Last Week in Discourse: Israel/Palestine Discourse Spirals
Plus: Substack bungles their PR, AI gunk is everywhere, and Elon keeps doing Elon things
Better late than never, it’s Last Week in Discourse!
Israel/Palestine Discourse Spirals
The largest news story of the last few months, and by far the largest source of Controversial Online Discourse, has been the 10/7 Hamas attacks on Israel and Israel’s subsequent massive military campaign in Palestine.
To state the obvious, this has created a huge amount of online discussion about the subject directly at hand. People have talked nonstop for months about the horror of Hamas’s actions, whether or not Israel’s response has been justified, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict more broadly, the plight of the Palestinian people, and the problem of anti-semitism in the Middle East and around the world.
What I didn’t anticipate was how this discourse would swallow virtually everything else around it, and become a sort of ur-discourse, a controversy-swallowing force into which all other topics will be subsumed.
For instance: We’ve talked here about the plagiarism controversies that have been raging on the internet.
But what’s not obvious is that this evolved from anti-Semitism/Israel discourse. Former Harvard president Claudine Gay originally found herself involved in controversy because of some stupid answers she gave to a Congressional panel about campus anti-Semitism. Then, only after she was a subject of that controversy, did her plagiarism come to light. The anti-Semitism controversy was first.
Or consider the saga of Bill Ackman and his wife, Neri Oxman. Ackman is a billionaire and frequent donor to Harvard. He originally stepped into the middle of the Claudine Gay controversy, upset at her weak responses to the topic of campus anti-semitism, and threatened to withhold massive donations. He’s highly pro-Israel and even asked Harvard to release the names of students who signed a letter blaming Israel for the 10/7 attacks, so that companies could refuse to hire them. Ackman was publicly in favor of firing Gay after the twin anti-Semitism and plagiarism controversies… only for the discourse to turn on him after journalists discovered his wife had also plagiarized significant parts of her academic work. But none of it would have happened if Ackman hadn’t gone so hard on Israel/Palestine controversies.
Or consider the Twitter/X bullshit of the week, where a variety of leftist posters on the site made the bizarre choice to defend and even promote the Houthis in Yemen. The Houthis, if you weren’t aware, are a terrorist organization operating out of Yemen. They are theocratic fascists who practice slavery and whose official flag says ‘A curse upon the Jews’. They’ve been firing missiles at civilian ships in the Red Sea, and have disrupted a huge amount of global shipping.
And yet a significant chunk of the online Left have decided that the Houthis are good, actually, because the Houthis are supposedly attacking unrelated Norwegian ships in the name of justice for Palestine. This isn’t just fringe weirdos - some of the biggest content creators on the left are doing sympathetic livestreams with the terrorists.
What I notice here, above all the insanity, is that Israel/Palestine is basically consuming all other discourses, all other conversations. Every other topic is slowly getting pulled into this one, single, mega-discourse. Talk about Taylor Swift? Eventually someone will accuse her of not doing enough for Palestine. Care about LGBT folks? Congrats, now you’re required to have an opinion on Queers for Palestine.
Israel/Palestine is like no other topic I’ve ever seen. Everything is getting sucked into it, and it’s going to be a while before we can talk about anything else.
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The stupidest possible PR choice
After a piece in the Atlantic talked about Substack’s Nazi problem, a group of writers came out with a statement, Substackers against Nazis, asking the site to deplatform Nazi blogs. Another group of writers signed a letter saying Substack shouldn’t decide what we read. Founder Hamish McKenzie released a long note you can find below on the situation, defending the choice to continue to platform Nazis.
I thought this was an understandable choice in the abstract, but undermined by Substack’s closeness with alt-right bloggers and efforts to become a more social-media-like site. Still, they made their choice and were sticking to it.
They’ve now gone back and clarified that uhhh, actually, uhhh, some of the sites people were yelling about were in fact in violation of the sitewide rules. And they’re now interpreting those rules in such a way that they will ban some (but not all) Nazi blogs.
This is a humiliating, stupid reversal for a company that claimed to be taking a principled stand. I’m not going to try to navigate the morality of precisely which blogs should be allowed to stay on the site. But the stupidest possible thing to do is to decide that Nazis are allowed, loudly proclaim that Nazis are allowed, make a huge public stand in favor of free speech, even for Nazis… and then walk it back in less than a week and ban some of them anyways.
If you were going to ban them in the end, why did you spend so much energy telling everyone who would listen you were the Nazi safe haven?
There’s a fantastic piece on how Substack bungled their PR by Dave Karpf that I’m going to quote from liberally. It’s one of those pieces that is so good it makes me angry that I wasn’t the one who wrote it.
And there’s really just one rule that you always want to abide by when devising a comms strategy:
Seek to frame your effort as utterly reasonable, and your opponents/the status quo as ridiculous. Once you find that frame, stick to it. Don’t deviate. Pound it relentlessly. That is how you win.
Let’s say you’re running Substack. In response to the Nazi controversy, you decide that you’re going to ban some of the worst offenders but leave many others up. What’s the best way to frame that stance as the reasonable, common sense move? Karpf:
“We take the issues that Jonathan Katz raised in his Atlantic article seriously. We are a newsletter service that primarily connects independent writers with engaged readers. Incitement to violence is categorically prohibited on Substack, and we are committed to enforcing our terms of service. A handful of small publications have slipped through the cracks. We have reviewed the publications and are banning them immediately. We are also announcing a commitment to expand our content moderation team so we can better monitor and prevent hate groups from using our service.”
