This week Elon Musk gave Twitter employees an ultimatum: commit to a new, “hardcore” workplace culture of “long hours at high intensity,” or get out. Jon Schwarz talks with Bloomberg reporter Mike Leonard about how Musk is trying to squeeze profit out of the company and whether he’s likely to succeed. Then, Jon and fellow Intercept reporter Ken Klippenstein discuss how Twitter has enriched their journalistic lives.
Jon Schwarz: I’m Jon Schwarz, a writer for the Intercept. I’m filling in for Ryan Grim this week.
This week, the only thing we’re going to be talking about is Twitter.
Here is something that was written by a famous linguist named Edward Sapir in a book published 101 years ago, in 1921:
“Everything that we have so far seen to be true of language points to the fact that it is the most significant and colossal work that the human spirit has evolved … Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.”
I think that is true about language. And I also believe that’s true, on a smaller scale about Twitter, Twitter is a giant work of art created by hundreds of millions of people working together for free without realizing what they’re doing. Like language, it has innumerable subcultures that all have developed their own weird patois that’s incomprehensible to outsiders. And like with language, anybody can participate in this form of art, and if enough other people like what you come up with, it can spread across the world. And, like anything involving human beings, it has an extremely ugly side to it, but I personally believe that that has been outweighed by the artistry of everyone involved.
That’s why it would be a tragedy, for real, if Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk destroys it. So I’m going to be talking to two people today: Mike Leonard, a reporter at Bloomberg Law, who’s been reporting about the basic financial realities of Twitter’s future. And then Ken Klippenstein, an investigative reporter at The Intercept, about the incredible amount of happiness Twitter had brought to him, and me, and millions of other people.
So let’s get started with Mike Leonard. He’s a reporter on the Legal Intelligence Team at Bloomberg Law, where he covers antitrust litigation and business disputes in Delaware’s Chancery Court.
Mike, welcome to Deconstructed.
Mike Leonard: Thanks for having me.
JS: So, first of all, let’s talk about Delaware’s chancery court, which is something that many people, including me, had honestly never heard of before all this — and, in fact, I didn’t even know how to say chancery. I just Googled it three minutes ago.
So for anyone who hasn’t been following the twists and turns here, Musk originally agreed to buy Twitter back in April for $44 billion, then he almost immediately tried to back out of it. Then Twitter sued him in the chancery court in Delaware to make the deal go through. That suit was about to be decided when Musk suddenly said: OK, I am going to buy Twitter on the deal’s original terms.
So, first of all, I’m wondering: What is the chancery court? What happened with the suit? And is the court so powerful that if Musk had lost, it would have been able to force him to buy Twitter against his will?
ML: So I like to tell people that Delaware chancery court is where the country’s biggest and best companies go to get sued. It’s a court specializing in a particular type of business dispute, involving shareholders who claim that boards of directors have been asleep at the wheel, or have been engaging in self-dealing; a lot of M&A transactions get challenged, there are a lot of these deals, the shareholders will claim that the board accepted a lower price for the company in exchange for benefits for themselves, like participating in the deal on the buyer side, or even just a good old golden parachute.
To take your last question: Yes, of course, the court absolutely could have forced the deal to close. That’s rare, but the court has that power. And that’s what Twitter was seeking. They wanted what’s called “specific performance of the contract,” which just means: Make Elon Musk do what he contracted to do.
JS: OK, so Elon Musk came through, and bought Twitter for $44 billion against his will. How much of that did Musk pay? Who were his co-investors? And how much money did he borrow? And from whom? Like, do we actually know the specifics of all of those?
ML: So I don’t have the specific number Musk paid himself off the top of my head, but he and his co-investors paid about $31 billion of that, and his co-investors include a Saudi prince, various Silicon Valley luminaries, a lot of private equity firms and venture capital firms, and he borrowed almost $13 billion from a consortium of seven major banks led by Morgan Stanley.
JS: Right. And as I understand this kind of deal: Normally, the banks would quickly sell off this debt to others, right? And they wouldn’t hold it themselves for so long. But as far as we know, they still have it, right?
ML: Normally, they would, and by all accounts, they planned to, as the deal was, was being hashed out. And even while litigation was underway over the deal, the debt markets have sort of abruptly soured, not really because of anything happening at Twitter. It more has to do with macroeconomic factors, the way the Fed is trying to fight inflation has made other investing options more attractive, which means that it’s harder to sell this type of debt.
