a request for 29 more Twitter accounts to be blocked, as per data on the Lumen database — a collaborative archive which collects legal complaints and requests for removal of online material. The development follows a police crackdown and a subsequent internet shutdown in the north Indian state of Punjab to arrest separatist figure Amritpal Singh Sandhu. The government has declared Sandhu a fugitive and he is on the run…

The blocked Twitter accounts include those belonging to journalists Pieter Friedrich, Sandeep Singh, Kamaldeep Singh Brar, and Gagandeep Singh; Canadian politician Jagmeet Singh and poet Rupi Kaur; and pro-Khalistan member of parliament Simranjit Singh Mann. A number of these accounts, which include prominent Sikh voices in the diaspora, were putting out credible information amid the current turmoil in Punjab…

One of the journalists whose account remains inaccessible in India told Rest of World they never received a notification from Twitter informing them of the impending block. “If I tweeted anything that was fake or rumor or hate speech, then the proper case should be registered against me,” they said, requesting anonymity as they didn’t want to publicly comment on an ongoing issue. “Otherwise, the account should be restored with an apology from the government.” All of the journalist’s tweets prior to the block, shared with Rest of World, were news articles or posts on the developments in Punjab.

There’s no way to know for sure how the pre-Musk Twitter would have acted in response to India’s request. But it seems very likely that it would have put up more of a fight. (After all, Musk has enjoyed banning journalists from the platform without any government prompt whatsoever.)

Twitter’s source code seems to have leaked in early January, but it didn’t notice until now.

Musk has pledged to publish a few parts of Twitter’s code, but he certainly didn’t mean this. On January 3, an anonymous user going by “FreeSpeechEnthusiast” logged on to GitHub and uploaded a meaningful portion of the “proprietary source code for Twitter’s platform and internal tools.” That left it open to, among others, any aspiring hacker who’d want to find points of weakness in the system.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Twitter noticed this leak for more than two months, only sending a DMCA takedown notice to GitHub on Friday. The Times reports that company officials suspect the culprit is a former Twitter employee who left the company last year — which thankfully narrows things down to just the 5,000-plus employees Musk has fired, laid off, or pushed to resign in his five months of ownership.

(Yes — Elon Musk has only owned Twitter for five months. Today’s the anniversary. It only feels like it’s been a millennium.)

Elon says Twitter has lost more than half of its value since he bought it for $44 billion.

On Friday, Musk sent a memo to both remaining Twitter staffers laying about potential stock grants. In it, he assigned the company a valuation of $20 billion. He bought it last October for $44 billion. As recently as December, he was seeking additional investors at that $44 billion valuation.

The 1985 comedy Brewster’s Millions revolved around a man, played by Richard Pryor, facing a challenge: He has to somehow find a way to spend $30 million in 30 days, or else he’ll miss out on inheriting a much larger fortune of $300 million. Musk has had four more months than Brewster did, but he’s somehow been able to burn through $24 billion with a single transaction. So far!

And it’s worth noting that $20 billion is just Musk’s own estimate. No longer publicly traded, Twitter stopped reporting financial results. Musk finds ways to inject numbers like 69 and 420 into his businesses wherever possible, so maybe he just thought $20 billion was a nice round number to cite.

So this is late Twitter: a shriveling business people are ashamed to admit paying money to, blocking journalists, misplacing code, and sending poop emojis to the world’s media. The indignities pile up alongside the reply-guy emoji.

Is all this heading somewhere? Is Elon really going to Zeno’s Paradox the global town square down to zero, watching it shrink in half again every few months? Will something else follow the decadence, or is it gorilla genitals all the way? If late capitalism is any guide, we’ll have plenty of time to think about it.

  1. As well as the later book of the same name↩︎
  2. Sometimes the richest, at least. ↩︎
Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     March 27, 2023, 2:01 p.m.
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