Making Twitter safe for Putin again
“The most important weapon at the hands of Mr. Putin is not submarines or missiles. It’s the propaganda.”
BY HENRY ABBOTT
To a lot of investors, digital media is a tough sell. (Did you see how quickly CNN+ folded?) And it’s in that context that Elon Musk made a hostile attempt to purchase Twitter. The board concocted a poison pill, delayed … and then failed to come up with anyone else who valued the company at almost $44 billion.
Which, presumably, is because the business has always been shaky.
After about a week they sold Twitter to Elon Musk, who, for some reason, is willing to pay that much.
At TrueHoop we have learned a lot about billionaires, intelligence, deep-pocketed investors, and Jeffrey Epstein. Between Apollo Global, alumni of Drexel, and the Kushner family, many people in the eye of the offshore money storm have Adam Silver’s mobile phone number.
One tendril of that research: it appears to be pretty easy to raise money for projects that help the somewhat powerful become incredibly powerful. Arguably the NBA is one of those. Mikhail Prokhorov was a rare oligarch who avoided U.S. sanctions while he owned the Nets. Arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi tried hard to buy the Utah Jazz. Putin is a big part of the reason the term “sportwashing” exists.
And I’m noticing that, in various roundabout ways, a lot of that money comes from oligarchs, or people close to autocrats, in places where leaders see democracy as a threat—especially the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.
Kremlin-connected Yuri Milner and Alisher Usmanov wrote some of the important early checks for Facebook, Twitter, and many other key firms of Silicon Valley.
Saudi Arabian investors have lavished so much cash on Silicon Valley that when Mohammed bin Salman tours Silicon Valley the most rich and powerful CEOs on the planet lead him around personally.
And it’s mind-blowing how many investment funds get big funding from the United Arab Emirates—including Apollo Global. And those funds do weird stuff like buy Yahoo and consider supporting Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter.
We have been learning Vladimir Putin is not as good at stuff as we had thought. He has been running Russia for a long time and—despite a massive influx of oil cash—Russia is nowhere near a superpower. Many regular Russians cope with substandard living conditions. Big industries have been hollowed out and in many cases sold off. Here’s an assertion that Russia’s military has been victimized by high-level graft. Here’s visual evidence the invading forces can’t keep air in the poorly maintained tires of their trucks.
Even at the top of the food chain, a surprising percentage of Putin’s own powerbrokers—generals, oligarchs, elites—are evidently unfit and have been fired, put under house arrest, jailed, or found dead. Any NBA fan knows winning teams build trust. Putin works the opposite way, and he isn’t bad at everything.
“This mechanism is working,” says Russian journalist and former soldier Arkady Babchenko through a translator at PutinCon. “It’s dangerous.” What some call “right-leaning” media functions more like weapons-grade propaganda.
“The most important weapon at the hands of Mr. Putin is not submarines or missiles. It’s the propaganda. It’s the zombie box. The box which produces zombies.”—Arkady Babchenko
By “zombies,” Babchenko means people who are so fixed in their opinions that they seem drugged, immune to reason. (I used to have a colleague who complained about the “dittoheads” who echoed whatever Rush Limbaugh said.)
Babchenko understands the power of this messaging. He says watching television convinced him to volunteer for Putin’s army, and he served in Chechnya and Georgia. Having fled Russia, he’s now sounding alarm bells about the shocking power of propaganda.
“I was always interested to investigate how, back in the 1930s, the German population agreed to mass killings of people, and burning them in furnaces,” he says. Babchenko says Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist, would be proud. Putin has managed to whip the public into a frenzy time after time—first about Chechnya, then immigrants, the LGBTQ community, Georgia, Ukraine, liberals, and “now the whole world.”
“So the country goes crazy. People are ready to kill. And if you talk to a person, and he turns a blind eye to you, he doesn’t hear your reasons; it looks like a person you are talking to was drugged, and he can’t accept the reality. That mechanism was used so many times.”
Maybe you have a friend or relative with whom you can no longer discuss politics. Imagine being Kyiv resident Misha Katsurin, traumatized by war, and calling his dad in Russia. As reported by The Daily, his dad did not believe Misha’s version of events at all, instead told his actual son mired in an actual war that Ukraine was run by Nazis and that Russian soldiers were only there to help.