JS: And there has been sort of discussions, right, about the price that people would be willing to buy this debt at, right? They wouldn’t be willing to buy it at face value, they would only pay a certain lower percentage for it.
ML: Yeah, the latest reporting I’ve seen — and I don’t want events to overtake me. But I saw that the buyers for this type of debt are hedge funds and sophisticated investors. And they don’t want to go right now above 60 cents on the dollar, which is very low by historical standards. And the banks — reportedly, this is not my reporting — but reportedly don’t want to go below 70 cents. So they’re gonna hold on to it for now. And kind of hope that either as the market changes next year, or as Elon Musk announces a more concrete turnaround plan for Twitter, or as Twitter obviously stabilizes, if it does, that the banks are hoping they’ll be able to get closer to what they’re looking for the debt.
JS: Right. But even at 70 cents on the dollar, that’s a huge loss for the banks.
ML: Yeah. And that’s also a very low figure historically.
JS: And so how much interest, according to this deal, does Twitter have to pay its debt holders every year?
ML: About $1.2 billion a year — just in the interest.
JS: Right. And so Twitter’s finances were not great to begin with, it was kind of a crummy business — like whatever you think of Twitter itself, just as a business, it was not super-duper profitable. In fact, it has only been profitable two years in its history. And so the idea that you’re going to take this business and then load on this huge amount of required interest payments seems pretty dicey. And that’s one of the reasons, I would expect, that Musk himself has told Twitter employees that it’s possible that the company will go bankrupt. And what happens if the creditors themselves, whoever holds the debt at that point, decide that that’s possible?
ML: So we have not seen the loan documents themselves. They’re not public. But experts I spoke to from my reporting made some educated guesses about what’s in those documents based on the sort of pledges and covenants that are in virtually all similar loan documents.
So, just to back up a little bit, when my editor and I started reporting out this story, we wanted to make sure not to get ahead of ourselves, and to emphasize that any action by lenders or the creditors they farm out the debt to is not imminent, they’ve just been big on Musk and on Twitter, and they wouldn’t want to jeopardize their investment just because they got a little skittish right away. But over the medium term, if they get the idea that Twitter isn’t going to be able to pay its debts, a pretty staggering annual debt service, first of all, if Twitter misses a payment, these loans almost certainly give the banks the right to accelerate the full principal, which means demand repayment of the full amount immediately, and those rights will carry with the loans, so anybody who buys the debt will also have that right.
And when I was speaking to experts about: What are these creditors going to be looking for? How are they going to know if they need to take some kind of action? We were kind of talking about indirect ways they might be able to tell that Twitter was struggling. We were not expecting Elon Musk to come out about an hour after the article was published, and say: Hey, guys, we may be going bankrupt soon. So that would certainly be a red flag.
So whoever holds the debt at that point, they could demand full repayment. It’s probably more likely, according to the finance experts I spoke to, that there would be some sort of debt restructuring. And those debt restructurings could get creative. They could involve efforts to basically have — it’s very technical and complex, and I’m not an expert in it — but the basic idea is you get 51 percent of creditors to approve a plan that leaves 49 percent of them empty-handed. And in exchange, the 51 percent get a pretty good deal. But these hedge funds have seen this movie before. And that would probably prompt litigation right away: They would sue for breaching the debt agreements, and they would throw everything at the wall there.
JS: Yeah, it seems kind of incredible to me that there would be any way to set up a deal like that where you would leave almost half [laughs] the debtors with nothing. And so I can only imagine the amount of litigation that would grow out if I had
ML: Yeah. I homebody refer to it as a battle royale of that restructuring; somebody else called it the war of all against all. I was doing a little bit of research for this article, and I saw that it’s frequently referred to as lender-on-lender violence.
JS: Uh huh!
ML: But I think the point, as far as Elon Musk is concerned, is that whoever buys this debt, they’re going to be sophisticated investors who probably aren’t going to want to be pitted against other investors; they’re not going to want to let it get that far. And they would probably sue to halt or restructure as soon as they smelled one.
JS: So in an article that you wrote recently about this, you said that if Twitter’s creditors soured on Musk, a breach would give lenders significant leverage, perhaps enough to sideline him, as a condition of waiving the covenants — unless he wants to pay off the loans personally. And you attribute this to a Berkeley Law professor.
ML: Yeah. The idea would be just that, because these covenants — that again, we haven’t seen these documents, but every expert I spoke to assumed something like this was in them — give the banks or whoever they sell the debt to the right to demand immediate repayment of the full principal, they’ve got a lot of leverage there. The banks don’t want to go nuclear. They’ve just put all this money into this; they want it to succeed.
