Wednesday, April 27, 2022

I knew when I saw the title of Noah Smith's latest that it was going to be bad. I just didn't realize it would be this bad

We've got a lot to cover. Let's just dive right in.

[Emphasis added]

For one thing, I think Musk is well-positioned to deal with foreign information ops, especially those perpetrated by Russia and China. Russian bots and agents are big on Twitter, and China has been working to build a similar network. This presents the disturbing possibility that the existence of Twitter spells doom for liberal governments — if totalitarians can exercise tight control over their own Twitter-like networks while using info ops to heavily influence the discussion on Twitter itself, it could give them a crucial advantage in the new era of international competition.

I suspect that Musk is thinking about this scary future and how to avert it. When Russia invaded two months ago, Musk instantly shipped thousands of Starlink internet kits to Ukraine. This was crucial in helping the Ukrainians keep their internet running in the face of Russian cyberattacks and bombardments. This demonstrates that Elon values the defense of liberal societies against totalitarian aggression. It stands to reason that he’d also care about this in the case of Twitter info ops as well. Elon famously cares about free speech, but when totalitarian governments use their power to selectively disrupt speech in free societies, that seems pretty detrimental to free speech, and it needs stronger pushback.

We'll get back to China in a minute. For now, though, let's look at Starlink. 

From the Washington Post.

After Russia launched its invasion, Ukrainian officials pleaded for Elon Musk’s [Emphasis in original] SpaceX to dispatch their Starlink terminals to the region to boost Internet access. “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route,” Musk replied to broad online fanfare.

Since then, the company has cast the actions in part as a charitable gesture. “I’m proud that we were able to provide the terminals to folks in Ukraine,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell [Emphasis in original] said at a public event last month, later telling CNBC, “I don’t think the U.S. has given us any money to give terminals to the Ukraine.”

But according to documents obtained by The Technology 202, the U.S. federal government is in fact paying millions of dollars for a significant portion of the equipment and for the transportation costs to get it to Ukraine. [Emphasis in original]

On Tuesday, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced it has purchased more than 1,330 terminals from SpaceX to send to Ukraine, while the company donated nearly 3,670 terminals and the Internet service itself.

While the agency initially called it a “private sector donation valued at roughly $10 million,” it did not specify how much it is contributing for the equipment or for the cost of transportation.

Sometime after the announcement, the agency removed key details from its release. It now states that USAID “has delivered 5,000 Starlink Terminals” to Ukraine “through a public-private partnership” with SpaceX but does not specify the quantity nor value of the donations.

USAID agreed to purchase closer to 1,500 standard Starlink terminals for $1,500 apiece and to pay an additional $800,000 for transportation costs, documents show, adding up to over $3 million in taxpayer dollars paid to SpaceX for the equipment sent to Ukraine. [Emphasis in original]

In a letter to SpaceX last month outlining the deal, the USAID mission director to Ukraine said the terminals would be “procured” and sent on behalf of USAID by a third-party contractor, which would “arrange for transportation and delivery of the equipment” from Los Angeles International Airport to Ukraine via Poland.

The letter said the nearly 3,670 terminals donated by SpaceX would come with three months of “unlimited data.” In addition to the more than 1,330 terminals that USAID confirmed it had purchased, the agency earlier agreed to buy a separate 175 units from SpaceX, according to the documents.


It is also unclear whether the price the U.S. government is paying for individual Starlink units matches their typical market price. [Emphasis in original]

USAID is paying $1,500 for each standard terminal and the accompanying service, documents show. According to the Starlink website, a standard terminal set costs $600, while the monthly service charge costs $110, plus an additional $100 for shipping and handling.

There are quite a few unanswered questions, but we can be reasonably certain that Musk got a ton of great PR for himself and Starlink that was at least partially paid for by taxpayers.

Now back to China. Here's Smith again.

Then there’s Jeff Bezos’ odd allegation that Musk would do the bidding of China’s government:
This doesn’t make a lot of sense even in the narrow sense of business incentives, since China’s government is supporting a host of Tesla competitors. Some Western business executives over the years have fallen all over themselves to do favors for China’s government in exchange for promises of market access, only to see themselves muscled out by state-sponsored competitors after giving China’s leaders what they want; Elon seems way too smart to fall for that old trick. But on top of that, as I mentioned above, Musk seems committed to the defense of liberal countries against authoritarian ones. Nothing kills free speech faster than when the tanks roll in.
("Seems" is doing a lot of heavy lifting.)

Perhaps the Amazon founder was thinking of this. From the Guardian:

Tesla has opened a new showroom in the capital of Xinjiang, a region at the heart of years-long campaign by Chinese authorities of repression and assimilation against the Uyghur people.


The US has enacted a range of sanctions and regulatory and other measures against China over its continuing human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including restrictions on US business dealings with local operators and suppliers.

President Joe Biden last month signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and the US government intends to conduct a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.

Uyghur rights groups criticised the opening of the showroom, reportedly Tesla’s 211th in China. The Council on American-Islamic Relations urged its immediate closure, and the cessation of what it alleged “amounts to economic support for genocide”.