You have probably seen the videos of regular Russians on the street saying, calmly, that Ukraine should be wiped off the map. Julia Ioffe of Puck has an extraordinary interview with Olga Mutovina, who keeps a website tracking the growing casualties of the Russian army from her home region of Baikal. Mutovina says many people sincerely believe in Russia’s noble cause:
I think people really do support it because it’s simpler. It’s much easier to sink into this comfort zone and never leave it because the truth is too horrible and hurts too much. If we realize that our country is the aggressor and that our nation is a pariah, if people who were taught for generations that the Russian soldier is always the liberator and only fights in just wars, if they learn that our soldiers did these horrific things, that they killed and raped and pillaged, that will be very unpleasant and painful. It’s much easier to shout from the rooftops that you support the special operation.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, the military failings were well publicized, but the domestic media part has been close to perfect. One of Putin’s loudest critics, Bill Browder, says Putin is achieving his goals in this war. “His calculation,” Browder tells Preet Bharara, “is all about him getting worried about getting kicked out by his people. So he maybe didn’t miscalculate, because his approval ratings are where he needs to be safely the leader of Russia.”
But who saw the full media force of Volodymyr Zelenskyy coming? Putin may have miscalculated what would happen to his reputation outside Russia’s borders, where there’s tremendous evidence Putin has exported his zombie box to the United States and much of the world. Kremlin propaganda operations like RT operated openly in the U.S. and around the globe until recently. Some Russian propaganda even comes directly from American media.
We all talk about how divided America has become. At PutinCon, almost every speaker agreed that Putin’s goal has been to weaken his traditional adversary, America, by dividing it, which he does with the judo technique of “pushing open doors.” We show signs of racism, and St. Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency amplifies them. The Putin confidant who runs the Internet Research Agency also runs Russia’s foremost private military contractor, the Wagner Group. These are tools of war.
A strong, more united America might mess with Russia, picking fights about offshore money movements, or doing more to support the large protests across the street from the Kremlin widely reported to have terrified and captivated Putin a decade ago. That was at the time of the Arab Spring—a political movement that ended many an autocrat—and was seen as largely the result of regular people organizing on social media, including Twitter.
[Peter] Thiel’s attempt to shut down Gawker and Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post will seem like child's play compared to what I predict will happen when the world’s richest people think they can own their own information superhighway.
His acquisition quest appears to be less about increasing the company’s profits—“This is not a way to sort of make money,” he has said—than preserving Twitter’s capacity for chaos as a tool for himself and others to continue influencing their vast audiences without interference. “I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk said, during a TED-conference interview in Vancouver, on April 14th. “Having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.” Even before his stock purchase was made public, Musk was tweeting to question if Twitter actually adhered to free-speech principles.
The fundamental problem with uncensored, algorithmically-amplified speech is that you are de facto putting a thumb on the scale in favor of misinformation.
There’s a pretty silly obstacle to Putin’s favorite propaganda playbook in the United States: content moderation. RT America closed when platforms like Roku and DirecTV responded to public outcry. Twitter booted Trump out of fears he would incite violence. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has lucid ideas about how Facebook’s algorithm can make it hard for autocrats to turn the public into zombies.
Just a few years ago it was easy to find Americans, including the then-president, saying Putin was a portrait of strength, even a pillar of Christianity. That argument has stopped mattering. Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. On March 9, a maternity ward, allegedly attacked by Russia, led the news. On April 3, there was talk of genocide in Bucha.
The next day, Elon Musk purchased 9.2 percent of Twitter, promising maximal free speech.
Are those things connected? Who knows? But it seems wrong to take it on faith that they aren’t.
I certainly hope that the people in charge of looking into potential connections to offshore dollars—or creeps like Jeffrey Epstein—are hard at work. And I hope they keep an eye on the so-called PayPal Mafia. It’s a small group of men who have run things like YouTube, Yelp, Reddit, and LinkedIn. Along with Peter Thiel, David Sacks, Reid Hoffman, and many others … Elon Musk is part of the gang.
When Epstein’s reputation was sullied by his first imprisonment, the PayPal Mafia’s Reid Hoffman hosted a dinner for him in Silicon Valley. Musk was a guest.
Many of the PayPal Mafia are increasingly active in American right-wing politics, and some say strangely pro-Russian things. PayPal was always about helping people move money. (“A Swiss bank in your pocket,” they said.) Now Musk, Sacks, and others are major promoters of Crypto, which is also seen as a boon to Putin’s unregulated money movements, in one case with alleged ties to Russian intelligence. This is all great for the Kremlin.
Ilya Yablokov, author of two books on Russia’s misinformation, discusses in the New York Times how Putin has been whipping up support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For example: “When people in the West weren’t trying to outright abolish the concept of gender, they were allowing teachers in schools to decide on a child’s gender, irrespective of parental wishes. It was, he said, a crime against humanity.” The Russian public has also heard allegations that the West is planning to release bats and birds infected with bioweapons.
It has been incredibly effective in turning Russian people against each other. Yablokov notes, chillingly: “Mr. Putin’s supporters have taken to marking the doors of opposition activists.”
Elon Musk is widely considered to possess one of the most brilliant minds on the planet. Presumably he understands that, without rules, Twitter will be a haven for the kinds of stories Putin’s administration has weaponized.
I wonder how Musk values that.
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