Twitter was always a cesspool

Debunking the post-Musk myth of the beautiful Twitter.

Elon Musk, June 16, 2023. Credit: Frederic Legrand-COMEO/Shutterstock.
Elon Musk, June 16, 2023. Credit: Frederic Legrand-COMEO/Shutterstock.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

A myth has developed since billionaire Elon Musk purchased Twitter. It holds, more or less, that Twitter was a progressive and inclusive safe space until a rich right-wing lunatic turned it into a cesspool of racism and hate.

The New York Times recently published a version of this narrative by Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of “trust and safety,” who exited following the Musk takeover.

Roth charges that malignant political and financial actors are engaged in a “well-planned strategy” to destroy their opponents on the site. He points, for example, to the attacks on Twitter’s attempts to push back against Donald Trump’s false claims regarding the 2020 election, leading to Trump’s ouster from the platform (Musk has reinstated him).

It is impossible not to have sympathy for Roth. He is clearly a well-meaning middle-class progressive whose values—while desperately maudlin—are nonetheless sincere. There is also no doubt that he has suffered at the hands of Trump and Musk.

After placing a fact check on one of Trump’s tweets, Roth recounts, “Backed by fans on social media, Mr. Trump publicly attacked me. Two years later, following his acquisition of Twitter and after I resigned my role as the company’s head of trust and safety, Elon Musk added fuel to the fire. I’ve lived with armed guards outside my home and have had to upend my family, go into hiding for months and repeatedly move.”

Roth details further harassment, including death threats. This is horrible stuff, no doubt, and Roth makes some good points about government and political interference in social media.

Nonetheless, Roth clearly engages in some postbellum revisionism. He states, “Social media companies are shying away from making the kind of difficult decisions my team did when we intervened against Mr. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Platforms had finally begun taking these risks seriously only after the 2016 election.”

Referring to a death threat against him posted to Twitter, Roth states, “That post, and hundreds of others like it, were violations of the very policies I’d worked to develop and enforce. Under new management, Twitter turned a blind eye, and the posts remain on the site today.”

As sympathetic as one may be to Roth’s travails—and I am sympathetic—it is necessary to point out, particularly as a Jew and an advocate for Zionism and Israel, that his narrative is nonsense.

Twitter was not a safe space that became a cesspool following the Musk takeover. Twitter was always a cesspool. From its inception to today, it has been a forum for political dementia, racism, antisemitism, hate, mob violence and generally heinous behavior. It was and is humanity’s latrine.

This became painfully clear to me in 2014, long before Musk came into the picture. During the Israel-Hamas war that year, Twitter became the single most effective engine of antisemitism the world had seen in decades. The hashtag “#HitlerWasRight” went viral. I and other Jews were subjected to the most virulent, racist and sadistic rhetoric. Muslim users the world over hailed terrorism and genocide against Jews and called us “pigs” and “satanic,” among other epithets.

There were real-world consequences to this. Across Europe, antisemitic violence erupted, with everything from street violence to mob attacks on synagogues. It was a pogrom, though no one would say the word. It was the beginning, in fact, of a global pogrom that has now spread to the United States. The idea that Twitter and social media in general played no role in this atrocity by promoting the ideology behind it is laughable.

Against this wave of hate and violence, Twitter did absolutely nothing. It undertook no concerted or comprehensive effort to deal with the problem. Nor, it appears, did it wish to. It is possible that it was in sympathy with the pogromists, but if not, it was clearly too debased to stop them.

Perhaps the most perfect expression of the degraded nature of Twitter’s pre-Musk era, however, was the platform’s refusal to take any action against Iran’s “supreme leader” Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei, a genocidal antisemite and scrofulous, misogynistic theocrat, has used his Twitter platform to spew murderous antisemitism on a regular basis, routinely calling for Israel’s annihilation. Despite numerous appeals made through official and unofficial channels, Twitter has not quietly but loudly proclaimed that it will do nothing about Khamenei’s hate speech, even though it blatantly violates all of the platform’s professed codes of conduct.

One regrets to say, then, that the narrative pushed by Roth and many others is little more than self-absolution for their own failures. Yes, Trump should have been booted off Twitter, but Khamenei should have been as well. Yes, Musk has not done nearly enough to deal with hate and antisemitism on the platform, but neither did Roth and his colleagues. Hypocrisy grants no indulgences.

I do not think there is a cure for what ails Twitter. The best option is euthanasia, but this is an obvious absurdity. If anything is clear, however, it is that no one is innocent in this case. They all helped to build the latrine, and they should not be surprised that the worst among us decided to use it.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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