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Substack's Easter Miracle
tuesday report #11 // substack dismantled by elon musk, tentatively permitted to once again exist; broad AI recap, from racist robots to olympic surveillance; tok links; assorted clownery
Welcome back to the Pirate Wires weekly digest. First, a bunch of job openings. I’m looking for a designer, editors, writers, and — please save me — a director of operations. Details here.
Now, a brief lead story, and a storm of links to catch you up on everything you need to know. Onward.
Not a chirp. Wednesday, Substack announced the beta release of Notes, a Twitter-like scrolling feed for short-form content, which immediately attracted the unbridled wrath of Twitter’s Lord Commander Elon Musk. By Thursday morning, it was no longer possible to embed tweets on Substack, and by Friday it was total war. Over the course of 48 brutal hours, links to Substack were aggressively suppressed, as was Substack’s Twitter account, tweets that mentioned Substack, and every URL that included the company’s name. For Elon’s final act, with a gesture reminiscent of his infamous poop emoji press strategy, Twitter searches for the word “substack” were re-routed to the word “newsletter” (at the time of my writing, they still do). Naturally, reaction from writers who use both Substack and Twitter has been overwhelmingly negative.
In conversation with ‘someone’ at the company (who could it be!), journalist Matt Taibbi, who publishes on Substack, alleged he was given the option of publishing on Twitter — his only recourse — if he didn’t want his work suppressed. In response, Matt, a favored writer of Elon’s and the principal reporter for the Twitter Files, announced his permanent departure from Twitter. Furthermore, he intended to not only remain on Substack, but to use Substack Notes. This apparent betrayal prompted Elon to unfollow him, with one journalist speculating he also delisted Taibbi’s work from Twitter search. On this final allegation, it’s worth noting search has been partly broken for at least a month. Just a day prior, for example, the function failed for me in a similar manner, and on an unrelated series of searches. But we know our boy gets salty, so I guess it’s safe to say that anything is possible.
Saturday, in a brief reply to Brett Weinstein, Elon claimed the following: Substack attempted to download a portion of Twitter’s database while it bootstrapped Notes, Taibbi was a Substack employee, and, anyway, Twitter never blocked links to Substack. While these claims were all denied by Substack CEO Chris Best on Notes (no available link, unfortunately, as the product’s still in beta), I can confirm Elon’s last claim is technically true. Over the weekend, the Pirate Wires team was able to tweet links to our pieces. Our tweets were just impossible to like or share, which effectively killed them, and would have killed Substack had Elon’s decision held. But by Easter Sunday, for reasons unknown, the broader embargo was lifted, and Substack rose from the grave. A miracle in keeping with the holiday.
Embedding tweets is still prohibited, however, hence this janky screenshot of my first rough sense of the entire drama:
Elon’s decision was understandable, if shitty (for me specifically, and writers like me). Substack Notes is clearly competitive with Twitter, and, while I doubt anyone at the company will ever publicly admit it, I can’t imagine they didn’t see something like this coming. But Elon’s decision was nonetheless as alienating as it was destabilizing, not only of Substack but of the entire alternative media landscape — which Twitter largely developed, to this day representing one of the company’s most vital long-term value propositions. In other words, this decision didn’t just hurt an upstart newsletter platform, or the writers who used it. Elon’s decision hurt Elon. In keeping with the average institutional reporter’s longstanding inability to report on anything considered ‘good news,’ the strongest evidence for this is actually just the mainstream press’ general, wildly unusual silence on the topic of Musk.
With almost a full week of evolving, hotly debated media drama surrounding a globally recognized tech platform every reporter lives on, a popular startup, Elon — a lightning rod for press hysteria — and every writer the average reporter loves to hate, from Bari Weiss to Matt Taibbi, this should have been a major story. It wasn’t. The New York Times published one, brief piece on the Substack firebombing. It appeared Friday, before the height of controversy, and before the story’s conclusion. Why? In hindsight, the problem is obvious, and I feel stupid for not realizing it sooner: we already know the press is incapable of complimenting Elon, and how could they attack him for a decision they liked? They did, however, inadvertently remind us of the stakes.
The Times reported the specific method Elon chose for Substack’s suppression was the same method employed by Twitter’s previous management when targeting President Trump for “misinformation.” This is to say, sure, he can post, but his posts can’t be liked or shared, which means they die. The tone, here, seemed to imply the following: a once important tool for the ‘good and healthy’ suppression of political dissidence was now being used for Elon’s personal gain, which is bad. But that flashback to the Before Times hit hard. Wow, I thought, 2020 really was a wild time to be disagreeing with the New York Times.
Over the course of our last presidential election, it was technically possible for Trump to tweet a claim Times reporters didn’t like, but it was often not possible for Trump’s followers to retweet or like the claim. Around the same time, only weeks before his father’s election, Twitter suppressed the Hunter Biden laptop story. A couple months after that, Trump was banned from the platform. The defacto state censorship we witnessed at that time was unlike anything we’ve seen in contemporary American history, and the censorship “seen” was not even the worst problem; as revealed in the Twitter Files, a revelation only possible on account of Elon’s unprecedented social media coup, Twitter’s policy at the time — which remains in place at every other major social media company today — was the quiet suppression of all content deemed unsavory by an invisible group of partisan tyrants. Today, the rules on Twitter, at least, are much simpler. In fact, there’s just the one: Elon Musk is king. Don’t piss him off. That’s a rule that clearly gives and takes. But it is at least honest, in its own way.