Human Rights Watch’s Australia researcher, Sophie McNeill, said: “Beijing and businesses have long banked on a global willingness to put profits ahead of human rights, even in the face of crimes against humanity, but we must not allow this to continue in 2022.

“Elon Musk and his Tesla executives need to consider human rights in Xinjiang or risk being complicit.”

Tesla has been contacted for comment.

Tesla’s decision drew some support on Chinese social media, and followed revelations a week earlier that US tech company Intel had requested suppliers not to source goods, services, or labour from the region.

One commenter welcomed Tesla’s support for “the development and construction of Xinjiang, unlike some other companies”, an apparent reference to multinationals seeking to reduce business links with Xinjiang over the rights abuses. 

Back to Smith:
This also applies to an even more damaging variant of “cancellation” — the ability of powerful Twitter users to sic mobs on people in real life. The most famous example of this is when Twitter activist Shaun King posted the photo of a man whom he falsely accused of the murder of a young girl. The true culprits were later arrested, but the man King falsely accused suffered extensive real-life harassment. Yet the company refused to crack down. Musk has a chance to address this as well.
Yes, we can all agree that it's wrong for "powerful Twitter users to sic mobs on people in real life." Here is Felix Salmon with an example
With more than 22 million followers, Elon Musk knows exactly what happens when he uses his enormous Twitter bully pulpit to bully female journalists. Science writer Erin Biba, for one, has made that abundantly clear, with the story of what happened when he merely replied to one of her tweets.

Which is to say: If you don’t have a strong stomach, don’t look at Business Insider reporter Linette Lopez’s @-replies right now. Musk did much more than just reply to one of her tweets: He has gone on a veritable Twitter rampage aimed at her. 

This is worse than just stalking: Musk is setting his army of fanboys loose on Lopez, he’s retweeting stuff they find, and he’s encouraging them every step of the way. Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for setting mobs upon his enemies; Musk should be banned too, but won’t be.

Musk’s harassment of Lopez is obsessive and deranged, to the point at which it should worry every shareholder of any company where he serves as CEO. But since even former journalists seem to think that somewhere in the madness there’s a legitimate beef, let’s put that idea to rest. Lopez has been reporting aggressively on Tesla for a while; her sources include Tesla whistleblower Martin Tripp, whom Musk considers a saboteur for talking to the press. Lopez has also, in the past, written about Jim Chanos, a dogged investor who is shorting Tesla stock.

One area where Musk does have relevant experience in is bots.

Russ Mitchell writing for the LA Times:

In early November 2013, the news wasn’t looking great for Tesla. A series of reports had documented instances of Tesla Model S sedans catching on fire, causing the electric carmaker’s share price to tumble.

Then, on the evening of Nov. 7, within a span of 75 minutes, eight automated Twitter accounts came to life and began publishing positive sentiments about Tesla. Over the next seven years, they would post more than 30,000 such tweets.

With more than 500 million tweets sent per day across the network, that output represents a drop in the ocean. But preliminary research from David A. Kirsch, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, concludes that activity of this sort by so-called bots has played a significant part in the “stock of the future” narrative that has propelled Tesla’s market value to altitudes loftier than any traditional financial analysis could justify.

Smith also assures us that we shouldn't worry about Musk lifting the ban on the former president since "Trump has stated that he has no intention to return" and if you can't trust DJT... Still, it is useful to actually follow Smith's link.

“I hope Elon buys Twitter because he’ll make improvements to it and he is a good man, but I am going to be staying on TRUTH,” Trump’s statement read.
  But what if Truth Social goes away?

 Chris Cillizza writing for CNN.

Trump, ever the opportunist, announced in the fall of last year that he was starting Truth Social, a rival social media company that would be a free speech haven – unlike Twitter.

Except, well, Truth Social has been sort of irrelevant since it launched in February. Trump himself, the man around whom the entire operation was built, has so far sent one tweet Truth. And the special purpose acquisition company tied to Truth Social has lost 44% of its value since Musk first disclosed his stake in Twitter.


Trump insisted to Fox on Monday that nothing had changed.

“I am not going on Twitter, I am going to stay on TRUTH,” Trump said. “I hope Elon buys Twitter because he’ll make improvements to it and he is a good man, but I am going to be staying on TRUTH.”

But with Musk now in charge, the likelihood of Trump getting his Twitter account back just went WAY up. And if he is ultimately reinstated, he would get back the 88 million followers he had on Twitter – and the instant feedback that he grew so addicted to over the last few years.

(Trump has suggested he would not have been elected president without Twitter. “When somebody says something about me, I am able to go bing, bing, bing and I take care of it,” he said in 2017.)

If you believe that Trump would somehow be able to resist the lure of Twitter if Musk allowed his account to be reinstated, then you haven’t been paying attention for the last seven years.

And with that I'm afraid Smith has broken me. There's more in the piece that need context but it's late and I'm too tired to finish the job. Before I go, however, I will leave you with this link to an article by the excellent Lora Kolodny who demolishes the notion that Elon Musk has any interest in any free speech other than his own. 

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