If they said that right away, then they would have denied Substackers against Nazis the zone of reasonability. Because then, when we pointed out that Hanania and Rufo are, in fact, much larger vectors for hate campaigns that inevitably spill over into death threats and violence, Substack could have taken a position like “look, we’re a newsletter service. We take a pretty light touch and, except for Nazism and porn, leave the readers to decide. Hanania and Rufo have been published in the Atlantic and the New York Times. Substack isn’t going to have a stricter content moderation policy than the New York Times Opinion section.”
Banning the Nazi blogs right away and then emphasizing free speech later makes you the anti-Nazi site who still cares about the principle of free speech. You look utterly reasonable. Loudly and publicly sticking up for the Nazi sites and defending their right to post only to later ban them makes you the pro-Nazi site who got bullied into submission.
The whole thing has been a PR disaster and nobody’s happy. The pro-free speech crowd thinks Substack are weak-kneed cowards who can be bullied into banning stuff. The anti-Nazi crowd thinks Substack is still far too Nazi friendly, and a number of large Substacks like Platformer, Today in Tabs and Garbage Day have fled the site. This is the stupidest, worst of all possible worlds for Substack.
When it rains, it pours?
The Game Theorist, aka Matt Patrick, is retiring. The Game Theorists, along with its spin-offs, has more than 40M subscribers across five channels. This comes in the wake of our discussion last week about Tom Scott’s retirement from YouTube.
Patrick actually mentions Scott in his farewell video. While he’s clearly been thinking about this decision for a while, it seems like Scott’s retirement may have pushed him into actually making this choice now. Sometimes when it rains, it pours.
Last week, in response to Tom Scott I wrote:
Some creators have their careers end explosively. They get cancelled, something dramatic happens, and it all goes to shit. Some die quietly - after their numbers begin to decline, they decide to quit. It seems rare for a content creator to leave on top, on their own terms. And that’s why I’m happy for Tom Scott.
Going out on your own terms is rarer than you’d think across most celebrity industries. Whether it’s famous actors, professional athletes or past-their-prime singers, most performers hang on too long. It’s painful to watch someone as you realize they’re only a shadow of what they used to be. As a fan of Scott’s, I’m glad he’s getting to quit while his quality is still high. And I hope that as we age deeper into the era of social media, more content creators, influencers, and internet personalities are able to find graceful ways to end their time on the public stage.
In a similar vein, I’m also happy for Patrick to be able to go out on his own terms rather than getting cancelled or fading into irrelevance over time. But Patrick’s announcement comes with an interesting twist - the channels will keep going without him. Tom Scott was the single star of his channel, which was also named ‘Tom Scott’. It functionally can’t really exist without him. Patrick is similarly the creator and central voice behind Game Theorists, but has also included other public-facing voices and talent over the years. Now, he’s transitioning his channels to them.
It will be an interesting experiment to see if it works. How much of The Game Theorists’ success is due to the particular personality of Patrick in particular? How much is simply the format, writing, research and animation style? Those are all things that can continue in perpetuity - the Game Theorist team will retain the same writers and animators, but with a different voice and personality presenting the information. Whether or not this works is likely dependent on the channel, with some channels more dependent on a particular voice and some more amenable to substituting in different personalities.
We got through a week without reporting on the decaying superstructure that is Musk’s Twitter, so it’s time to be punished with more Elon news. This week!
Elon claimed Twitter is a ‘video-first platform’. Perhaps he’s even executing a sort of ‘pivot to video’ you might say, which could never backfire on a social media company.
The world’s richest man was caught reposting the jankiest possible freeware animations.
Unrelated to Twitter, but Elon demanded Tesla’s board give him tens of billions of dollars, or he’ll do his fun AI ideas in a different company and not Tesla. Very cool and legal blackmail, apparently.
Japanese companies are known for being incredibly paranoid and strict with copyright online. New Japan Pro-Wrestling famously copyright strikes anything at all on YouTube, including a match uploaded to their own YouTube channel.
The SEC approved Bitcoin ETFs, making Bitcoin much more accessible to regular investors. This came after a fake-out where the SEC’s official Twitter account was hacked and posted the approval before it happened.
Twitch is laying off about 500 workers, or 35% of existing staff, as the company struggles to reign in losses. Discord is also laying off about 170 or 17% of staff, and Google and Amazon also had rounds of layoffs.
Tiktok is struggling to balance the TikTok Shop algorithm, as users report that their feeds are filling up with videos of terrible junk products.
Also in junk: There are now Amazon products titled Apologies but I’m unable to Assist with this request, it goes against OpenAI use policy. This is something we’ll see more of soon - automated use of ChatGPT junking up the world.
More AI gunk! there’s been a recent wave of celebrity AI deepfakes being used to sell junk and scam people. I think this is something that celebrities are just going to have to deal with now - their faces/voices being used to scam people against their will.
And here’s a bunny with a shopping basket full of carrots
actually not fun at all