The roads in Silicon Valley are paved with irony.
The tech industry exists in a parallel universe in which Instagram head, Adam Mosseri, can say: “There is a lot of misinformation about the WhatsApp ToS [terms of service] right now,” referring to WhatsApp, the messaging platform already known as one of the most efficient means of spreading misinformation. Mosseri was, of course, worried that WhatsAppers — especially in India, the largest market — would flee because of a recent announcement that WhatsApp would be sharing data with Facebook, Instagram and other partners. To add fuel to the fire, a January 7 tweet from Tesla founder and much-lionised Silicon Valley legend, Elon Musk, recommended: “Use Signal,” referring to an alternative messaging app. Inevitably, sign-ups on Signal surged with some enthusiasts anticipating a mass migration at a scale not seen since the time of Partition.
It is no small irony that this is the same Elon Musk who is so untrustworthy on Twitter that he had to agree to have all his tweets reviewed by Tesla’s counsel before posting. This was after his August 2018 tweet, “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” No, he did not have funding secured — and it was a scandal. And that hasn’t stopped him from spreading COVID-19 misinformation. I guess Tesla’s counsel is okay with that.
But I digress from the biggest news of the day. Today marks a momentous digital transition — and that, too, is laced with irony. The Twitter handles @POTUS and @WhiteHouse were transferred over to Joe Biden. President Biden did not inherit the millions of followers from his predecessor. He will start with a zero balance and borrow from a handle he had recently set up with a tiny following. The predecessor, Donald Trump, had considered signing on to an alternative right-wing site, Parler, using the handle “Person X,” before Parler itself went dark because Google, Apple and Amazon shut off its oxygen. Ironic indeed: The new president starts with zero followers and has to import them from other handles to get started and the outgoing president was planning to become “Person X” on a site rendered homeless on the internet.
And all this was because Trump’s real Twitter handle, @realDonaldTrump, with which he ruled for four long years, had to be silenced after 59,558 tweets. It is ironic that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had not been particularly fussed about Trump being named as the single-biggest superspreader of COVID-19 and elections misinformation, according to some very hardworking Cornell and Harvard number-crunchers. But the @realDonaldTrump-incited siege of Capitol Hill in Washington and Trump’s expression of “love” for the mob was just too much and Jack had to take the handle down. And now, do you think all those other power Twitter users — heads of states, celebrities and influencers (yes, you know who you are) — who use the platform to incite violence and hate are quaking in their slippers?
Let me be the first to assure them to keep calm. Jack is in no hurry to come after your handle; not right away. @realDonaldTrump’s 88,776,124 followers had made it a handle of gold, valued at $2 billion in 2017. Jack’s new-found courage may have been helped by the reality that an ex-president, now twice impeached, who incited a mob to attack his own seat of government, may command fewer advertising dollars. In the meantime, it is comforting that Facebook and other major platforms had also decided to dump Trump and Trumpists.
And herein lies more irony. Signal must prepare to make room for a wave of digital refugees — not only those fleeing WhatsApp, but the Trumpists escaping the inhospitable climes of Facebook and the other major platforms. It is not Signal alone that must now take on this awe-inspiring responsibility. Other fledgeling sites are laying out the red carpet. Get used to a few more names: Telegram, Gab, MeWe, CloutHub, Dlive, 8kun, Peepeth. As the dominant platforms find their conscience, the extremists are moving further into the internet’s dark underbelly, possibly to sites that are end-to-end encrypted or run on blockchain. This can help the most extreme elements to fly below the law enforcement radar and create mischief. Ironically, today’s high-mindedness might come at a high price for tomorrow’s post-Trump society.
There is no easy solution to this mess. There is irony even in the very serious actions that lawmakers in Washington DC are contemplating for reigning in social media. After the January 6 mob attack in Washington DC, several lawmakers are planning to revise a critical law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the US, sometimes called “the 26 words that created the internet”. It gives platforms legal protection from being sued because of the content they carry. Getting rid of the Section 230 shield altogether is a non-starter. The freedom from liability gives the platforms the licence to freely host user-generated content, which creates the richness of much of the worldwide web. Think of those TikTok videos that got you through the months of lockdown or of Bellingcat, that exposed the poison attack on Alexei Navalny by Putin’s thugs or of the good morning messages that start your day on WhatsApp or of Wikipedia that helped your kid finish their homework, even if they were not allowed to cite it as a source. If proposed changes to 230 are not done carefully, only the large platforms might survive because they are the only ones that have the legal and financial resources to deal with the surge of lawsuits. And, if you were concerned about the monopoly power of Big Tech, this could make the problem even worse.
You must be asking: What does this all mean for me? You may have the urge to escape the good morning messages or the perpetually forwarded bad joke or posts from that old classmate who has now turned out to be a Nazi sympathiser. If you, like many others, were considering a change to Signal, it turns out that once the dust settles, a relatively small number, at most 15 per cent of users, according to one survey, plan to break free of WhatsApp. So keep that in mind; sadly, network effects – where each user benefits when there are more users on the network they use — can keep you bonded to the status quo. On the other hand, you could have made a fortune if only you had invested in a company called Signal Advance, a tiny company that “temporally advances analogue signal detection”, whose stock trades over the counter. When Elon Musk tweeted “Use Signal”, investors mistook the “Signal” to refer to Signal Advance. Signal Advance’s stock rose 438 per cent. It has one full-time employee.
Occasionally, irony is just pure gold.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 21, 2021, under the title “After @realDonaldTrump, no easy answers”. The writer is dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, the founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context and a non-resident senior fellow at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress