Hi, and welcome to Semafor Tech, a twice-weekly newsletter from Louise Matsakis and me that gives an inside look at the struggle for the future of the tech industry.
Last night, Elon Musk dropped his biggest product update since acquiring Twitter: He’s now banning journalists from publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN for coverage he doesn’t like. Seems like a great day to focus on actual technology and not on social media. See below for some exciting news about our national magnet lab. And read a text message from a former Google executive on how AI will (and will not) change search engines.
I’m off for the next two weeks, so happy holidays. Enjoy!
➚ Buy: Legacy car makers. They took forever to get with the program, but are now answering consumer demand with electric car models and more autonomous driving features. And Tesla seems to be giving them a big opening to accelerate out of the current downturn.
➘ Sell: Tesla. Its “Technoking” (the title Elon Musk officially adopted last year), is distracted trying to save Twitter and has now sold large amounts of Tesla stock three times after saying he would stop. His tweets are making liberal-minded folks (who love electric cars) feel uncomfortable about buying his brand. Time for an alignment check.
The percentage that law enforcement requests sent to Coinbase have increased since last year, according tothe crypto exchange’s latest transparency report. U.S. authorities accounted for 43% of the more than 12,000 information inquiries it received overall.
On Thursday night, Twitter disabled the accounts of several prominent journalists from outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, some of whom had been critical of Elon Musk, Twitter’s owner.
Some of the journalists had been tweeting and reporting on Twitter’s earlier decision to disable an account called ElonJet that posted the real-time location of Musk’s private jet.
“Same doxing rules apply to ‘journalists’ as to everyone else,” Musk tweeted later Thursday evening, though most of the accounts he banned had merely covered his actions on the private jet account. He said the accounts would be suspended for a week.
Soon after Musk took over Twitter in late October, my boss, Ben Smith, called me with an assignment: Find out who’s working on big ideas to replace Twitter, now that Musk had taken over.
At the time, I rejected the premise. I expected Musk would make Twitter better by coming up with new products in record time, mimicking the legendary success he’d had at his other companies. I thought Musk’s calls for more transparency in content moderation would be a positive change.
But I started making calls to figure out what venture capitalists and entrepreneurs thought about Twitter substitutes.
“Head of your story is: The plot to Kill Twitter,” Ben texted me.
I found nobody was all that excited about funding Twitter killers. Whatever comes after Twitter will be something new, they said. Twitter would continue to be Twitter.
On Thursday, things changed.
I sympathize with Musk’s frustration at people posting the location of his private jet in real time. Private jet data should be public and it’s a legitimate source of information for reporting. But there’s no reason to post it in real time, other than to mess with Musk.
If somebody in a mask followed the car my son was in and tried to intimidate the driver, I’d be angry. If I saw journalists continuing to draw attention to the real-time private jet account the day after my son was threatened, I’d be pissed off.
I think it’s hypocritical to voice concern for victims of online harassment but to think it’s fine when it happens to Musk, even if he is one of the world’s richest men.
But Musk’s decision to disable those accounts is a huge turning point, regardless of whether it was justified under his newly-implemented “anti-doxxing” policy. It’s now clear that Twitter is not an open forum for ideas. It’s a site that Musk controls according to his whims and emotions.
Free speech can’t exist if users know, in the back of their mind, that they could be silenced nonchalantly by the emperor.
I don’t think journalists will immediately get off Twitter. On Friday morning, I saw plenty of them (including me) posting articles as if nothing happened. Twitter’s like a dinner party where the host had a massive tantrum and kicked out one of the guests. Everybody’s going to finish their dinner, but it’s awkward now and people can’t wait to get out of there.
Twitter’s content moderation before Musk was never perfect and employees made mistakes. But the company still had public shareholders and a board of directors, and it was never up to one person.
That’s what Twitter is now, and it probably can’t go back.
So what replaces the Twitter that existed before Dec. 15, 2022? Probably not Mastodon, where a lot of journalists have advertised they are going. Probably not Post.News, a startup that is sort of like Twitter but without very many users.
The answer may be that Twitter’s denizens – other than staunch conservatives and Musk acolytes – spread out among a variety of services and become sort of a diaspora.
If that happens, Musk may have done us all a favor.
ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT
Some prominent Twitter users saw Musk’s actions not as violating a kind of implied social contract, but as turning the tables against “liberal” journalists after years of what they viewed as censorship of conservatives. “What I won’t take are liberals who spent years defending censorship now whining because their friends are banned,” tweeted journalist Glenn Greenwald.
Semafor media reporter Max Tani reports on how newsrooms are grappling with the Twitter ban of certain journalists.
For over two years, the U.S. government has been making lots of noise about TikTok’s Chinese ownership, but it hasn’t done anything concrete about it. Now, as the Biden administration’s national security review of the company drags on, a Republican-led group of lawmakers have introduced the “ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act,” which would block TikTok in the U.S. Meanwhile, a growing list of Republican-led states are banning the app from government devices, and the Senate has proposed to do the same.
It’s not clear if these efforts will amount to much, or simply serve to bolster the image of politicians who want to appear tough on China. In the coming months, it will be interesting to see whether the millions of Americans who use TikTok or make money from it will take a political stand in support of the company.
Netflix rescued itself from slowing growth with the rollout of commercials this year. But the much-anticipated move has gotten off to a slow start, according to Digiday. It’s too early to change the channel, though. Building a solid advertising business is going to take time. Its stock took a hit, but competitors haven’t fared much better in a dicey market.
About a month ago, we received an iMessage from someone’s brain. The company that made that possible, Synchron, is testing a brain implant that can help people who are paralyzed use computers. On Thursday, Synchron announced $75 million in new funding from Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, a vote of confidence for the first computer-brain interface company to run FDA-sanctioned trials on human patients. In case you missed it, here’s our video on this topic.
The world’s most powerful magnets just got some crucial funding from taxpayers, in the form of a $195.5 million National Science Foundation grant over the next five years. Why do we need magnets that are 4,500 times stronger than the ones that hold up your kid’s artwork on the fridge? They’ve helped lead to discoveries in everything from nuclear fusion to semiconductor development to quantum computing. The magnets were even used to figure out how many harmful chemicals are constantly released into the air from ordinary asphalt (sorry, it’s a lot). Here, watch one of the magnets make a strawberry levitate.
Are you enjoying Semafor Tech? The more people read us, the better we’ll get. So please share it with your family, friends and colleagues to get those network effects rolling.
And hey, we can’t inform you on what’s happening in tech from inside your spam folder. Be sure to add firstname.lastname@example.org (you can always reach me by replying to these emails) and email@example.com to your contacts. In Gmail, drag this newsletter over to your ‘Primary’ tab.
Thanks for reading.
Want more Semafor? Explore all our newsletters at semafor.com/newsletters