While I don’t believe Elon ever intended the Substack ban as anything more than a brief, terrifying shot across Substack’s bow, it’s worth considering a permanent version of the decision, as I do now think a more permanent version is possible. For the record, and unambiguously: I think that really sucks. In the first place, and most inscrutably, Elon made the decision to suppress Substack links with no alternative in place (Revue, Twitter’s Substack competitor, was recently shut down). But then, more obviously, by suppressing links to the information ecosystem’s primary, if still relatively tiny alternative to the mainstream press, Twitter — despite everything Elon ostensibly fought for in securing the platform — dramatically handicapped independent writers in favor of the Death Star, and very briefly became the most censorious version of the platform that has ever existed.
Fortunately, Death Star Twitter is still not a version of the company Elon wants, as evidenced by his quick reversal. Unfortunately, the problem here is bigger than Elon’s perspective on free speech. Twitter is unpredictable. Is it just a place to shit talk incredibly dimwitted politicians, or is it a place where people like I can build a company? Because, at the end of the day, I’m a red blooded American Male who needs both, and, in terms of the latter, I no longer feel secure on the platform.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m leaving. I’m not like the other social media addicts, you see. I’m a self-aware social media addict, and my threshhold for platform insanity is high — I came of age in the first chaotic years of the Clown Wars, after all. And anyway there’s also no alternative. But, I would feel more secure if an alternative existed, and for a great fan not only of Twitter, but of Elon, that strikes me as a major problem for the platform.
MORE Bird App:
Twitter labels NPR “US state-affiliated media.” In the words of one Twitter user, “This was worth $44 billion.” Media backlash was, of course, overwhelming, and precipitated a final change to the label “government-funded media.” (Twitter) (WaPo)
BBC, which also sucks, also objecting to the label (WaPo)
Twitter Circle tweets reportedly surfacing on For You feeds (TechCrunch)
Bird icon returns (R.I.P. Dogecoin) (Fortune)
Samsung projecting poor profits amid memory-chip slump (WSJ)
Treasury Department slaps Microsoft with $3 million in fines (blacklist Russia drama) (WSJ)
Activision settles with DOJ re: esports wages (Axios)
Saudi Arabian-owned Savvy Games buys CA-based Scopely for $4.9bn (Axios)
Arkansas House approves social media parental consent bill (AP)
Movement to enact legal protections for child influencers gaining steam (WaPo)
Tesla planning new energy-storage battery plant in Shanghai (WSJ)
More Tesla price cuts (WSJ)
Thousands of Walmarts to install EV charging stations by 2030 (Axios)
Amazon axes Book Depository to cut costs (CNN)
European President in favor of digital euro (@WatcherGuru)
THIS WEEK IN PIRATE WIRES
Robots are Racist. I took a closer look at the work of our media’s favorite “AI ethicist” Timnit Gebru last week. She seems to believe the primary motivation behind artificial general intelligence, a term she just learned, is white supremacy, which is insane. (Pirate Wires)
The Battle Over AI surveillance at the Paris Olympics. Sanjana Friedman guests with an account of the clown car debate over France’s Article 7, which proposed AI-assisted surveillance technology during the 2024 Paris Games. Strangely, most people seem to have little problem with the prospect of an AI-powered surveillance state. Less strangely, politicians generally have no idea what they’re talking about. (Pirate Wires)
University Of California Uses High School Racial Composition For Admissions, Data Suggests. A father of a future college student used UC’s own admissions data to paint a pretty compelling picture of an admissions process that literally ignores AP test scores and other standard measures of academic performance. An enormous scandal nobody seems to care about. Brandon Gorrell reports. (Pirate Wires)
Compression Prompts Reveal GPT's “Hidden Languages.” Compression in GPT potentially demonstrates a significant unlock of the LLM, perhaps first 'discovered' by @gfodor. “it cracked open a new axis in how we interface with, explore, and understand these models.” (Pirate Wires)
The TikTok Power Broker Index. Seeking to avoid a nationwide ban, TikTok has quietly hired an army of D.C. insiders connected to lawmakers and bureaucrats. Nick Russo compiled a list of the major players. It is long, and politically diverse, featuring former staffers of Biden, Obama, Hillary, Pelosi, Buttigieg, McCain, McCarthy, Paul Ryan, Adam Schiff, and Jeff Flake. Also included: former employees of eight out of sixteen agencies on the CFIUS, the entity currently negotiating the terms of Project Texas with TikTok. (Pirate Wires)
Not to be outdone by drug stores, San Francisco grocery stores now closing due to safety concerns (SF Standard)
Bob Lee, creator of Cash App and former CTO of Square, fatally stabbed in San Francisco (NYT)
Trump indictment has shaky legal foundation (Vox)
Ninth Circuit orders Stormy Daniels (!) to pay Trump (!!!) in defamation suit (NPR)