And I should add that while everybody I spoke to was quite critical of the way Musk has run Twitter, almost everybody I spoke to had made the point that if anybody deserves a long leash, it’s probably Elon Musk. He has done some amazing things at SpaceX and at Tesla, and a lot of his value here is sort of the Musk mystique. And the banks have bet big on his success. And they probably wouldn’t want to accelerate repayment, they wouldn’t want to demand the $13 billion, but they would have that leverage. There would be negotiations over what Musk or Twitter would have to do to get those clauses waived. And it could go all the way to minimizing Musk’s role if the negotiations went in that direction. And if Musk were willing to accept that, we’ve started to see in the last three weeks that he really wants to be very involved with Twitter. So I don’t know if it would actually pan out that way. But it’s certainly a possibility.
JS: Right. And, of course, there’s the old joke about how if you owe a bank $10,000, that’s your problem. But if you owe the bank $10 million, or let’s say $12 million, that’s their problem.
ML: Very much.
JS: And so you bring up Tesla, and the important thing, I think, to understand about this dynamic is that it doesn’t just involve Twitter; it also involves Tesla. So can you talk a little bit about that, and what you heard from people that you’ve spoken to?
ML: Yeah, so Musk is on trial right now — well, I shouldn’t say Musk is on trial. His salary is on trial, his Tesla salary, or salary is not even the right word — his Tesla compensation package — is on trial right now, in Delaware chancery court, which we mentioned earlier. The trial is being overseen by the same judge who presided over the Twitter versus Musk case. They, in fact, met in person for the first time this week when he testified yesterday. And he’s being paid — this is a challenge to an options award that turned out to be worth $56 billion. And the Tesla shareholder leading the case is basically saying he’s a part-time CEO and this is an unprecedented pay package. And you’re basically spending company value, taking it away from shareholders and putting it in Elon Musk’s pocket, for work he didn’t do. And the defense has been: He’s spread very thin, his attention is very divided, and we need to pay him this much to keep him engaged. So you can see how the events of the past few weeks kind of play into both arguments – this idea that: Look how easily distracted he is.
JS: Is that, in fact, a defense argument?
ML: Well, this case is not really about what’s going on at Twitter this week, but yes, the main defense theory of the case is that we needed to pay him this much money to keep him engaged at Tesla, given all his other ventures.
JS: [Laughs.] You have to understand, he just doesn’t care about this company that much. So we have money to think about it. [Laughs.] That is incredible.
ML: In so many words. And you can see them saying: See, we told you so, look how he’s acting now.
But you can also see the plaintiffs saying: Well if $56 billion isn’t going to keep his attention, why aren’t we just paying him $1?
Now, this case isn’t really about his behavior on Twitter. But I did speak to one expert who described Tesla investors as lining up to bring similar claims. And another one who said it’s not hard to imagine them claiming, in the expert’s words, that he was too busy putting out the grease fire at Twitter to run Tesla properly.
Now it did emerge in this trial, a Tesla board member, who happens to be the son of Rupert Murdoch, said that Musk has a name for a CEO at Tesla. So this may neutralize some of these concerns. They didn’t say what the name is, but they said that Musk has selected one.
So that’s the most direct risk from Tesla shareholders. But Tesla’s stock is also down a huge amount since Musk stepped into the Twitter deal. He sold a lot of stock. And there is this idea I mentioned earlier that the Musk mystique is very valuable to all of his companies, and that if he’s sort of pulling back the curtain on himself, you’ve probably heard people saying things like: Boy, has he been running Tesla like this all along? I did speak to experts who say if a Tesla shareholder could make the case that Musk has damaged his reputation as a business genius, and that hurts Tesla, too.
JS: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I’ve seen estimates of the value of the Musk brand that are in the tens of billions of dollars. And if he destroys that on its own, there would be a lot of very unhappy Tesla shareholders.
ML: Yeah, and some of this is about the selling pressure from the nearly $40 billion in Tesla stock he sold to finance the Twitter deal. But some of it may not be about that. It’s hard to know exactly why shareholders move the way they move. But some of it may be — I saw a headline called “Twitter Jitters.” And just this idea that Musk is unmasking himself as something less than the genius he seemed to be, and that’s gonna have an effect on Tesla’s value, right?
