The late Potter Stewart, a lawyer who served on the United States Supreme Court from 1958 to 1981, said, “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” In this information age dominated by social media, though, censorship is not just the domain of an authoritarian regime. Private corporations, friendly to those authoritarian leaders, can practice censorship on the regime’s behalf. Social media platforms are, by their very nature, most perfectly placed to do this. Beyond the specifics of who made which decisions, this is the lesson we should learn from what have become known as the Twitter Files.
That Twitter was very much a left-leaning platform focusing a great deal of effort on the suppression of right-wing opinion and conservative news is no longer disputable. Each new edition of the Twitter Files provides further validation of this fact. The fourth installment, posted to the social media platform on Dec. 10, shows that Twitter executives sought to “create justifications” to ban then-President Donald Trump on Jan. 7, 2021. They decided that they would change Twitter policy just for Trump “distinct from other political leaders.”
However, the company had been deliberately reducing the “visibility” of Trump’s tweets even before the 2020 presidential election.
Unfathomable Power, Awful Abuse
Journalists Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss and author Michael D. Shellenberger are combing through internal communications from Twitter provided to them by the company’s new owner, Elon Musk, and posting a selection on the platform along with analysis. These are the Twitter Files, and they have provided a chilling insight into how one private company with enormous influence in the public square had taken upon itself – with some prompting from federal government agencies – the role of arbiter of truth, fact, and fairness.
According to figures published by the website Finances Online, based on Twitter’s own reported data, the social media company at the center of this major censorship scandal had 69.3 million active US users as of Jan. 2021. Twitter is a vehicle for all manner of content, including news reports, opinions, ads, memes, discussions, educational materials, and humor. Those in charge of moderating all this content quickly found themselves with almost unfathomable power – and the Twitter Files have taught us how eagerly and awfully they abused that power.
Getting back to Trump, for a moment. When Shellenberger posted part four of the Twitter files, revealing that the former President (still president at the time) had been singled out, many leftists responded by claiming that the action was justified because Trump had on Jan. 6, 2021, “incited” a “coup.” Quite apart from the fact that there was no coup – or attempted coup – and no incitement, the events of Jan. 6 are a red herring. Twitter has for years allowed dictators and foreign governments known to be sponsors of terrorism on its platform. Regimes with appalling human rights records have been able to take advantage of the social media app with impunity. To suggest that Trump, above all other political leaders, deserved to be uniquely punished is, quite simply, insulting to the countless victims of those other leaders and governments.
Twitter Files Expose the Fragility of Free Speech
Journalists, pundits, politicians, and activists from both sides of the political divide will continue to debate the details of what Taibbi and his colleagues have uncovered. There is the coordination between Twitter and the FBI. There are the communications with the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The clear bias in favor of left-wing opinions and news outlets. The pressure from Joe Biden’s presidential election campaign to suppress or remove certain tweets. The attempted killing of the Hunter Biden laptop story. All of these things are documented in the Twitter Files. Conservatives will be outraged, and progressives will make excuses for all of it. What of the core issue, though; freedom of speech?
The argument that Twitter or any other private company cannot be accused of violating First Amendment rights is technically correct but, when about a fifth of the US population actively uses Twitter as a source for much of its information – and as a platform to express beliefs and opinions and to discuss and debate the issues of the day – should we not be concerned? A small number of private citizens with undeniable political bias were filtering and manipulating this flow of information and discussion as they saw fit. Is it even plausible to argue that these people did not have the power to influence elections – or that they would never have used that power? What the Twitter Files contain leads any reasonable person to the obvious conclusion that they already have.
There is, however, no remedy for this danger except one – and that is for the new owners of the social media giant to eliminate all politically motivated censorship and open the platform up to any and every opinion. Elon Musk has implied that his goal is exactly that, which is why the left is beside itself with fear and loathing. Twitter has in the past proven to be such a powerful tool for the progressive-Democrat movement that it shudders at the thought of losing it to some pesky notion of free expression.
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