DOJ busts prominent stolen passwords marketplace (Axios)
Maryland Governor’s chief of staff shot dead by FBI. This after three weeks on the run following a fraud indictment. (Twitter)
Tennessee legislature expels two representatives. On Thursday, Tennessee lawmakers voted to expel representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson for a rules violation, but not Gloria Johnson, after the trio disrupted house proceedings in protests related to the Covenant School shooting. Democrats have widely denounced the move as authoritarian, and racist. On the right, the decision has been praised as a rare display of Republican toughness. (WSJ)
Leaked Pentagon documents surface on 4chan. A trove of top secret U.S. intelligence documents related to the war in Ukraine surfaced on 4chan last week. Among the takeaways: Ukraine needs a “huge influx” of munitions ahead of the anticipated spring offensive, according to “senior Pentagon officials.” The source of the leak is not publicly known, and the Pentagon is urging a DOJ investigation. (NYT) (Bellingcat) (NYT)
Clarence Thomas has accepted gifts from billionaire mega-donor Harlan Crow. Thomas has regularly vacationed with Crow over the last twenty years — yachts, private jets, private resorts — and failed to disclose any of it. (ProPublica)
Paul Vallas loses Chicago runoff. In stark departure from our own “vibe shift” narrative, Chicago’s next mayor will be the far-left, soft-on-crime, teacher’s union-backed Brandon Johnson. (NBC)
Google Search incorporating Chat AI (WSJ)
Muck Rack using AI to draft press releases (Axios)
Pepsi Co. using AI to create new flavors, analyze sales, optimize product placement (Axios)
OpenAI responds to safety concerns. Following the widely discussed “AI safety” open letter (and Yudkowski’s “bomb the data centers” piece for TIME), OpenAI shared general thoughts on how they’re approaching AI safety. Notably, it doesn’t directly mention, or even allude to, existential risk. It does, however, repeatedly stress that they’re “iteratively,” “gradually,” and “cautiously” deploying their AI, lending to Jon Stokes’ theory that OpenAI could be sandbagging GPT. (OpenAI)
AI memories. Walk down your childhood home’s hallway again, if you have a picture with the hallway in it, with a new AI capability called “novel view synthesis from a single image.” (@SmokeAwayyy)
TIKTOK / BYTEDANCE / CHINA
TikTok fined by British regulators for misusing children’s data (BBC)
TikTok furiously lobbies in Montana to prevent statewide ban (WSJ)
Bytedance-owned Lemon8 gains traction in US markets (Axios)
TikTok banned by state universities in Arizona and Florida. The University of Arizona, among others in the state, is banning TikTok on employee devices. The Florida ban is more extensive, applying to anyone on state university wifi. (Arizona Daily Star) (USA Today)
Biden to utilize hundreds of TikTok influencers for 2024 presidential campaign. They might even get their own briefing room in the White House. He is also, maybe, going to ban the app (lol he’s not). (Axios)
China and Russia have swapped censorship, internet control tips for years. According to newly leaked meeting documents dating back to 2017. (RFERL)
How a few rogue bloggers exposed China’s surveillance tech. An in-depth profile of IVPM, a video surveillance technology blog, and their discovery that China was using Hikivision tech to track racial minorities. (Wired)
FBI list of flagged terms includes “based,” “red pill,” “Chad,” and “looksmaxxing.” The terms are apparently associated with “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism.” (Fox News)
Bud Light loses Kid Rock’s patronage. He sprayed cases with a machine gun after the company released a can celebrating Dylan Mulvaney’s one year tranniversary. (Twitter)
The girls are fighting. Caitlyn Jenner slams Nike over “woke” branding deal with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney. (NYPost)
Dungeons and Dragons removes “half-species” from handbook. The move appears to be dictated by the tenets of antiracism. (Twitter)
Taylor Lorenz, libertarian icon. The Washington Post’s star reporter told Reason’s Nick Gillespie: it’s not the government’s role to regulate how much time we spend on social media, or to determine what is or isn’t misinformation. The solution to excessive screen time is “personal responsibility,” and the solution to misinformation is “better media literacy.” Also: social media addiction is not a thing, and TikTok challenges are not harming teens. After hearing a clip of Rand Paul at TikTok’s congressional hearing: “I basically agree with everything he said.” Go off, queen. (Reason)
DiCaprio tells jury of foreign mogul’s plan to fund Dems in 2012. Basically, a Malaysian businessman named Jho Low (a funder of DiCaprio’s Wolf of Wall Street) cooked up a scheme to donate millions of dollars to the Obama campaign in violation of American law, and mentioned to DiCaprio he intended to donate the money. Low funneled the money through Pras Michel (of the Fugees). (Politico)
Mexican mummies might be infecting humans. They’re bringing their drug lords, they’re bringing their rapists, they’re bringing their deadly ancient fungal infections. Some, we assume, are good people. (Popular Mechanics)
Until next week, godspeed.