Why I Am Backing Away from Twitter for Now
Elon Musk screwing Ukraine on Starlink access is a bridge too far
Above: a pro-Putin propagandist. Image courtesy of The Royal Society
A few days ago, on February 8, CNN reported that SpaceX is preventing Ukraine from using its Starlink satellite technology system in certain very important ways:
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The president of SpaceX revealed the company has taken active steps to prevent Ukrainian forces from using the critical Starlink satellite technology with Ukrainian drones that are a key component of their fight against Russia.
"There are things that we can do to limit their ability to do that," Gwynne Shotwell told reporters on Wednesday, referencing reports on Starlink and drone use. "There are things that we can do, and have done."
Starlink was never meant to be used militarily in the way that it has, Shotwell argued, saying the company didn't foresee how profoundly -- and creatively -- Ukrainian forces would rely on the technology.
"It was never intended to be weaponized," Shotwell told an audience at a space conference. "However, Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement."
To me, this is the last straw. The moment I read that, I told myself: I’ve had it with this guy Elon Musk. And I wondered why I would want to keep posting away on Twitter, day in and day out, like nothing had happened.
The answer is: I don’t want to do that.
To me, and I assume to you, the war in Ukraine is a very simple issue of good vs. evil. It’s complicated only if you want to try to make it complicated, for partisan reasons. If you’re fair-minded and rational and not utterly blinded by tribal horseshit, you’re able to see that a country run by a madman dictator has invaded a peaceful democracy without any rational justification. The aggressor is committing brutal atrocities on noncombatants, and is engaged in an effort to commit genocide against the populace of the invaded democratic country. Because you read this newsletter, I’m going to assume you’re smart enough to understand all this, and I’m not going to waste my time rebutting ridiculous fringe arguments about the aggression of NATO, or responding to the various justifications that the Gleen Grenwalds and the Matt Taibbis of the world offer to justify this evil. If you want to be a useful idiot, go do it somewhere else. Here, the grownups are talking.
Musk has a choice here. He can be on the side of good or the side of evil. He is choosing the side of evil.
Now: I should admit here that it’s very difficult to know what to make of this story, for a couple of reasons.
First, there’s some conflicting reporting regarding the extent to which this has actually happened, despite SpaceX’s announcement. When I first heard about this story on The Telegraph’s excellent podcast Ukraine: The Latest, the reporters said that Ukraine’s government had not registered any complaints. Since then, there have been comments from Ukrainian officials—but they are of a conflicting nature, as reported by the New York Times on February 9:
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, tagged Ms. Shotwell in a Twitter post, saying that companies are either on the side of Ukraine and “the right to freedom,” or they are on the Russia’s side and the “right to kill and seize territories.” Starlink, he said, “should choose a specific option.”
Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister who helped facilitate the first delivery of Starlink terminals to Ukraine after the invasion, struck a more conciliatory tone.
“Elon Musk is one of the biggest private donors of our future victory,” he said, with SpaceX contributing more than $100 million, according to the government’s estimates.
“We hope for further stable work of Starlinks in Ukraine,” Mr. Fedorov added in a statement. He said there has so far been no disruption of the Starlink system in Ukraine.
The second reason it’s hard to know what to make of the story is because Musk is famously mercurial and unpredictable, not to mention prone to making unreliable and even blatantly false statements. For example, in October 2022, he made news by announcing that SpaceX could no longer donate Starlink services for free to Ukraine. Musk portrayed the threat as a sort of Trumpian retaliation against a Ukrainian diplomat who had reacted badly to Musk’s chowder-headed proposal for a ceasefire:
Musk on Friday said that in asking the Pentagon to pick up the bill for Starlink in Ukraine, he was following the advice of a Ukrainian diplomat who responded to Musk’s Ukraine peace plan earlier this month, before the letter was sent to the Pentagon, with: “F*** off.”
Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andrij Melnyk, responded earlier this month to Musk’s claimed peace plan for Russia’s Ukraine war by saying: “F*** off is my very diplomatic reply to you @elonmusk.”
“We’re just following his recommendation,” Musk said on Friday, responding to a tweet that referenced CNN’s reporting and Melnyk’s comments, even though the letter SpaceX sent to the Pentagon was sent before the Twitter exchange.
The next day, no doubt responding to a strong backlash, he said “the hell with it” and promised to keep funding the system:
Like claims by Donald Trump, every Musk statement comes with an expiration date. Musk will make an announcement one day and retract it within days, often in reaction to things he sees on Twitter.
In fact, SpaceX’s decision to disable Ukraine’s Starlink access for certain purposes may result directly from a Musk overreaction to something he saw on Twitter. I haven’t seen this come up in any of the reporting on the issue, but it seems plausible and (to me) even likely that the reason for the decision was criticism of Musk by one of Russia’s nastiest propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov. Watch this clip. Solovyov’s specific complaint is that Starlink is “being used to create attack drones of various power degrees" making Musk a “war criminal,” meaning “we have to deal with them seriously”—an obvious threat.
The relevant part:
Musk responded to that the next day by saying “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” and followed up by saying he was not allowing Starlink to be used for “long-range drone strikes”—the very thing that the Russian propagandist Solovyov had attacked him for.
Was this SpaceX policy before Solovyov complained about it? There is no publicly available evidence that it was. And about a week later, CNN reported that the president of SpaceX had publicly announced it was disabling Ukraine’s ability to use Starlink to send drones.
Here again, if I am right that Russian criticism that Musk saw on Twitter triggered the new policy, it is equally true that something else Musk sees on Twitter might cause him to change his mind tomorrow.
But I doubt it.
The reason I doubt that Musk will change this policy is the one consistent thing about him—or at least one of the consistent things—is that he reliably spouts dopey Putinesque propaganda. I’ve discussed that trait of his at length before. I don’t think I need to repeat myself here; click that link and read it if you have any doubts. And so, I don’t see this SpaceX decision in a vacuum. This is a guy who floats peace proposals that sound like they were issued by the Kremlin, and regularly pals around on Twitter with the type of dunderheads who make excuses for Putin.
Musk has presented the SpaceX decision to restrict Starlink access in terms that come straight from the Putinites and the hyper-Trumpy fringe right (but I repeat myself). In response to Scott Kelly urging Musk to preserve full Starlink functionality for Ukraine, Musk portrayed Ukraine’s use of drones as a possible start to WORLD WAR III!
I think it’s worth taking the time for a brief digression into why Musk’s wringing his soft, pasty, delicate hands about nuclear war and World War III is not just misguided, but indeed is typical fringe-right pro-Russian propaganda.
Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian of Central Europe, has written a great deal about the Ukraine conflict, and as I have done before, I commend his writings to you. He recently published a newsletter (you should subscribe to it) that explained why talk of nuclear war is wrong-headed, self-centered, and totally pointless:
Media get your attention by writing of escalation! Not to mention: nuclear threats! And: nuclear war! There is a profit motive at work here, one that Russian propagandists exploit by their references to nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the atmospherics of what should be a sober conversation are brought more by a counting of dollars than by a reckoning of risks.
That is one reason why we should be ashamed of our discussion of nuclear war, but not the main one. Our nuclear talk is a way to claim victimhood, and then to blame the actual victims. Once we turn our attention to a hypothetical exchange of missiles, we get to imagine that we are the victims. Suddenly the actual war no longer seems to matter, since our lives (we imagine) are at risk. And the Ukrainians seem to be at fault. If only they would stop fighting, then we could all be safe. This, of course, is exactly how Russian propagandists want us to reason. And it is wrong.
Not just morally wrong, though of course it is that. Actual Ukrainians are actually fighting and dying in a war that serves our security in countless ways -- including by reducing the risk of nuclear war, as I'll discuss below. And we spend our time imagining our own victimhood?