JS: Well, no one knows the future, of course, but it certainly does seem to be the case that Musk has jumped into a trap that he built for himself. And the vice of the basic financial reality of Twitter is clearly closing in on him. And it’s an incredible story — perhaps, it may end up being an incredible story of self-destruction — where he loses tens of billions of dollars on Twitter itself, he loses control of Twitter, and then, as a side effect, that he is no longer CEO of Tesla. And so that will certainly be a business story for a very long time, if that comes to pass. And I’m sure the Netflix documentary, or dramatization, or both, is already in the works.
ML: Yes, as I said, everybody I spoke to suggested a scenario like that was on the table, even though they also cautioned against dancing on his business grave prematurely. Because they did all point out that he’s got all the confidence of all these co-investors he’s got. They’re probably not in it to make a dollar on Twitter, according to everybody I spoke to. They’re probably in it because they want to get in good with Elon Musk, on the theory that it’s profitable to get in good with Elon Musk. So there are a lot of very smart and very rich — or, should say very smart and or very rich people think that believe in the turnaround, the Twitter turnaround story that Musk is selling. But there are also a lot of red flags.
JS: Yeah, and I mean, I’m sure that that was part of the psychology. We don’t need to speculate about what they were thinking. But even if that was their perspective, one of the big co-investors in Twitter is Larry Ellison, who put in a billion dollars, it seems. And I just can’t imagine him [being] like: I’m happy to lose a billion dollars just to be buddies with Elon.
ML: Well, that’s true. Some people probably need that in less than others, but you’re right, people who are as rich and powerful as you could ever imagine being, it is hard to see them throwing away $1 billion just to get close to him. So somebody believes in this deal, to the tune of $1 billion.
JS: Alright, so as we said, nobody knows the future. But this is an incredible story. No matter what you think about Elon Musk, no matter what you think about Twitter, no matter what you think about Tesla. It’s an amazing tale of human folly and perplexing decisions. And, I don’t know, possibly human triumph at the end? Who can say!
But, Mike, thank you so much for joining us on Deconstructed. And we look forward to following your reporting on this in the future.
ML: Thanks so much for having me on.
JS: That was Mike Leonard, a reporter on the Legal Intelligence team at Bloomberg Law.
All right, Twitter will hopefully survive Elon Musk’s reign of terror, but in case it totally collapses, we wanted to think about all the good times that people have had thanks to Twitter. And there’s no one better for this than someone who I see as one of Twitter’s premiere users, someone who has invented several new forms of jokes that could only exist on Twitter, and that is the Intercept’s own Klip Einstein.
Ken Klippensten: Hey, good to be with you, JS.
JS: [Chuckles.] Yeah, that itself is just a little joke for people who use Twitter too much. I’m actually talking to Ken Klippenstein, who is an investigative reporter at The Intercept. Ken, maybe we could start with you explaining why I just called you Klip Einstein.
KK: That actually is my name now, because that’s what Elon Musk called me. And it seems like billionaires can just decide to make reality what they want it to be. So that’s what I’m going by now: Klip Einstein.
No, but he called me that couple of years ago, when I tweeted out a picture of him standing next to Ghislaine Maxwell that he wasn’t very appreciative of [laughs], and he tried to — at the time, it was kind of interesting — he said: I was photo-bombed. I had no say in any of this. I didn’t speak to her.
And actually, the New York Times reported just last month, I think, that not only had he spoken to her, but that was memorialized by his aides at the time. And that was only reported very recently. So fake news: He wasn’t photobombed. Or, at least, his interactions with her went beyond what he had said at the time.
And after I tweeted that picture, then he called me “Klip Einstein” and “douche-about-town.” He was really upset about it.
JS: That’s right. “Klip Einstein, pseudojournalist & douche-about-town.”
KK: That’s right, pseudo-journalist. [Laughs.]
JS: And like that, to me is just sort of everything that is wonderful about Twitter all at once. Because before Twitter — like, I’m so old, if you wanted to make fun of rich and powerful people, you had to try to write a letter to the newspaper.
JS: And what Twitter made possible is that you could insult them directly. And there’s a real possibility that they would see it and get upset about it, as Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, absolutely did. And then reveal themselves to be who they truly are. And one of the things about Elon Musk that is indisputably true is that he is absolutely desperate for people to see him as funny. And he is not!
KK: Yeah, and most of his memes, which themselves aren’t funny, are not actually his, they’re just stuff cribbed from Reddit.
JS: Yeah, there’s no question that that’s true. Like even his unfunny jokes are not even original to himself.
