Social Media: The Amplifiers v. The Censors
Comparing & contrasting old Twitter to Musk’s Twitter demonstrates the two vastly different approaches technocrats have taken toward creating digital communities, and why neither approach has worked.
Welcome to the Self-Evident newsletter!
So, I recently listened to one of Peter Zeihan’s five-minute podcast blurbs about his decision to be done with Twitter/X. It brought to my mind a consideration of all the things that Elon Musk has done: the good, the bad, and the ugly. But specifically, the ugly.
Now, I’m a little less nostalgic for old Twitter than Zeihan is, for more than a few reasons. After all, I’ve taken more than a few hiatuses from Twitter/X over the years after getting straight-up sick and tired of the toxic nature of the platform. The place was a cesspool of anger, trolling, and misinformation long before Musk came along.
But I also recognize the ways that Musk has made the space worse, and the fact that Twitter/X remains an extremely problematic platform even under Musk’s leadership.
So, for this week’s issue of Self-Evident, I thought I’d turn my gaze upon the technocrats who, for so long, have been so confident in their ability to build functioning digital communities and explain why neither the amplifiers like Musk or the censors like old Twitter have been successful.
Social Media: The Amplifiers v. The Censors
The problem with old Twitter was that the moderation practices were inconsistently applied, often overly punitive, and very one-sided. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and even terrorist organizations from across the world got away with haltingly inappropriate rhetoric and calls for all sorts of terrible and socially destabilizing actions. But right-wing accounts came under extreme scrutiny for even quite ordinary rhetoric. The same held true for legitimate news stories from right-wing sources, such as when Twitter removed the NY Post story reporting on the Hunter Biden laptop amid the 2020 election, a story that ended up being legitimate. Old Twitter was not okay.
And when Musk first took over Twitter, some good things happened (I’ve personally benefitted from paying for the blue checkmark, for example). And Musk did a lot of good exposing the duplicitous nature of Twitter’s moderation policies. Musk’s fresh thinking and willingness to thwart convention shook up the social media world, which needed to be shaken up.
But the problem was that, however fresh Musk’s thinking was and however willing to shake up convention he is, he is still a technocrat going about things in the way the technocrats who initially built our brave new social media world have gone about things from the beginning.
From the very beginning, these whiz kids of technology were absolute geniuses when it came to developing the technical aspects of their products, but none of them have ever had any clue about the social forces they continuously unleashed. And they are woefully ignorant of the aspects of a healthy polity or what an actual “digital town square” needs to be vibrant, healthy, and conducive to healthy dialogue and interaction.
And this is where Musk’s hubris is most evident. Like all the technocrats before him, he assumed his technological expertise transferred over to the realm of human nature and the complicated interactions of socio-political debate, dialogue, and dialectic. And, of the two extreme approaches technocrats keep attempting as they try to craft their digital communities (aggressive moderation or anything goes), Musk chose the latter and has now flipped Twitter/X from one part of the spectrum to the other.
The problem with old Twitter was that its moderation was too aggressive and hopelessly one-sided. It wasn’t that the trolls, bots, and deliberate misinformation needed to be unleashed upon the platform with reckless abandon, as Musk has done. One need only take a cursory glance at any online platform with no effective moderation at all to observe that a free-for-all in the name of free speech absolutism does not provide an equal voice to all. Rather, such spaces amplify poor actors who drown out and overwhelm those of good faith, hopelessly corrupting the “digital town square.”
And this is what the technocrats fail to understand. To be functional and healthy, a community of persons must have a set of rules to which all are committed and answerable. An anything-goes attitude breeds chaos. Inconsistently applied rules breed a sense of unfairness. These are the fundamental lessons of human society and observations on human nature, ones that political philosophers and political theorists are privy to but of which technocrats, who thought to build digital human societies, are woefully ignorant.
Freedom of speech, for example, is an ideal both defined and circumscribed through clear legal doctrine by a functioning government, a principle of free human society that attempts to maximize freedom of conscience as it is exercised in such things as the written word and in proffered speech but, nevertheless, is answerable to certain consistently applied rules to which all are answerable.
But this is not how free speech absolutists such as Musk understand freedom of speech, nor the aggressive censors that Musk opposes. They, alternately, either believe they can create a free speech utopia with little to no rules at all or that they themselves can arbitrarily manage the full spectrum of human interactions on their platforms, guaranteeing that only good speech gets attention while claiming the ability to banish all bad speech altogether. Let’s call these two groups the amplifiers and the censors.
