Coined by The Economist in 2018, “techlash” took off as shorthand for that sudden lurch in public opinion from “Tech is great!” to “…but BIG tech is terrible!”
By year’s end, it was the Financial Times’ word of the year. But it seems Silicon Valley oligarchs have been reading up on their Machiavelli and decided that if journalists won’t love them, they’ll have to be taught to fear them.
This past week on Elon Musk’s Twitter we saw the next step, with suspensions handed out to nine largely tech reporters from old media such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, new media like Mashable, The Intercept and Business Insider, and citizen journalists like @ElonJet — which publicly records Musk’s flight paths. When the journalists took to Twitter Spaces to question Musk directly, he promptly left the chat. Twitter then closed down the entire service.
This was rewarded with the status recognition of its own Wikipedia page, initially titled “Thursday night massacre” before its hyperbole was downgraded to “December 15, 2022 Twitter suspensions”. “Controlled by the MSM journalists,” Musk tweeted. Earlier last week he accused not-for-profit Wikipedia of having “a non-trivial left bias” for relying on mainstream media sources.
For some old media, the message was received. At NBC, management barred “dystopia beat” reporter Ben Collins from on-screen reporting about Musk, although he continued to tweet the story.
After the EU and related governments threatened sanctions, Twitter walked back the bans late on Friday night, US time. It also lifted pre-Musk suspensions of various right-wing voices, including one of Fox’s top-10 advertisers, My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell.
Meanwhile, left-wing voices earlier purged from Twitter at the urging of right-wing trolls remained off the platform. As of this morning, it officially blocked links to potential competitors including the (often frustratingly) distributed non-profit Mastodon, Facebook, Instagram, Truth Social, Tribel, Nostr and Post — the latter being funded in part by Musk-friendly Twitter investor Marc Andreessen.
Journalists have mixed feelings about Twitter. Some love it for the adrenalin rush of real-time news-breaking and take-making, for the opportunity to build personal brand, and for engagement directly with readers and potential sources. Others hate it — for the same reason as the tech titans: it gives too much encouragement to readers (along with bots and trolls) to clap back.
Australian journalists have been drifting away from the platform, either leaving altogether or quietly quitting by tweeting less. At the ABC, the thinking seems to be why give red meat to the hungry conservatives at Senate estimates? At News Corp, it’s a no-win lefty platform best avoided (although news.com.au’s Samantha Maiden remains one of its most skilled users).
It retains a vibrant citizen journalist network through #auspol (dismissed as “drips” by traditional media for the water drop emoji often included in the handles). The pseudonymous @RonniSalt told Crikey last May that Twitter was a “fifth estate”, keeping mainstream media accountable.
Media companies have mixed views, too: sure, it’s cheap publicity, but they fear the lure of the viral tempts journalists over the line from analysis to (*shudder*) personal opinion. (This was the reason NBC gave for taking Collins off-air.) Financially, it’s a shrug. Despite its reputation as the social platform for news, it has limited referrals to news sites that can be monetised for ads or converted to subscribers.
Last week’s suspensions forced both media and journalists to rethink: should they leave distribution in the hands of a seemingly capricious billionaire lost in an increasingly shrill right-wing stream? One of tech journalism’s lead opinion makers, the once Musk-positive Kara Swisher, has set the tone with a quote from Mary Poppins author PL Travers: “I’ll stay till the wind changes.” She added: “The wind changed.”
The on-again/off-again media suspensions are not the first skirmish in big tech’s journalist eradication campaign. Notoriously, Peter Thiel went to war on Gawker. There’s been more personal brand-washing through media buys, like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post or Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.
More subtly, venture capital giant Andreessen Horowitz caused a stir in tech media last year when it launched Future.com with a strong journalist team as tech’s media voice. It proved a short-term future: it closed down this month.
Now Musk’s team of tech bros are trying to bring their own blend of oligarch love into a suddenly Fox-like platform. Looks like big tech has finally got the channel it wanted. But as journalists and others drift off and advertisers flee, Twitter could be facing Future’s future.