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Twitter Blues and the "Master Control" Instinct
What the Left is getting wrong in their approach to misinformation and their response to Elon Musk's purchase of Twitter.
Emanating from America’s coastal progressive enclaves can be heard a mighty howling of despair in the wake of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter. This anguished dirge bemoans the assumed belief that a rich white man who describes himself as a “free speech absolutist” will enable Twitter to descend into a hotbed of white angst, extremism, and misinformation. In an interesting twist on Jack Nicholson’s famous outburst from A Few Good Men, they have convinced themselves that the American people can’t handle untruth on social media.
But before I address what the Left gets wrong about their beliefs regarding the dangers of misinformation, let’s establish the areas where they’re right.
It’s true that any platform or space deemed to be a “public square” must have a certain sense of decorum and basic guidelines and norms that keep things from descending into chaos. For example, in a typical conversation, there are certain assumed expectations for interaction and behavior. We have informal expectations for etiquette in phone calls and other forms of digital interaction such as text messaging and emails. There are social cues when sharing a meal, waiting in line, or in various forms of social interaction that we consider rude and inappropriate to ignore.
And often, we do enforce certain such expectations in the arenas of dialogue and debate. At a typical American town hall, we expect people to wait in line behind provided microphones and for those disrupting proceedings to get escorted from the building. Billboards and TV commercials are considered an essential aspect of the broader political town square, especially during campaign season. Yet, we have general agreement in our society regarding reasonable restrictions on what can be said and shown in these spaces.
In short, if social media platforms are to be part of our town square, they cannot be anything goes free-for-all spaces and reliably serve such a purpose. There must be general guidelines for engagement to facilitate substance and keep conversation in a realm conducive towards meaningful engagement for average citizens.
So, I agree with many on the Left on the general principle of content moderation. Social media platforms necessarily have to establish and uphold content policies. And these policies should be consistently and transparently enforced. But here’s where I disagree with much of the Left on this issue: I’m not talking about policing the truth.
The purpose of content moderation is to facilitate substantive conversation and debate. It’s to hedge in the extremes of behavior and rhetoric that distract from the forum. The truth should be left to the discernment of those participating in the forum. Fact-checking should occur in the debate itself, preferably by participants in the debate and not its facilitators.
As soon as any forum or platform utilizes the necessary function of content moderation to “pick winners and losers” in the discernment of truth and to dismiss or embrace factual assertions before a debate on merits has taken place, its very function as part of the town square is frustrated, and its credibility among those engaging in it is obliterated.
No one has a monopoly on the truth. We are all faced with the limits of our perspectives and are both hamstrung and unbound by the experiences and beliefs that establish those perspectives. Truth is often found, not in any individual assertion of it, but in comparison of perspectives as we seek to identify their common threads.
And, crucially, when someone’s perspective becomes filled with counter-factual observations and falsehoods, it is only in contrast to other perspectives that such attitudes can be corrected. When such perspectives are shut down and barred from the town square, it doesn’t erase them from existence. They go elsewhere, often to establish micro town squares built on their own assumptions and policed aggressively by their own sense of truth. Here they feed, unchallenged, on similarly misguided views and beliefs, growing more assertive in their deviance from and defiance of common sense and prudent analysis.
Misinformation is indeed dangerous and marginal views can and will corrupt political society. But the digital censorship that the Left demands as necessary to combat misinformation does not actually solve the problem, and it arguably worsens the situation. Misinformation must be confronted. Those who ascribe to it must be allowed to participate in the public square so that their marginal views can be made to submit to the cold light of reason in a free market of ideas.
The Left’s path solves nothing, and their travails over Elon Musk’s vision for Twitter are misplaced. Their path compounds the power of misinformation by forcing it to retreat to its own spaces where it can be sheltered from challenge and perpetuated among those who can avoid inquiry and objection. Misinformation cannot survive the cold light of reason, but it thrives in the dark spaces of groupthink and incestuous amplification.
I, personally, think that Twitter is a poor platform for functioning as a digital town square. It’s a short form platform for reflexive distribution of quick thoughts and images that uses an algorithm to sort users into common-minded pools of engagement.
Politics is a long-form topic and requires a functioning free market of ideas that spontaneously separates the wheat from the chafe through open interaction. This involves a pluralistic atmosphere of discussion and debate on well-thought arguments and presentations built on asserted facts and analysis. Functional politics requires open spaces for the meeting of minds, not safe spaces for the sheltering of minds.
Politics that revolve around Twitter engagement will remain centered on anecdotes and off-the-hip analysis channeled by algorithmic social sorting. In its present form, Twitter provides little more than groupthink and “red-meat” pandering over substance and discernment.
But Elon Musk seems determined to not only address Twitter’s shortcomings as a town square but has asserted a commitment to free speech principles he bases on a far more realistic understanding of how to address the dangers of misinformation than the Left’s impulsive desire to wield content moderation as a hammer in the battle over truth.
For this, we should wish him the best in his efforts. We should applaud him for wresting one of the major social media platforms from the grips of a culture determined in its belief that policing the truth is the answer to the dangers of misinformation. Judgment on truth belongs in the arena of discernment and debate, not in content moderation. These things are for the users of social media to decide. So, let’s thank Elon Musk for fighting for the users.