While 2020 has been a stressful year for many, one could argue it has been especially so for Jack Dorsey.
The Twitter founder and CEO was dragged before Congress to testify not once but twice in the last month over its intolerant content moderation policies.
"Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report?" Senator Ted Cruz asked Dorsey after Twitter blocked a controversial New York Post story on Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, and suspended the Post’s account.
Earlier this month rock legend Roger Waters, the longtime lead singer of Pink Floyd and a founding member of the band, blasted Dorsey after it was announced the US chapter of the International Youth and Students for Social Equality had its account suspended.
“Twitter has banned the International Youth and Students for Social Equality [IYSSE],” Waters tweeted with a picture of himself with tape over his mouth. “It is critical that people are informed of this effort to censor them. WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID of @JACK ?”
Twitter has banned the International Youth and Students for Social Equality [IYSSE]. https://t.co/R1Mqm6Xvb5— Roger Waters (@rogerwaters) November 15, 2020
It is critical that people are informed of this effort to censor them.
WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID of @JACK? pic.twitter.com/ulQEkGtEtI
According to the IYSSE, the youth and student movement of the Socialist Equality Party, Twitter claimed the suspension was due to the fact that the group was managing multiple accounts. But the organization claimed the suspension was part of a larger crackdown on left-wing and socialist publications.
“Twitter is engaging in political censorship to silence a leading voice of socialist politics among young people and students around the world,” the group said.
The IYSSE is hardly an organization whose principles I (or many readers would) agree with. It’s an international Trotskyist organization whose mission is to teach young people about the glories of Marxism. (One might say it’s the exact opposite of FEE, whose mission is to teach the importance of markets and liberty.)
It’s an inconvenient truth, of course, that Marxists have a horrible track record on free speech.
The Bolsheviks, for example, were vocal champions of freedom, but one of their very first acts after seizing control in 1917 was to pass the Decree on Press which banned publication of “bourgeois” articles.
Nevertheless, Waters is right to defend the group, and not because he’s sympathetic to its cause.
"If you're in favor of freedom of speech, that means you're in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise,” the American philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky once observed. “Otherwise you're not in favor of freedom of speech."
This is precisely what makes a principle a principle. It applies to everyone, not just groups or ideas we happen to like. And it was a principle Twitter embraced not very long ago.
At the Guardian Changing Media Summit in 2012, Tony Wang, general manager at Twitter UK, noted the company took a "neutral" view of user content because of the company's founding principles.
"Generally, we remain neutral as to the content because our general counsel and CEO like to say that we are the free speech wing of the free speech party," Wang said.
A year later, then Twitter CEO Dick Costolo echoed the phrase.
"We're the free speech wing of the free speech party," Costolo told NPR.
That’s ancient history.
Twitter years ago abdicated its membership in the free speech party. Today it purges “undesirable” accounts and censors views for, well, take your pick. Moreover, the enforcement of “Twitter Rules” is so random and sloppy that in some cases people have seen their accounts terminated even though they didn’t use the account.
Unfortunately, people and groups who find themselves banned are usually left with little recourse. Most don’t have the clout of the New York Post, which was only reinstated after an avalanche of withering press. In most cases, Twitter simply ignores protests and pleas for explanation or reinstatement.
That seems to be what happened to IYSSE. After explaining to Twitter that the organization’s use of multiple accounts is explicitly condoned in Twitter’s guidelines, IYSSE requested that the social media giant offer a more detailed explanation of why the group was banned.
Twitter’s response? Silence.
Such a reply is infuriating. It’s the type of response one would expect from an arrogant bully who knows he holds all the cards. But what’s the solution?
While having one bully—Congress—take on the other bully—Twitter—might seem like a tempting resolution, this is no solution at all.
As Elizabeth Nolan Brown has pointed out at Reason, what many consider to be the silver bullet for social media censorship—repealing Section 230, a federal provision that shields internet platforms from liability for information shared by third-party users—would actually result in less free speech.
“Without Section 230,” writes Brown, “companies would be forced to constantly defend their constitutional rights in court—which is expensive and time-consuming. A lot of them will decide it's simply not worth it to allow any controversial speech, and define controversial quite broadly. This ends with everyone—Trump fans, Biden fans, and all the rest of us—facing more limits in what we can see, say, and share online.”
The real solution is for individuals to recognize the importance of free speech and the simple idea that one need not support a given group or person to recognize the person or group should have the ability to share ideas—even bad or stupid ones. There will never be a shortage of either, unfortunately. But the best way to combat toxic speech and harmful ideas is with more speech.
“The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away,” an open letter in Harper’s Magazine declared earlier this year, signed by more than a hundred authors, intellectuals, and academics.
This simple idea was once widely accepted in the United States, and immortalized by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence,” Brandeis observed in Whitney v. California (1927).
Sadly, Brandeis’s view is in retreat today. A stunning 71 percent of college students say they support restrictions on slurs and offensive costumes. Scholars warn the decline of support of free speech is growing ominous.
“We are moving into potentially the most anti-free speech period of American history,” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley recently observed.
Culture does not change easily, but perhaps the change begins with individuals of influence like Waters speaking out against petty speech tyrants like Jack Dorsey who, flush with their own power, feel they get to decide what gets said and who gets to say it.
As Waters once declared, “We don't need no thought control.”