And you would think that being the richest person on earth would allow you to be like: OK, I’m not that funny. But still, I’m ultra-wealthy. But it doesn’t! The insecurity of these people is incredible. And that is one of the most beautiful things about Twitter from my perspective, and I suspect from yours as well.
KK: [Laughs.] Yeah. When that happened, I remember thinking to myself, how much longer is this platform going to be allowed to exist? [Laughs.] You know? And I guess we’re finding out the answer to that, in these last several weeks, which is not very much longer.
JS: Yeah, the thing that is most incredible to me about Elon Musk buying Twitter is that it looks as though he is kind of like a toddler who demanded that his family get him a baby duck. And he loves the baby duck so much that he hugs it so hard that he kills it.
KK: [Laughs.] I saw more of a King Cnut thing, if you’re familiar with the King Cnut story. It’s some old myth where he’s telling his aides that he doesn’t like the waves coming ceaselessly at the shore. And so he tells them: Go stop the waves, send the ocean back out!
And so all the aides go out to try to do it, but don’t have very much luck, and I guess the point of the story is that people have extraordinary amounts of power, and start to think that they can control things that they just can’t. I can’t think of a better illustration for [chuckles] what we’re seeing right now.
JS: Yes, I think that is completely true. So that’s a wonderful thing about Twitter that you can yell at rich and powerful people and they get mad.
And another thing is that they can communicate directly to us without their phalanx of PR people that usually surround them, and reveal themselves to be enormous dummies. Like, I remember Rupert Murdoch tweeted out a picture a couple of years ago, from the window of his private jet as he was flying over the North Pole, and there was ice beneath him, and he just tweeted out: “Global warming!” [Laughs.]
KK: [Bursts out laughing.]
JS: There’s ice at the North Pole! Therefore, we can forget about all this global warming nonsense, just look at it!
So anyway, as I say, I look at you as someone who took Twitter in directions that no one had imagined before. And I would like you, if you could, just to describe some of your favorite Twitter techniques — maybe starting with your classic Veterans Day tweets?
KK: Well, I can’t take much credit because I really think that the people at the other side of the joke are doing most of the work. And in the practical jokes that I have done. I tried to make it so that there’s every possible out for the person, like tweeting out: “Sir, can I get a retweet for my uncle Col. Nathan Jessup”? and then it’s a picture of Jack Nicholson from “A Few Good Men.” I’m trying to make it really easy, so I’m not cheap-shotting anyone and they have every chance to recognize one of the most iconic moments in American film.
And, as it turns out, then-Congressman Steve King who’s always going on about American history and how you know, immigrants don’t have an appreciation for American culture doesn’t recognize this extremely iconic moment in American film. And ends up shouting out Col. Jessup, who I think said was keeping us safe this Fourth of July or something like that. And so that’s kind of the genre of all of them, is just these really easy underhanded pitches for them to just not fall for. And it turns out that a lot of people do. And it turns out that a lot of our leaders don’t recognize famous figures from history, such as, some of you might have heard of, Lee Harvey Oswald, someone else that elected officials didn’t recognize, or William Calley, one of the most infamous war criminals in U.S. history from the Vietnam War. It turned out that then-intelligence chief under the Trump administration, Rick Grinnell, didn’t recognize not only the photo of him but also the name! “Can I get a retweet from my uncle Bill Calley?”
KK: So, he went for that one, too. It’s a little frightening how little basic history the people that run our society, that run the country have/
Yeah. And just, for people who have not treated themselves to this genre of Twitter comedy, it’s just you tweeting pictures, like Lee Harvey Oswald in his Marine uniform, like a picture of him, where he is recognizable, you would think, to anyone familiar with basic American history.
KK: Well, particularly conservatives who are always going on about how they’re teaching too much woke stuff, we’re not learning American history anywhere, they fall for these things. And again, I try to make it so easy! Because I don’t want to be picking some cheap shot kind of thing. Like, I want to make it so that’s like any ordinary person would know what it is.
And these guys of all people who are always going on about: We got to get school curriculum back to teaching people 101 of what American history is — they don’t recognize these things. And so I wonder what’s in their head as they’re legislating and deciding what the legal apparatus for the society looks like, and it’s not being informed by these very basic ABCs of American history.
JS: Yeah, and I hate to rag on Jimmy Carter, but he said decades after he was president, about some of his policies in Central America, and it was like: I wish, before I’d been President, I’d known more about the history of the United States and Central America.
JS: I was like: I bet the people in Central America wish you’d known more, too.
