The news from the social media space is all about Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and the changes he has made. Predictably, most opinions on his moves have followed their authors’ political leanings: those on the left hate everything he’s doing, while those on the right are unapologetic cheerleaders. Very rarely does anyone have a nuanced view on the topic, which is, alas, entirely fitting with modern discourse.
I like to think of myself as an exception to that rule. Yes, Musk is making good moves at Twitter, clearing out some of the detritus and indeed trash that had accumulated over the platform’s fifteen years of existence. But he is not infallible, and a few of his public announcements, plus the implications of some of his policy moves, paint a very grim picture for the future of the West’s #2 social media platform.
Elephant in the room
Let’s start with the most recent media scandal attached to Musk: the repeal of Donald Trump’s permanent suspension. The ban itself was on questionable grounds, of course; the “official” reason given is that Trump lied about attending the inauguration on January 20, 2021. In reality, we know that hundreds of Twitter employees, indoctrinated by the dangerous ideology of globalism, were chomping at the bit to remove one of their few prominent and unabashed critics, and they used claims of “destroying democracy” and “denying the election” as their excuses to do so.
The facts are clear. Trump won the 2020 election, and only massive, systemic fraud in at least 7 states ever cast any doubt on that. The idea that a dementia patient who spent most of 2020 hiding in his basement, who can barely form a coherent sentence, and who wasn’t even the most popular candidate from his own party could legitimately earn the most votes in any US election would be laughable if it didn’t make such a mockery of America. Add in the documented cases of illegal ballot harvesting, the mysterious vote dumps that—despite probability theory and common sense—somehow went 100% for Biden, and the thousands of whistle-blowers that have come forth, and you see that the most vocal claim of the anti-Trump mob at Twitter, that of “election denial”, is mere projection.
Anyone sane can see this for what it is. Just as with the manufactured pandemic, Twitter banned those who spoke against the narrative. Democracy itself was at stake in the 2020 elections. Never mind that the United States isn’t a democracy; it’s a republic, as it has been since 1776. And of course someone who was cheated out of his victory is going to complain about it!
“Oh, but what about the January 6 insurrection?” you might ask, because that’s the other reason given for deplatforming Trump and his supporters. But think back to that day. There was no insurrection by the people. Those who gathered in Washington were exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech, peaceful assembly, and petitioning the government for a redress of grievances. In this case, the grievance was election fraud, and there was no redress. The insurrection was by those who cowardly hid from their constituents, then waited until the dead of night to violate their oaths of office.
All that is old news, but those who wanted to silence Donald Trump—and who have, for nearly two years, succeeded—will have to face the consequences of their decision. That they are so terrified of even the idea he may be able to speak freely is telling, and it gives us a question to ask of any would-be censor. If they’re right, what are they afraid of?
Canary in the coalmine
Authoritarians the world over, in any era, have always feared two things more than any other: an armed populace and free speech. Social media has no way of defending oneself except through words, so only the second is of relevance in this case. But it is very relevant.
Free speech is the cornerstone of liberal society. When we are allowed to speak, to write, and to record without fear of reprisal from the state, we can achieve great things. Yet freedom of speech has been under assault almost since the concept was first formalized, and social media has become one of the biggest hindrances to this inalienable liberty. Entire topics are banned from discussion on Twitter, Facebook, and every other major platform. In recent months, those who wish to exercise their rights have been kicked off social media, removed from their web hosts or cloud providers, purged from global DNS servers, and even barred from using credit cards.
Those in favor of such extraordinary methods of silencing dissent always fall back to the same tired responses. “Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from consequences,” they’ll say. “Hate speech isn’t free speech.”
Both of these are incorrect. The entire point of free speech is that you are protected from consequences, specifically government retribution. Now, with banks and global corporations effectively functioning as additional branches of government, we are faced with the very real threat of non-state actors who have state-level powers, and they should be treated as such. Every social media platform, every payment processor, and so on must be held to the same standards of the social contract that we expect from Washington.
If Twitter is to be the public square, then it must allow the protections of a public square, such as the First Amendment’s right to free speech, the Fourth’s right of privacy, the Sixth’s right to a fair trial, and the Eighth’s freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. All but the most extreme would accept that the death penalty is not justified as punishment for an insult, so why should a “permanent suspension” be any different? Yes, Twitter can act as a corporation and private club, banning anyone for anything, but then they lose all claim to being public. An open society is entirely at odds with unilateral decisions of guilt and innocence.
After announcing Donald Trump’s reinstatement on Twitter, Elon Musk was asked if Alex Jones would be next. He replied flatly and unequivocally, “No.” This single word speaks volumes. Musk usually has a witty (or at least sarcastic) retort, but here there was none. And there was no room for interpretation, either.
How, then, can we reconcile that statement with Musk’s claims that he supports free speech? Alex Jones didn’t commit fraud, didn’t use true threats, and incite others to commit crimes—along with obscenity, the only categories of speech seen as unprotected by the First Amendment. Conspiracy theories are not illegal, nor is sharing one’s opinions on them. Whatever you think of his comments about Sandy Hook, he has the same right to express them as anyone. And he should have the same platform for that expression as those spreading the lie that an experimental gene therapy is safe for toddlers.
Elon Musk isn’t the answer. His reign at Twitter will make a lot of noise, but ultimately will change very little. Yes, he may end the silencing of mainstream conservative voices, but what does that accomplish? The site is still a dictatorship, not a place for open discussion, and nothing about Musk’s public statements says that will be any different under his watch. There will still be people who aren’t allowed to participate due to their views on the sensitive topic of the day. Indeed, in some cases the censorship will get worse: Kathy Griffin was suspended for impersonation, which is protected as parody (as long as there is no intent to defraud) in any free society.
No, the real solution is to create a social network where there is neither censorship nor centralization. That solution already exists in the form of the fediverse: a network of servers who share a common protocol and communicate with each other. In theory, one user on the fediverse can talk to any other, and can see posts of his own choosing, no matter their source. (In practice, it doesn’t quite work that way, because too many server admins simply block other servers whose policies allow anything close to free speech, thus breaking the idea of federation.)
This is the way forward. It’s the way email worked until Google got its hands on it. It’s how Usenet was the top method of disseminating news for nearly two decades. And it’s how we can get back to an internet where all are equally free to express their opinions.