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    • Twitter magnifies and rewards strong emotions. If we envision Twitter as a game, its primary mechanic is this: in 280 characters or fewer, engage the emotions of the reader strongly enough that they either like or retweet your tweet.

      Humor, positivity, and insightfulness can result in popular tweets. But if you want a tweet to really catch fire, indignation, anger, and cynicism are your best bets. And if you can trigger indignation, anger, or cynicism in a way that not only gets your tweet liked and retweeted but also allows other people to pile on and get likes and retweets for their commentary on your tweet, then you've really hit gold. You've started a dunk fest.

      Here's how a dunk fest works. First, someone sets up the dunk. Usually this is an influencer: someone who has a lot of followers. This person shares a link and summarizes or interprets it in an authoritative way that invites a strong reaction. The setup doesn't even need to express an opinion; it just needs to open the door for the reader to have an opinion and feel a strong emotion.

      Jordan's tweet is a perfect dunk setup. First, it's about Elon Musk — a famous rich guy who is supposedly really smart but often says dumb things that get him in trouble.

      The tweet doesn't actually express an overt opinion. It makes a series of seemingly factual statements and even links directly to the source video. The facts purportedly in evidence:

      - Elon Musk was fighting off tears.
      - He said Tesla can't review his tweets because of "the First Amendment".
      - He said he doesn't respect the SEC, which recently fined him.

      "Wow," thinks the reader, "what kind of doofus thinks the First Amendment restricts whether a company can review its CEO's tweets?"

      Let the dunking begin!

      It's completely obvious that Elon was being weird and dumb, so it's hard to resist dunking on him. How often do you get a chance to make fun of a billionaire? We're all taking this rich dude down a peg, and for a good reason that we can all feel good about. Likes and retweets for everyone!

      Except none of us bothered to watch the video.

      But surely the summary in the original tweet must be accurate, right? Who would say something inaccurate and then link directly to the source that contradicts what they said, where anyone can see that what they said was wrong?

      Let's go to the transcript:

      Lesley Stahl: Have you had any of your tweets censored since the settlement?

      Elon Musk: No.

      LS: None?

      EM: No.

      LS: Does someone have to read them before they go out?

      EM: No.

      LS: So your tweets are not supervised?

      EM: The only tweets that would have to be, say, "reviewed", would be if a tweet had a probability of causing a movement in the stock.

      LS: And that's it?

      EM: Yeah, I mean, otherwise it's, "Hello, First Amendment." Like, freedom of speech is fundamental.

      LS: But how do they know if it's going to move the market if they're not reading all of them before you send them?

      EM: Well, I guess we might make some mistakes. Who knows?

      LS: Are you serious?

      EM: Nobody's perfect.

      LS: [laughing] Look at you.

      EM: I want to be clear: I do not respect the SEC. I do not respect them.

      LS: But you're abiding by the settlement, aren't you?

      EM: Because I respect the justice system.

      Do you see what I see? Here, I'll zoom in:

      EM: The only tweets that would have to be, say, "reviewed", would be if a tweet had a probability of causing a movement in the stock.

      LS: And that's it?

      EM: Yeah, I mean, otherwise it's, "Hello, First Amendment." Like, freedom of speech is fundamental.

      Elon is referring to his settlement with the SEC which, in the SEC's own words, includes "an obligation to oversee Musk’s communications with investors".

      What he's saying is that while the SEC has the legal authority to hold Tesla and Musk responsible for speech that may cause a movement in the stock, the SEC does not have the authority to prevent Musk from speaking about things unrelated to the stock, because that would violate his First Amendment right to free speech.

      And he's absolutely right! This is a completely accurate statement about the boundaries of the SEC's legal authority. Jordan's tweet was wrong.

      What's amazing is that Elon goes on to say something that really genuinely is incredibly dumb — that he "might make some mistakes" and that he doesn't respect the SEC — but because Jordan's tweet focuses on the seemingly absurd but incorrect claim that Elon thinks the First Amendment means Tesla can't review his tweets, the actual absurdity in the interview is overshadowed and the resulting dunk fest focuses almost entirely on a blatant misinterpretation.