KK: That faraway land! Central America.
JS: That’s right! I don’t know what I was doing before I was president, but it certainly wasn’t reading any books about U.S. history.
But anyway, that’s what I think is amazing about your use of Twitter. You’re making these people who are ridiculous look as ridiculous as they actually are. But it also has a point to it, though, that you’re just describing like, they actually don’t know anything about the country that they live in.
And from what I can tell, your use of Twitter truly enhances your ability to report on things. And you are one of the very few people who uses Twitter in this way. And so can you talk a little bit about that and how it works?
KK: Yeah, Iit can be a really good way to crowdfund sources, basically. I mean, I’ll just do a call-out for tips.
Like, I’ll give you an example: Back during Amazon, I don’t remember what happened, there was some news article about the working conditions and people were talking about, which is true and had been reported, how Amazon workers had to urinate in bottles to be able to meet these bruising production quotas in order to keep their jobs. And the Amazon PR, I think maybe it was the spokesperson that said: You don’t really believe that, do you? No one would be working here if that was the case.
And I was so irritated by that, because I knew as many people did, who’d read the reporting, that those conditions, that’s factually true, that has happened in these factories. So I just did a callout for tips. And I was completely inundated by people from corporate that knew things, people in the warehouses that knew things, contractors that knew things that contradicted — at levels far beyond what I even thought was the case. So it’s not only that they’re urinating: people are defecating in bags en route to deliveries, because they don’t have time. Like it was way worse than even I thought, and I had a pretty dim view of working conditions in Amazon.
And I do a lot of national security reporting, that’s where my source base is. I didn’t have many labor sources. But it was just an avalanche of angry workers who knew as well as anyone the specifics of what was going on. And they just reached out to me on Signal when I put my Signal number up, and I was able to pull together a bunch of evidence to just forensically go through here’s why what the Amazon PR saying isn’t true. And here’s precisely how and here’s like a dozen examples of it.
JS: Yeah, that’s right. And it is so obviously, a powerful tool for reporting. And yet, if you are a regular, reputable reporter at a reputable outlet, i.e. like not us —
JS: — almost no one uses it. And so the question is: Why? Why do you think that is?
KK: They’re socialized a certain way. I was never properly socialized. I didn’t go to J-school. I’ve always been a bit of a scrapper. And, crucially, I talk to people you’re not supposed to talk to. I think that if you come up through the formal system, you’re encouraged to call public affairs, ask the spokesperson what they think, maybe speak to an executive. I mean, if the idea of actually talking to people — and how I approach, I said before, I’m a national security reporter, I talk to a lot of rank-and-file, intelligence officers, military officers, they give you a very different picture than the senior executive leadership that conventional news outlets rely on that you’ll see on cable news. They give you a very different perspective on things. And it’s not so much that it differs politically, it’s just that they’re on the ground doing things and have a much different point of view than talking to someone in the senior executive C suite of Amazon would versus talking to not only people in the warehouses, but even just people that work corporate, that are working white collar, but aren’t necessarily these Northwestern University business MBA grads. You just talk to the rank-and-file among the corporate side, and you’ll still get a much different picture, just as long as you’re not talking to the very people at the very top that end up in Fortune Magazine and the like.
And Twitter can be really, really good for that. Because it’s a relatively horizontal platform where you can message pretty much anybody and communicate with them. And I’m not a tech utopian at all. I’ve never been somebody who thought that these social media platforms are going to allow us to bypass a lot of problems that are political in nature, by any means. But it does at least give you the opportunity, if you want to take advantage of it, to just reach out to speak to ordinary people and hear about their experiences. And that’s really all I do with it. It’s not very complicated. [Laughs.]
JS: Yeah. And as I say, I think that one of the reasons that the properly socialized journalists don’t understand this is also that they don’t understand that there’s been a big cultural shift in the United States, where, as you know, I would say 30 years ago, 20 years ago, you wouldn’t think: Well, I bet there are a bunch of people who work at the NSA who have a sense of humor, and have a sense of humor about like what they do in their jobs. And I guess they probably did in the past, but the kind of people who would work in these government jobs had not themselves been marinating in a certain kind of American culture for a long time. And that culture is like the one that you are using in your funniest tweets. And I wonder if you think that I’m right about this.
KK: Oh, that’s 100 percent true. This attitude that people have, I mean, I talked before about being a national security reporter, this idea that the intelligence community is separate from the rest of the culture is not really true. I would say at the senior executive levels, yes. They think they can levitate, and they’re in a completely different universe than the rest of us. And as a young naval officer friend of mine told me: They’re in a world of their own making. So yes, at the very highest echelons of power, that’s true.
