Way back in the mid-1990s, back when UK cable TV was considered new media, the notorious former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie was launch boss for a rolling station called Live TV. The channel’s offering was an eclectic mix of neuron-slaughtering dross, to put it kindly, including Topless Darts, the News Bunny – a giant rabbit who stood behind the newsreader and emoted according to the story being read out – and Tiffani’s Big City Tips, wherein a model stripped to her underwear while telling you where to invest (in rival telly companies, would seem to be the short answer). A guy who’d played an Oompa Loompa in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory did the weather forecast while bouncing on a trampoline.
Looking back, it does sound quite like some of the worst bits of modern life online, or perhaps the best bits, depending on your view. But it quickly turned to shit – again, quite like some of modern life online – and the ill-suited and vindictive MacKenzie hit on a ruse for cutting costs and amusing himself at the same time. He would walk in to the studio or production gallery and fire someone at random. If this summary loss of personnel did not appear to affect the live broadcast happening at the time – if it contrived to stay rolling, one way or another – then he’d regard the financial saving as well made. How important, really, could that person actually have been?
I thought quite often about this story last year when X owner Elon Musk bought what was then called Twitter, and promptly fired most of the teams that had fought disinformation. As you’ll have noticed, the platform stayed rolling. But it was a Faustian deal (or more accurately a Faustian severance deal), and the scale of what is being collected on could not have been clearer in the hours and days since the Hamas-perpetrated atrocity in Israel on Saturday.
For more than a decade, Twitter was an absolutely key resource for understanding major world events and disasters in real time. Open-source reporters and investigators pieced together the picture on the ground from primary sources and verified content. I’m calling it Twitter in this instance, because that was then. X is something different, although I’m sure we’re all on tenterhooks for its vaunted transformation into the everything app/surveillance capitalism dreamscape humanity deserves.
As numerous information specialists have pointed out in recent days, the platform now offers a forest of disinformation so dense that penetrating it has become extremely difficult. Justin Peden, an open-source intelligence researcher who found the platform valuable when covering the 2021 Gaza escalation, told Wired this weekend that it was currently almost impossible to reach the useful information. X users now pay for blue ticks, and those who do have their posts algorithmically promoted. Last weekend, such viral posts included Algerian firework celebrations being sold as Israeli attacks on Hamas, Arma 3 video game footage being presented as a Hamas attack, years-old videos from the Syrian conflict cast as contemporaneous attacks on Tel Aviv airport, and an entirely fake photo of Cristiano Ronaldo holding the Palestinian flag posted by an account that poses as a blue-tick BBC journalist.
Never underestimate Musk’s capacity for making things even worse, however, as the nuclear-bomb-in-a-china-shop mogul sought once more to direct the conversation he bought for $44bn. “For following the war in real time,” he instructed his 150m-plus followers on Sunday morning, “@WarMonitors & @sentdefender are good.” And yet, are they in even the same galaxy as good? In May, both accounts spread wholly false accounts of an explosion near the Pentagon – US stocks promptly dipped – while @WarMonitors has posted antisemitic insults and content on several occasions. Just 11 million people had viewed Musk’s post before he took it down and posted again, this time adopting arguably the worst Musk tone – fake responsibility. “As always,” Elon patronised, “please try to stay as close to the truth as possible, even for stuff you don’t like.” Likewise, Phony Stark. Likewise.
Last month, the EU claimed that X had the highest rate of disinformation of any major social media platform. However worthy and essential, these reports always feel somewhat dry and academic when they drop on an uneventful Tuesday morning in Brussels. It is in the eye of horrors such as those currently unfolding in Israel and Gaza that the cost of unmooring from checks and balances becomes terribly, grotesquely clear. The type of people who benefit are terrorists, propagandists and other bad actors. There are real-world costs the click-chasers can’t even begin to foresee – the unspeakable in pursuit of the unreliable.
Presiding over it all is a 52-year-old sorcerer’s apprentice who increasingly resembles one of Earth’s most worrying manifestations of the Peter Principle. This is the old theory that people who do well in their jobs get promoted up the hierarchy, and it keeps happening until they attain a level for which they simply aren’t good enough. Musk was clearly great at running his mega electric car company and his mega space rocket company – and I’d go so far as to say he’d have been an adequate boss of a topless darts outlet. But he is very bad indeed at running X. And while on a good day we can kid ourselves that it doesn’t truly matter … on the bad days, when the chips are down, it really, really does.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist