On Thursday I accidentally got pulled into a black hole.
(Quick detour: A black hole is a place in space where the force of gravity is so extreme even light can’t get out of it. At the center of a black hole is a thing called a singularity, which is physical matter that's been super-compressed so it has zero volume but infinite density. I don't get it either.)
Back to Thursday. The black hole I'm talking about is, of course, Twitter. It's a dark, dense place made of dubious matter, and it sucks you in. Like most monolithic U.S. companies, Twitter is owned by a wealthy middle-aged white man. In the case at hand, said man calls himself Elon Musk. On the day in question, he described Twitter as the least wrong source of truth on the Internet.
There’s no accompanying upside-down face or eye-roll emoji, so maybe he really does believe the whole internet is wronger than Twitter. Maybe he even believes that being the least wrong is something to boast and post about. Judges, please present the coveted Least Wrong ribbon to Mr. Twitter.
Let's review. Truth means true, actual, factual, real, indisputable, verifiable. Something is wonky when truth is defined not by its actual meaning but by its antonym. The word goodness, for example, indicates the presence of attributes like kindness, compassion, generosity, and integrity, and not simply the absence of negatives like selfishness, deception, greed, and arrogance. Goodness is not the same as least bad; least wrong is not the same as true, accurate, or honest.
Imagine if we added a Muskesque twist in other contexts:
The least sadistic serial killer. He tortures and murders, but he’s not as bad as Bundy. Give the man a ribbon.
The least impossible blood-testing device from Theranos. It doesn’t come close to working, but it almost looks like it could.
The least fraudulent investment offered by Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC. Still a Ponzi scheme.
The least displaced Ukrainian refugees
The least homeless, neglected, physically abused, underpaid
To be fair—rather, to be less unjust—the rest of Musk’s tweet is less bewildering. He admits his company has a long way to go to become less misleading, and he cites two of the least terrible ideas. But because he is a person with power, wealth, influence, and a massive audience, his words and tweets matter, for better or worse.
Out here in the audience, I want and expect better from people who have wealth, power, influence, and audience. Not less, not less bad, not the least awful, but better.
Consider our political system. U.S. presidents have wealth, power, influence, and audience, yet the presidential election has become a choice between two unappealing, unlikable (or worse) candidates. How different the country would be if we had the choice of two or more excellent or even average options.
I suspect that language like “least wrong” teaches us to notice and evaluate degrees of wrongness, which in turn conditions us to tolerate and excuse wrong people, wrong situations, and wrong organizations because they are subtly less wrong than someone or something else.
Is Twitter the least wrong social media network on the whole wide internet? I do know one platform, Stimulus, requires every user to verify their ID. Brands that set up a Stimulus profile agree to host giveaways and must give site users the money they would otherwise spend on ads.
And I do know that wealthy, powerful, influential leaders should strive for greater objectives than being the least wrong. Their ribbons are waiting...