But among the sort of rank-and-file? They’re a lot like the rest of us. And you know, there are very gated political attitudes, and sympathies, and concerns, just like any other institution that you can think of. So, I guess that’s been a big learning experience for me as a reporter, realizing how not monolithic institutions are, even right to the level of the CIA. I’ll hear some really funny stories from people at the agency that — I grew up watching Jason Bourne and all this stuff, and you have a certain impression of it, and then you start to meet them and you realize — I mean, yes, it’s an unusual institution, and idiosyncratic in a lot of ways, but then there’s like things that would remind you that remind you of any dysfunctional office workplace that you can think of [laughs], in an almost comic degree. And, in a way, Twitter has just been a channel for me to reach people like that.
JS: Yeah, I’ve always believed that the CIA, from what I can tell is like, just imagine the U.S. Post Office, except it operates totally in secret. Like, [laughs] what kind of things would that kind of institution get up to? Like, that’s the CIA.
KK: Yeah, no, I think that’s a great way to put it.
JS: And so I think, both of us have gotten an enormous amount of enjoyment out of Twitter. I wonder if you can talk about like, are there any particular Twitter accounts that you recommend people follow just for the pure joy that they give you?
KK: I really like this account @lib_crusher. [Laughs.]
KK: The handle is pretty telling.
I mean, there’s so many, I mean, there are the familiar ones, everybody likes, @dril. I don’t know if I’ll just name a lot of the same ones that other people follow. But one of the most amazing things is how the things probably that in the aggregate make me laugh the most, are just small — it’s almost like the Howard Zinn thing. The small accounts with names no one will ever remember end up constituting so many of the funniest bits, and jokes, and replies, just small accounts that just maybe have like 25 followers and it’s like — @commiekid69 or something. [Laughs.] Just like a total throwaway thing. It’s almost like there’s this Vietnam Wall of like suspended funny accounts that we all love that are never long for this world because they’ll get zapped from making fun of somebody. I would say those are my favorite accounts. Ones whose handles I can’t even remember.
JS: Yeah, it is incredible. And it just goes to show that Howard Zinn was right like there is this enormous untapped creativity and happiness in all of humanity. And Twitter has provided an outlet for it by people who just — they’re living their lives and something funny occurs to them, and they say it on Twitter, and it gives them the opportunity to have an audience of thousands.
KK: Yeah, totally. It’s the people that post for the love of the game, which people like me will never be able to say because my work is wrapped up in it. I’m posting my news articles. And so that’s always mixed with what it is that I’m talking about. But just people that have absolutely no stake in it, and what they end up saying on there is always endlessly fascinating to me because their motives are so pure.
JS: Yeah. And that also includes people who I think are 100 percent out of their minds who believe stuff that, to me, is preposterous, but to them like clearly is a core part of their identity. And, presumably, there are always people like this, like in the population of the United States, but I had no idea — I had no idea — they were out there. And so Twitter opens this window on these strange corners of the population of America where you are just like, wow, I didn’t know people like this existed. Before Twitter, I truly did not know there are people out there thinking these things. But there they are. And they are not kidding.
KK: Yeah, I think there’s been a backlash against that kind of thing and I think a lot of the tendency towards some of the more extreme forms of content moderation and censorship is because they’re seeing some of these things, which can be horrifying sometimes. But to my view, I’d prefer that it kind of be out there so we can all see it and keep an eye on it. And, in a way, I’m glad that I know it exists, even if it’s evil or wrong or whatever, just so that I can have some sense of what they’re up to, and like: OK, here’s a problem that we need to respond to, instead of just disappearing into these recesses of obscure message boards and things that I think it probably existed in prior to Twitter. The fact that so many people are on that platform, I think, has always been one of its strengths. And that’s not to say that it’s stuff you agree with, but just to get a sense of how varied the attitudes are, which, as you said, I had no appreciation for before some of these platforms emerged.
JS: Yeah, and for instance, like this is so actually kind of run of the mill that I hate even mentioning it, I would like to find something more unusual to talk about, but just like, I did not know that there were Nazi furries.
KK: Or the anime Nazis!
KK: It’s all in flux, too. There was a period where they all had Greco-Roman statues for their avvies, do you remember that?
JS: I do indeed.