      Because Twitter rewards hot takes more than it rewards thoughtfulness, it's easy for a misleading tweet like Jordan's, which may not even have been intentionally misleading, to catch fire and spread a falsehood far and wide. By the time anyone tries to correct it, the damage has been done and there's little chance that a correction will be seen by all the people who saw the original.

      Even careful, smart, responsible people can easily get caught up in this. It's easy to retweet or share something that causes an emotional reaction, especially when the reaction it causes is one that reinforces your existing opinions and biases. It's much harder to stop and think about something, or to investigate a source. And often thoughtfulness isn't rewarded with likes or retweets.

      It's not really a big deal when the person being misrepresented is Elon Musk. He'll recover. But when it's a politician or a world leader, the consequences to society can be significant. When we allow ourselves to be easily manipulated, even in small and insignificant ways, we create vulnerabilities that can be exploited to cause serious harm.

      Please think before you dunk.

    • Ouch, I typed my reply and was ready to click the post button:

      Do you think it's worse in the age of Twitter than it was when Mark Twain wrote his famous line, a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes? I don't mean to defend Twitter, but at least we usually have a way to fact-check in the age of Twitter. I'm guessing in 1800s America a lot of dunks came from town gossip which was harder to check.

      Before I posted, I grew afraid of embarrassing myself by not thinking before I dunked. A quick Google search turned up:

      Argh. All my life I believed Twain said that but there doesn't seem to be evidence. Somebody attributed it to him 9 years after his death. The quote apparently evolved over 300 years from what Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710.

      Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…

      I had been meaning to see what Musk said since seeing the headline. Thanks for the deep dive.

    • Yeah. Plenty of times I was tricked into amplifying things like these. The feeling of shame and gullibility after you find out the truth is an important corrective. Nowadays if it feels like a great story that totally justifies what I was thinking - it immediately raises a red flag. Am I being manipulated here? More often than not, the answer is yes. Either it's a convenient edit, or a careful selection of facts or a trace of truth surrounded by a whole lot of distortion and manipulation all aiming for the ultra-addictive feeling of self-righteousness and indignation.

      It's really, really hard to learn to not fall for it. And having just a small percentage of the audience falling amplifies it that much that rational discussion and reasoned arguments get mostly drowned out in the noise of yelling, bullying and cheer-leading.

      Unfortunately, I don't know what would be the way counter it at scale.

    • Unfortunately, I don't know what would be the way counter it at scale.

      One thing I struggle with all the time is that when I see misinformation being spread, I want to correct it. But I don't want to be that guy who pops up in people's mentions all the time saying "Well, actually..."

      I also don't want to be that guy who defends rich white billionaires or corrupt world leaders from people who are punching up. But even when I see misinformation about people I personally don't like, or who don't really need or deserve my help, I feel an urge to try to stop it.

      Elon is a perfect example. I think he's a deeply flawed person and I don't like many of the things he says and does, even though there are things I admire about him. But he's so frequently the target of misinformed Twitter dunk fests that I'm sure I'd be labeled an Elon fanboy if I spoke up every time. So usually I don't say anything. 😕

    • Yep, countering misinfo at scale is hard, but countering it in particular cases isn't any easier. I'm a lefty-liberal type so it really pains me to see 'my' people perpetuating fallacies. I've alienated plenty arguing about vaccination, nuclear energy or GMO, and hardly ever got anything out of it except misery.

    • This technique isn't exclusive to Twitter.

      The fashionable expression for it in broadcast media these days is "hot take."

      The thing is to be provocative, to get a reaction. The hope is that that will lead to larger audiences.

      Print has been practicing it forever.

    • This was incredibly thought provoking and I appreciate the logic of the case you’ve made. I’m reminded of something a Starfleet captain once said.

      “Maybe. But she or someone like her will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish — spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mr. Worf. That is the price we have to continually pay." Jean Luc Picard

      If we want to consume information that isn’t from a vetted source, such as the New York Times, then there’s a personal responsibility to dig further whether it’s watching the video quoted, watching a response from the person criticized, verifying facts on, or going to Google Scholar. But that slows down the firehose pace of consuming new information that we’re accustomed to.

    • I am completely and utterly flattered that something I said reminded you of Jean-Luc Picard! He's one of the greatest role models in all of fiction. 😄