Now, let’s stipulate something very important here. A social media platform is not really a “digital town square,” nor can it ever become one. Before even getting into all of these weeds over all the various mistakes these technocrats have engaged in, let’s just recognize that their first fundamental mistake is believing they could craft the “digital town square.”
A social media platform is just that: a platform. And speech that appears on such a platform is necessarily speech that has been amplified and elevated by that platform over speech that does not appear on it. Social media isn’t a town square; it’s a bullhorn being passed around the real town square that already exists, allowing various people to have their views, opinions, and perspectives amplified to the rest of the town square beyond the platform.
The way a social media platform is run, then, involves unavoidable decisions that end up amplifying some voices over others. Whether it’s through algorithms, direct moderation, or arbitrary decisions by leadership, inevitable processes decide who gets the bullhorn and who doesn’t.
The amplifiers like Musk pretend they have no responsibility for how their platform amplifies certain voices. They imagine a utopian digital community where the bullhorn gets passed around equally to all and that some cosmic balance will magically prevail to allow truth and responsible interaction to prevail over misinformation and ugly rhetoric and behavior without establishing any rules, norms, or basic expectations for rhetoric and behavior in their digital community.
And in living out this pipedream, Musk and those like him hand their bullhorn to irresponsible actors, elevating them far beyond what would be possible in the actual town square they seek to parallel. They amplify all the worst human society has to offer, far beyond the level it could be elevated without the bullhorn they provide, and drown out so much of everything else.
On the other hand, the censors, like those who ran old Twitter, recognize their responsibility to consider who and what their platform elevates and amplifies, but instead of establishing rules that follow Hayek’s maxim of being “general, equal, and certain,” they think they can socially engineer their digital kingdoms. They imagine digital communities where they can cajole participants into engaging with, believing, and voicing the narrowest view of acceptable speech.
The censors go so far beyond the establishment of fundamental rules for interaction that the bullhorn ends up only going to certain people, over and over again, while others get passed over with extreme prejudice. There is no sense of fairness to the rules themselves and no sense of justice to how they are exercised. No community, digital or otherwise, can function effectively under such a regime.
The amplifiers fail to understand that freedom of speech does not translate into a right to amplification. They are operating a private platform, and their policies, or lack thereof, elevate and amplify those who benefit from their hands-off approach while many others are drowned out or driven away by the toxic atmosphere.
The censors fail to understand that a platform, to be functional and useful, must allow discussion, debate, and dialectic to occur organically, and that necessarily means allowing very different perspectives, some that are uncomfortable, to collide in a free market of ideas, and that the benchmark of unacceptable content cannot simply be whether a view or perspective offends somebody.
The hard reality is that human society is something that evolves organically over time. A healthy polity exists predicated upon rules, norms, and mores that are reasonably fair and equally applied to all, ones that evolved along with society in the slow and steady march of history. Human society cannot be manufactured and managed in the way the technocrats have attempted to do in their vision for digital community.
And, to even approach the ideal of a “digital town square,” the technocrats need to confess what they don’t know. They need to recognize that their considerable expertise in their own fields does not mean they can divine the complicated realities of human nature, human interaction, healthy society, or just governance of the spaces where humans exercise their agency and reason.
To begin any kind of correction in the ugly reality of social media, such a confession from the technocrats must begin with the recognition of two important realities:
1) The amplifiers must come to recognize that social media is a platform, a bullhorn, that amplifies speech. And freedom of speech does not translate into a right to amplification. A healthy community, digital or otherwise, must have rules and boundaries. Any platform, whether it’s social media or a newspaper, is responsible for the content it amplifies and must have some form of moderation.
2) The censors must give up their utopian vision of socially engineered digital spaces. The responsibility to effectively moderate a platform is not an excuse to engage in punitive censorship. The rules and boundaries of a healthy community, digital or otherwise, must be reasonable, non-punitive, and equally applied to all. Otherwise, a digital platform becomes, not something attempting to approach a “digital town square,” but merely a vessel for propaganda and a cesspool of groupthink and confirmation bias.
One of the many commitments of the Freemen Foundation is the importance of free market principles and the free flow of goods and services in society. Since September, we’ve had lots of good content promoting such ideals, predominantly in our Vine & Fig Tree Section.
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Justin Stapley received his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Utah Valley University, with emphases in political philosophy, public law, American history, and constitutional studies. He is the Founding and Executive Director of the Freemen Foundation as well as Editor in Chief of the Freemen News-Letter. @JustinWStapley
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