Elon Musk has gone from dominating the news cycle to becoming it.
If part of Musk’s goal in acquiring Twitter was to keep his name (and, by association, his personal and professional brands) in a non-stop news loop, we can already declare his ownership a success.
But Musk’s stewardship of Twitter is based in part on his stated belief that he is a revolutionary intent on cleansing Twitter’s opaque past:
Sunlight is the best disinfectant
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 3, 2022
Perhaps forgetting that Plato concluded in the allegory of the cave that those forced to see the light of truth would kill anyone who attempted to drag them out of the cave, Musk has embarked on a very public cleansing of the world’s leading social media platform.
A central figure in this exercise is, perhaps fittingly, Twitter co-founder and former long-term CEO Jack Dorsey, during whose tenure Twitter’s character was formed and then solidified.
Part of Musk’s cleansing project, known as the “Twitter Files,” is dragging Dorsey out of the cave and seeking to disinfect his leadership. For Dorsey, a potentially life-changing problem is his testimony in front of a congressional committee in 2018.
After this weekend’s Twitter Files revelations, it appears that Dorsey’s testimony was far less than honest.
New Jersey criminal lawyer David Gelman highlights the key legal issue here: “Failure to tell the truth when testifying before Congress is and should be a criminal matter. Perjury is covered by U.S. Code Sections 1621 and 1001 of Title 18, which may be relevant here.”
In Dorsey’s case, the testimony that went viral over the weekend would fall under Section 1621, which specifies that anyone who takes an oath and then “willfully and contrary to such oath states or subscribes any material matter which he does not believe to be true” is guilty of perjury. Whether under oath or not, the penalty for committing perjury in congressional testimony is up to five years in prison and a fine.
Given the fact set released in the Twitter Files, it seems clear that Dorsey could be investigated for having committed perjury before Congress.
Dorsey was asked clear and direct questions about Twitter’s shadow-banning policies and “social media being rigged to censor conservatives.” When asked whether Twitter was censoring people, he replied, “No.”
During his testimony before Congress in September 2018, then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was asked whether Twitter was “shadowbanning prominent Republicans.”
— Kyle Morris (@RealKyleMorris) December 9, 2022
The issue here, to be clear, has nothing to do with terms of service. This is a reductive argument, the stuff of straw men. Twitter is a private company. They can make decisions to moderate content and, yes, shadow-ban and otherwise ban users. If we don’t like it, we can stop using their service. Simple.
What’s really at issue here is deception. For the co-founder and CEO of Twitter to testify before Congress and lie about something as critical as whether users were having their content suppressed because of their political views is a very big deal. While banning and shadow-banning users is not a legal issue in itself as long as Twitter leadership didn’t violate their terms of service, lying to Congress is.
Part of what makes a social media platform is trust. The reason why several upstart platforms didn’t get the traction they hoped they would is that not enough users trusted them to migrate there. That so many people, every single day, share their worldview and some of their most personal observations and thoughts on Twitter makes Dorsey’s betrayal that much more of a jagged little pill to swallow.
Musk is betting on this constant flow of sunshine on Twitter’s past missteps to pave the way for a new and newly transparent platform — most importantly, one that will resonate with advertisers. But there is a big risk here that what Musk digs up about Twitter’s past and, even more critically, how he digs it up might also have people and money turning away from the platform.
There’s no denying that this gamble is a significant one that will be very interesting to watch play out over the next weeks and months.
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