Snyder goes on to explain how this stance is not just immoral, but totally ineffective. If we give in to nuclear blackmail, every country will want to become a nuclear blackmailer, which means vast nuclear proliferation across the globe. It means the blackmailers call all the shots. Supporting Ukraine despite this phony concern serves our interests; it keeps the peace not only elsewhere in Europe, but dissuades China from making military designs on Taiwan.
This should make it obvious that talk about nuclear war and World War III is silly. And yet the very pro-Putin line is to constantly invoke World War III. Russian Shill Extraordinaire Gleens Grenwald aka Rick Ellensburg aka Thomas Ellers aka Ellison aka you get the idea does it:
The aptly named “Useful Idiots” Matt “Russia Won’t Invade Ukraine” Taibbi and Katie Halper think supporting Ukraine is equivalent to starting World War III.
Matt Gaetz thinks arming Ukraine will start World War III, and falsely claims that Biden made the same claim.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Musk’s citing World War III is just more fringe right Putinesque propaganda.
Musk’s propagandizing for Putin is a key reason I don’t see his disabling Starlink as a business decision, or a philosophical stance that SpaceX should not be playing a military role.
Some friends have urged me to go easy on Musk, saying he has no responsibility to put a target on his satellites by allowing them to be used for offensive military purposes. But the idea that SpaceX is not a military contractor is, as Joe Biden might put it, malarkey. For example, hundreds of millions of dollars in military contracts for SpaceX were announced in August 2020:
ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and SpaceX are the reigning launch providers for national security missions, having launched dozens of payloads for the military over the last decade.
In March 2021, it was announced that SpaceX had signed two contracts with the Pentagon for $159 million. (The Pentagon, I will remind the reader, is the home of the U.S. military.) A press release explained the very peaceful and non-military nature of the contracts:
The Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), in partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), awarded four National Security Space missions to Space Exploration Technologies, Inc. (SpaceX) and United Launch Alliance (ULA) under the Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement contracts on Mar 09, 2021. SMC’s Launch Enterprise awarded USSF-36 and NROL-69 to SpaceX (both using the Falcon 9 launch vehicle) and USSF-112 and USSF-87 to ULA (both using the Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle).
“Today, we are making it possible for our National Security Space team to accomplish our mission of providing on-orbit space capability to the warfighter,” said Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of SMC’s Launch Enterprise.
Ah yes, providing space capability to “the warfighter” is definitely what companies looking to avoid military entanglement generally do, which is why they sign huge contracts with the, um, Pentagon.
So Musk’s decision to disable Ukraine’s ability to use Starlink for drones is not motivated by a philosophy that SpaceX ought not become entangled with the military. Nor can it reasonably be viewed as a business decision, when viewed in the full context of Musk’s irresponsible rhetoric. It’s not driven by money or a desire to protect shareholder value or anything like that. Musk is just taking Putin’s side. He’s not taking as strong a pro-Putin position as he would probably like to—after all, he apparently is letting Ukraine continue to use Starlink for communications purposes—but that’s not good enough in a war between good and evil.
You can call the drones Ukraine that uses “attack” drones, but only the thickest dunce-cap-wearing functional illiterate is unable to see that everything that Ukraine does is in its own defense, because Russia is the aggressor here.
And so, as long as this is the SpaceX policy, I just can’t continue posting on Twitter in the routine, habitual way that I have been posting there since 2009. With Musk in charge, it doesn’t feel right.
I should say couple of things about the position I am taking in stepping back from Twitter.
First, in some ways I am using this protest as an excuse to do something I have been meaning to do anyway. It has been a goal of mine for a while to minimize the time I spend on social media.
