A free media dedicated to free expression

We’ve passed through two political eras of social media, and the purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk starts a third one.

A decade ago, social-media companies were hailed in the tech press and across the mainstream media as forces for progress. Twitter was assisting the Green Revolution in Iran. The 2012 Obama campaign’s vast data-harvesting across Facebook “blew through an alarm that their engineers hadn’t planned for or knew about,” according to accounts at the time. Silicon Valley and the data mavens at progressives’ campaigns were hailed as geniuses.

And then Donald Trump started tweeting. After the 2016 shocks of Brexit and Trump’s election, social-media companies were cast as villains. Watching the full weight of the political world fall onto the Valley, historian Niall Ferguson warned, “Make no mistake, 2016 will never happen again.” Social-media companies were blamed for spreading “misinformation.” Conservative-aligned data firms who had done just a fraction of the data-harvesting done by Obama 2012 were portrayed as part of shadowy, privacy-threatening conspiracies. President Obama personally scolded Mark Zuckerberg. We were told that Russia used these companies to hack the brains of suggestible yokels, and that only wise superintendence of social-media conversation by progressives could save the world from fascism. All social-media companies took the lesson and began hiring new fact-checkers and censors out of the progressive media. Facebook brought an arch-Remainer and anti-populist politician on as its head of global affairs.

The result was a moral panic about misinformation, and the creation of unofficial partnerships between government agencies and Silicon Valley’s internal “safety” boards. As we discovered during the pandemic, the government began suggesting what kind of tweets and posts they wanted to see. Right-wing rhetorical bomb throwers like Milo Yiannopoulos were permanently banned. Discussion of the Hunter Biden laptop story in the run-up to the 2020 election was suppressed. After January 6, a Twitter ban came for Donald Trump. Speech codes have been used to force figures like Jordan Peterson off the site. But when the satire-blind illiterates at Twitter’s anti-misinformation crew went after the Christian humor publication the Babylon Bee, they goaded billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk into action.

On one level, this is not surprising. The billionaires of the tech world, like other new classes of wealth before them, are acquiring media empires. Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. Laurene Powell Jobs bought the Atlantic. Musk bought the platform where the journalists at those publications hang out and spontaneously converge upon and create the conventional wisdom.

Musk is certainly no conservative icon, and we are especially unnerved by his close business ties to China, one of the world’s most oppressive enemies of free speech. But there is reason to wish Musk well. Musk is an instinctive, not a doctrinaire, libertarian. He is a champion of free speech in an age when progressives associate free expression with harm and oppression. He has already cleaned house at the top of the company, firing the CEO, the CFO, and executive Vijaya Gadde, who was head of legal policy, trust and safety. She is the one who made the call to ban Trump.

The era of progressive superintendence ironically began with the spread of disinformation, Buzzfeed’s release of the infamous Trump dossier. It proceeded to retard discussion about the origins of Covid-19, suppressing information about the disease and mitigation efforts that turned out to be true. And it memory-holed news stories that were true (the Hunter Biden laptop). Progressive censorship failed on every level.

Just as we hope that a future Republican Congress does a thorough investigation of our nation’s public-health response, we hope Musk’s takeover of Twitter brings about an audit of this era’s social-media policies.

A republic dedicated to liberty needs not just a free media, but media institutions that are themselves dedicated to free expression. In Musk’s Twitter, we may have that once again.

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