KK: That’s the one thing I realized is like how mutable people’s attitudes are. And in a way, it’s encouraging, because I’ve seen accounts over time that I’ve seen for years, really change views, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. But it really does show you that it’s like things are not really fixed. We can probably persuade people to think differently than how they do. And so things are a lot less set in stone than I used to think,
JS: Yeah. And just as a venue for human creativity of all kinds that Twitter has demonstrated. Again, I’m really showing my age here, but when people first started getting answering machines in their homes, they would come up with their little Twitter-like jokes for their outgoing message, a lot of which were not necessarily all that funny, but some of them were hilarious. And that’s pretty much true for anything human beings do, where like 90 percent of it is going to be garbage. But the rest of it really may be astonishing. And so there is just this untapped creativity within the vast mass of humanity that, when given an outlet, will just erupt in all kinds of ways that are absolutely unpredictable.
One of my favorite Twitter users for sure is Patricia Lockwood. I don’t know if you are a Patricia Lockwood appreciator, but I sure am.
KK: I’m not familiar.
JS: Oh, wow. Well, then, I’m telling you right now you’ve got to follow her. She is a poet. And you can tell from the way she uses language in her tweets. But she is hilarious. And one of the things that she invented, that a lot of other people picked up on, was a tweet form where she will say like: Sext, colon, and she will say something that is so incredibly peculiar that like, truly only her mind would have come up with it —
JS: And one of them — like, here’s one of the few ones that is probably clean enough for us to share it with a larger audience — she tweeted years ago like “Sext: Yeats gets naked for me. I grab his spare gyre and ride his rough beast. At the end I scream so loud that the falcon can’t hear shit.”
JS: So that is, like funny in a million different ways. Like, it’s a poetry joke. And like, where would she have placed this poetry joke before the existence of Twitter? There would be nowhere. Like, I’m going to submit this to The New Yorker? Of course, that’s not going to happen!
So somebody like her was able to deliver the unfiltered contents of her brain directly to a wide audience and develop a big audience and I think that she has had books published probably just because she was on Twitter. And editors were like Oh, wow, this is a weird, funny voice. Let’s get some more stuff by her.
KK: Oh, yeah. There are a lot of people like that. I mean, I don’t think I’d be a journalist if it wasn’t for the platform.
I don’t know. It’s weird. I go back and forth on this a lot. Because in some ways, the internet’s been corrosive, in the sense that it’s made everything real-time and there’s much less reporting that doesn’t function on a 24-hour news cycle where you’re just reacting to things real-time — that’s bad. And there’s less ad revenue; there are fewer subscriptions for newspapers, which is bad. But then it’s created a much more horizontal landscape in terms of the number of people that are able to write for things. Before you had to be — I didn’t move to Washington until pretty recently. I’ve lived in the Midwest for many years. And it seemed really New York-D.C. dominated prior to the rise of these social media platforms. So yeah, it’s been a lot of positive effects.
JS: And so just lastly, what do you think will happen if Twitter goes away? I think there are going to be all kinds of terrible effects.
KK: Well, it’s, I’m trying to think of what would replace it — two features. First of all, being a primarily text-based medium. And second of all, the horizontal nature of it, where you can reply to anyone directly, and then show up in their replies. That might seem simple, and it is, but if you compare that to a lot of the other platforms like TikTok, or YouTube or Facebook, they don’t permit that. There’s nothing like that. So if you look at these video-based ones, there’s no text — like, the TikToks of the world, and YouTube, and then you look at Facebook, and the idea that anyone would see your reply is kind of a joke, because it’s so focused on pictures, and just what the initial post is, that losing that ability to interact horizontally with basically anyone. I wonder, how are we going to antagonize powerful people? [Laughs.] And that was really my motive for getting on Twitter in the first place. And I guess, most of my interest in the platform, generally. I can’t really picture any other extant social media platform that could play that role.
JS: Yeah, so I guess both of us are just pleading with the people — when Elon Musk drives Twitter into bankruptcy next week, people who eventually buy it out of bankruptcy, like a consortium of thrifty Canadian and Swiss banks, just please, please save Twitter for us. We don’t know what we’ll do without it.
So Ken, thanks so much for talking about this. Maybe there will be more Twitter drama. I suspect there will be more, and maybe we can talk about that when it happens.
KK: Sounds great, Jon. Good talking to you.
[End credits music.]
JS: That was Ken Klippensten, investigative reporter for The Intercept. And that’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor in chief. And I’m Jon Schwarz, senior writer for The Intercept.
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Thanks for listening.