With every day that goes by as we approach the possible (though not yet assured) reality of Elon Musk fully taking over Twitter, more panicky liberals show up to declare how awful this all is and how the world will surely soon end, just as it ended after net neutrality went away. The latest to join the parade is Roger McNamee writing for Time magazine. But McNamee attempts to be a bit more nuanced while tossing his hat into the blame game, engaging in some whataboutism with a fair dose of claiming that we’re all actually to blame for this looming disaster. Roger ensures his liberal bona fides early in the essay, declaring that people who say that Musk’s purchase of the platform is “a disaster for democracy” are correct. But he quickly moves on to say that the government has failed to do enough to make social media networks “safe” enough through regulatory actions and even journalists have allowed themselves to go along for the ride without accepting the fact that people saying whatever they think has been causing all manner of “harm” with no one being held accountable.
Those who have framed Musk’s acquisition of Twitter as a disaster for democracy are not wrong, but they are eliding three important facts. First, internet platforms have been undermining our democracy since at least 2016. Second, politicians have failed in their duty to force accountability and reform of internet platforms. Finally, journalism years ago embraced the “engagement” model of internet platforms, making the industry partially complicit in the harms.
If the deal goes through—and that still seems likely—Musk has promised to restore “free speech” to Twitter, which is code for reversing bans on users and reducing content moderation. Musk’s framing is ridiculous. The First Amendment relates only to restriction of speech by the government. Corporations have always been free to set the rules on their platforms. A more valid complaint against internet platforms would be that their rules are ambiguous and are enforced inconsistently.
I just wanted to pause here for a moment and call attention to the type of argument we’re once again seeing. I don’t mind if you want to have a debate over how much censorship of people’s tweets is acceptable or required. You can even call Musk a monster if you like. But at least be consistent while enforcing the rules that you’re making up as you go along.
Let’s take the second paragraph of the excerpt above as an example. If corporations have “always been free to set the rules on their platforms,” why should the new owner of a newly privatized corporation not similarly set the rules? Or is this just a situation where the old owners were acting in a way that you approved of but now that Musk is arriving you have a problem with it? To be fair, McNamee does say that social media platforms, in general, have been ambiguous and inconsistent in enforcing their rules. But that’s more of an argument for more censorship in general while still pointing the finger at Musk for threatening to turn Twitter into a Wild, Wild West of free speech.
Moving on, the author is correct in saying that only the government can infringe on our First Amendment right to free speech. But if they step in and “regulate” Twitter as to what content will or won’t be allowed, wouldn’t they be silencing speech? And would that not then become a de facto violation of users’ First Amendment rights?
I would also like to highlight McNamee’s assertion that “internet platforms have been undermining our democracy since at least 2016.” I’ll give you all a moment to scratch your heads and try to recall anything else that might have happened in 2016 that the author might construe as undermining our democracy. So what you’re really saying is that this became a problem when Donald Trump showed up and launched a presidential campaign that he promoted primarily on Twitter. But before that Twitter was fine?
I will certainly agree that Donald Trump was probably the largest driver in the decisions by all of the social media platforms to open the floodgates of abusive “moderation,” as they like to call it. All of a sudden it became fashionable to talk about all of the “harm” people were doing with their tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube videos. It’s also where we caught the earliest glimpses of what would later come to be called “misinformation” in the form of people expressing opinions or making jokes. The author wades into that theory with abandon, describing discussions by Trump supporters about the January 6 riot and “COVID-19 disinformation” as being – and this is a direct quote – “two of the greatest threats to our country in a century.”
This whirling pool of madness among both journalists and politicians on the left is only growing deeper by the day. There’s been a blithe acceptance of the idea that people expressing opinions you don’t approve of or even (God forbid) being rude are causing actual harm. Honestly, if you are that easily sent into a panic attack or you collapse into a puddle of tears because you read some words that someone who may be on the other side of the country from you typed, is social media really a good place for you to hang out?
Lastly and most importantly, though we’ve covered it here before, Roger McNamee is either unaware of or willingly ignoring the biggest and ugliest piece of this puzzle. When you decide to silence those who engage in “misinformation,” you have to assign someone to determine what qualifies as misinformation and what is simply opinion. And in the digital public square, that person has a staggering amount of power. McNamee and his ilk seemed to be fine with the situation as long as it was a woke, liberal team holding that power. But now that Elon Must might seize hold of it, our democracy is obviously on the brink of collapse. It’s all too much to sit through every day, really.