Take a look around at the people in your life. The ones who are maladjusted often have a social media addiction. The people with a level head, a smile on their face, and a relaxed attitude rarely do. I want to be like the folks in that latter group. I think it will help me break the addiction to make a sort of public declaration that makes my commitment difficult to break. So even before this controversy arose, I had a desire to back away from Twitter. The decision has been a long time coming. I hear Sam Harris talk about how much richer his life is without Twitter, and I feel jealous. It’s a giant time-waster. And for me, it has been for some 14 years.
Second, I don’t want to make out this decision to be more than it is. I’ll likely end up using Twitter in (hopefully very) limited ways going forward. Maybe I’ll use it to promote posts on my blog, or on this here Substack. After all, I’m not sure I’m willing to let Elon Musk deprive me entirely of the ability to try to drive eyeballs towards my writing. I’ll have to play that one by ear. But I want to be the one using Twitter for my purposes. I’m done letting it use me. Yes, it’s a small gesture because I am not a major Twitter presence, but I just don’t want to contribute content to Musk’s site anymore. At most, I want to draw readers from his site towards my own platforms. And so, from here on out, if I have a clever thought or insight, I’ll share that with my readers here or at my blog, and not in a snarky little 240-character tossed-off tweet. (As for my blog and this newsletter, I plan to do more writing at both places going forward, what with the extra time I will have freed up by not posting on the Musk hellsite. Another advantage of backing away!)
I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to tear myself away from using Twitter to find my news. Old habits die hard, and it will take some effort to develop new habits in their place. Like Wikipedia, Twitter is a terrible place to get all your information, but a great resource for obtaining links to in-depth discussion. But I’m going to work on broadening my horizons and relying less on Twitter to keep up with current events. I have started by enrolling in a trial subscription to The Telegraph, whose Ukraine: The Latest podcast provides me with regular coverage of this important conflict.
Some of you will likely be underwhelmed by my gesture. I can hear the critics now (to the extent anyone cares): So, Patterico, you might still end up using Twitter, but less, and you will stop posting there, but not necessarily entirely? Very principled, Patterico!
That’s a reasonable criticism, and the potential for people leveling that sort of invective will likely motivate me to avoid the platform as much as possible.
In a lot of ways, this decision reminds me of my decision to stop subscribing to the Los Angeles Times when that newspaper published the classified details of an effective and legal anti-terrorism program. I wrote about that decision in 2006, and summarized my conversation with the “specialist” who had been tasked with trying to persuade me to stay:
I told him that this has nothing to do with disagreeing with what I read in the newspaper. I disagree with the newspaper all the time. This is different. The newspaper made a deliberate choice to print classified details of an anti-terror operation that, by all accounts, was effective and legal. . . . I told him that I think publishing the story was completely irresponsible, totally lacking in any justification, and has posed a threat to the safety of our country. And I just can’t continue to subscribe to a newspaper that would do such a thing.
He didn’t argue with me after that.
Did that mean I was never going to read another L.A. Times article again? Of course not. In the years after I cancelled my subscription, I would still read the paper online, discuss it on my blog, and link the paper’s articles. But, over time, without a subscription, I stopped reading it as much. And now, I hardly ever read it any more. A lot of readers were disappointed by that, because they came to my blog to see me savage that newspaper. But I was a happier person for it. And canceling my subscription was not nothing, even if I did not pledge to never read another word the paper ever printed.
That’s how I feel about this decision. I obviously can’t describe it as a total and complete boycott. But I do plan to fundamentally change my relationship with Twitter—a site that I have used regularly for the last 14 years or so. At least as long as Elon Musk is simultaneously limiting Ukraine’s access to Starlink, and taking an active role in running Twitter (something which, remember, he promised to step down from—but again, all his statements have an expiration date!), I don’t plan to be a regular poster on the site.
It feels good.
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This is a continuation of Musk's tacit pro-Putin stance. It wasn't that long ago when he came forward and asked the Ukrainians to negotiate with Putin, which included an ignorant take on Crimean history, but no made such similar request for Putin, the person who actually has the power to end this war.