The Great American Free Speech Panic

Freedom of expression is the “terror of tyrants”. This is how Frederick Douglass, the American abolitionist, statesman and former slave, put it in his seminal 1860 work speech“A Plea for Free Speech in Boston” – aimed at a racist mob that shut down an abolitionist meeting and the authorities who refused to protect it.

The battle lines in America’s free speech wars are vastly different today, and so are the stakes. “Slavery cannot tolerate free speech,” Douglass thundered. He saw open discussion as a means of liberation. Today, those who might consider themselves his heirs think you can censor your path to utopia. But at least one thing remains stubbornly the same: More than 160 years later, free speech still fills American elites with dread.

What else could we conclude from the week-long meltdown over Elon Musk’s Twitter purchase? The political and cultural elites are seized with panic. Human rights groups are up in arms. Woke celebrities are threatening to quit the platform. All because Musk – a self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” – says he wants to scale back Twitter’s content moderation policies, to ensure Twitter operates as a freer “digital public square”.

The world’s richest man buying one of social media’s most important platforms may be an unlikely blow to democracy. We at dope would certainly rather the fate of free speech online not rest with the billionaire who happens to be in the driver’s seat. But Musk’s takeover of Twitter has at least demonstrated that the rest of America’s ruling class — certainly those who run its institutions and its government — are united in terror at the prospect of people hearing and saying what it is. that they want.

According to CNBC, members of President Biden’s inner circle, Democratic strategists and Barack Obama fear Musk could lift Donald Trump’s ban and spark a wave of “misinformation” ahead of the next election. White House press secretary Jen Psaki dodged a question about Musk this week, but referenced the president’s “concerns about the power of social media platforms, including Twitter and others, to spread misinformation. “.

Here we see a beautiful demonstration of how the Democrats’ years-long moral panic over “disinformation” matches up rather neatly with the censorship of their opponents. This had already been clarified with the Hunter Biden laptop scandal – the New York Post revealed that Twitter and Facebook were branded disinformation and censored ahead of the 2020 election, but have since been confirmed as true by other outlets.

The human rights establishment is also reeling from the prospect of greater freedom of expression on the internet. Amnesty International USA warned the new Twitter boss not to “erode enforcement of policies and mechanisms designed to protect users”, noting the “disturbing persistence of hate speech on Twitter”. Of all the activists, meanwhile, Musk has been smeared as a racist whose definition of free speech is “allowing[ing] white nationalists to target/harass people”.

American elites, whose ancestors gave the world the First Amendment, apparently decided that similar standards could not apply on the internet. That “hate speech” should be censored on social media has become common sense among so-called liberals, even though censorship is impossible under US law. Censorship of those deemed “hateful” – a now bloated category which, according to Twitter’s current Strategiesincludes those who “stray” – has been outsourced to the private sector, and elites fear that Twitter under Elon Musk no longer has to.

Indeed, Big Tech censorship has never consisted of a few oligarchs deciding to impose their views on everyone. Jack Dorsey, the Twitter CEO who presided over Trump’s ban and many others, is something of a hippie libertarian and wholeheartedly endorsed Musk. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg resisted the role thrust upon him — as Minister of Digital Truth — for years before finally relenting. The pressure on them to censor has come from within – the kind of Silicon Valley workers currently apoplectic about Musk’s takeover – and from without – from Democrats threatening to break up or regulate the giants of technology if they did not crack down on “misinformation” and “hate”.

America’s elites have offered all sorts of convoluted reasons as to why it is right and proper for Silicon Valley to wield its unprecedented power against those with whom they disagree. But those reasons keep changing in telling ways. Prior to this week, the argument was that Twitter could set whatever speaking policies it wanted because it’s a business and anyone who doesn’t like it can go elsewhere. Now they have suddenly changed their tone. And for all their deep concern about disinformation, the elites have turned a blind eye in recent years to how their war on disinformation has produced its own kind of disinformation – like Hunter Biden’s hasty brand of history or the Covid lab leak theory as bonkers conspiracy theories, only to later turn out there was actually something for them.

It has become a vicious circle. Some of the truly insane movements unleashed in recent years – from QAnon to Stop the Steal to the Covid anti-vax guff – are actually demonstrations of a well-worn argument against censorship. Namely, censoring bad ideas doesn’t make them go away and can give them a glamor they don’t deserve. Censorship has a way of making people think they’re onto something. Combine that with a mainstream outlet that now routinely values ​​The Narrative over facts — calling the BLM riots “mostly peaceful” and Kyle Rittenhouse a “white supremacist” — and you have a toxic mix. The crisis of confidence in the mainstream has sent many people looking for answers to the fringes. And the more there are, the more pronounced the censorship.

But then again, it was never really about misinformation, was it? It’s about the American ruling class becoming deeply skeptical of one of America’s founding values, and deeply skeptical of its fellow citizens. The so-called liberal elites simply do not believe that ordinary people can be trusted to sort out truth from illusion and are now convinced that a higher power must verify their reading material for them. They believe the answer to bad speech is not more speech, but ruthless corporate censorship. They convinced themselves that free speech is a threat to civilization, rather than the core of civilization.

And all it took was for an election not to go their way. It is striking that this philosophical detour of freedom of expression, which had been slowly frozen in academia for some time, suddenly became widespread around 2016 – after a certain someone became president and that the coastal elites went looking for answers as to why these d-voters either ignored or smeared the racists had suddenly taken against them. Trump’s election was the catalyst for an explosion of social media censorship, which was previously limited by today’s standards. Tellingly, discussing what Musk’s Twitter might be in terms of free speech, a tech writer for the Atlantic speculate it will look “a lot more like Twitter in, say, 2016. That’s not a good thing!”

Whether Twitter under Elon Musk will be a good thing remains to be seen. What we do know is that it will be a fight in the hands of American elites who now believe that censorship is all that separates them from barbarism. It’s a good reminder that free speech remains an incredibly radical idea, that it empowers those below and undermines those above. It’s always the terror of tyrants – even the pathetic, hysterical group that rules America today.

Tom Slater is editor of dope. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

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