Technology And Speech: A Conundrum

Americans have always engaged in disinformation. Political foes have historically disparaged each other; activists of the Left and Right have used pamphlets and newspapers, then radio and television, to spread bile and bigotry. Those of us committed to the principles of free speech have argued that–whatever the damage done by propaganda and lies (Big and small), allowing government to censor the marketplace of ideas would be a greater danger. 

I recently posted a relatively lengthy defense of that belief, which I continue to firmly hold.

Nevertheless, It’s impossible to ignore the fact that today, technology–especially the Internet–has vastly increased the ability to disseminate lies, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda, and I suspect I am not the only free speech purist who worries about the growth of widely-used sources that enable–indeed, invite and encourage– inaccurate, malicious and hateful communication. 

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter (now “X”) is a prominent example. Musk dispensed with the site’s previous content moderation policies, invited Trump to return, and recently welcomed back the far-right Austrian who received donations from and communicated with the Christchurch terrorist before the 2019 attack. Since Musk purchased the social media site, such far right users have proliferated.

The founder of the so-called Identitarian Movement, Martin Sellner, who preaches the superiority of European ethnic groups, was banned from Twitter in 2020 under the former management along with dozens of other accounts linked to the movement amid criticism over the platform’s handling of extremist content.

He’s back.

As Max Boot recently wrote in the Washington Post, “X (formerly Twitter) has become a cesspool of hate speech and conspiracy-mongering.” 

The problem became especially acute following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel when the platform was flooded with antisemitic and anti-Muslim misinformation. It’s like watching a once-nice neighborhood go to seed, with well-maintained houses turning into ramshackle drug dens.

That deterioration of the neighborhood has been confirmed by organizations tracking digital bias:

The Center for Countering Digital Hate reported a surge of extremist content on X since Musk took over in 2022 and fired most of the platform’s content moderators. The center found tweets decrying “race mixing,” denying the Holocaust and praising Adolf Hitler. The thin-skinned tech mogul responded by filing suit; early indications are that the federal judge hearing the case is skeptical of X’s claims.

The focus of Boot’s article wasn’t on the Free Speech implications of bigotry spewed by widely-used social media platforms, but on the fact that taxpayers are essentially subsidizing this particular cesspool.

What galls me is that, as a taxpayer, I wind up subsidizing X’s megalomaniacal and capricious owner, Elon Musk. His privately held company SpaceX is a major contractor — to the tune of many billions of dollars — for the Defense DepartmentNASA and the U.S. intelligence community. He is also chief executive of Tesla, which benefits from generous government subsidies and tax credits to the electric-vehicle industry.

Musk needs to decide whether he wants to be the next Donald Trump Jr. (i.e., a major MAGA influencer) or the next James D. Taiclet (the little-known CEO of Lockheed Martin, the country’s largest defense contractor). Currently, Musk is trying to do both, and that’s not sustainable. He is presiding over a fire hose of falsehoods on X about familiar right-wing targets, from undocumented immigrants to “the woke mind virus” to President Biden … while reaping billions from Biden’s administration!


Musk is a “front and center” example of the conundrum posed by “Big Tech.” His obvious emotional/mental problems make it tempting to consider him a singular case, but his misuse of X in furtherance of his narcissism is simply a more vivid example of the problem, which is the ability of those who control massive platforms to distort the marketplace of ideas to an extent that has previously been impossible.


I have absolutely no idea what can or should be done to counter the threat to democracy, civic peace and reality that is posed by social media platforms and propaganda sites masquerading as “news.” Wiser heads than mine need to fashion regulations that require responsible moderation without infringing upon the genuine exchanges of opinion–even vile opinion– protected by the First Amendment. Figuring out how to walk that line is clearly beyond my pay grade.


One thing that government can do, however, is refrain from financing people who, like Elon Musk, are using our tax dollars to create division and foster bigotry. The First Amendment may protect his cesspool from sanctions, but it certainly doesn’t require financial support. As Boot concludes, Musk


 can espouse views that many Americans find abhorrent, or he can benefit from public largesse. He can’t do both — at least not indefinitely.


  1. X is a privately held company, so there are no government subsidies. His other companies are publicly held, and those have government contracts.

    Trump and others were censored from Twitter because of the influence of the state and federal Intelligence communities. Twitter and Facebook were both censored by the government. Google and Bing also manipulate search results and are getting hammered overseas, but not so much in the US.

    The most fantastic disinformation campaigns happen by legacy media and our government. They then get shared on social media and spread widely. Last night was a great example when our government quickly shared that ISIS attacked Moscow. The perps are caught and singing like canaries. They are mercenaries paid by someone via Telegram.

    Hardly anybody shares legacy media on X anymore, and nobody believes them. Without their loyal advertisers, they’d be out of business. X almost went out of business when Musk made a Jewish slur. He traveled to Israel to kiss Bibi’s ring, and all is well. It’s embarrassing. The Israeli lobby is a notorious liar. They spread the most disinformation, as do the politicians. They all receive thousands from the Israeli lobby.

    What can be done about it? Nothing. We don’t want the government censoring social media because it cancels both the right and left, leaving the legacy media pushing the government’s narrative of manufacturing consent. TikTok can’t be censored now, so The House voted on the ban. After the fact, the politicians are trying to save face, but it’s not working for them. They should have gone through a debate and gathered public input, like a democratic procedure. Israel hates TikTok because it’s too woke, and most users support Palestinians. The ADL has a problem with that, so censorship is coming.

  2. “X” has a value of $12.5 billion right now. Musk payed $40 billion. He’s driving the company into ruin, it just takes longer than we’d like to see that happen. I can’t imagine why anyone would pay to advertise in that neighborhood. But I do know, just like the Crown Royal billboards in all of cities poorest neighborhoods, there are always some advertiser with low morals willing to rent the cheap space. I’ve never been on in twitter or X, but it seems the real value right now is to see how totally free speech with no moderation destroys the market place of ideas.

    I don’t agree the government should punish Musk by cutting itself off from valuable services. The real failure is that one person can accumulate so much wealth through the profits of one or two companies without the government getting their reasonable share in taxes.

  3. Throughout history culture has resisted change while mankind’s curious minds explored the frontiers of knowledge just because we could and can.

    From that came tools which individuals choose for good and bad.

    A good that came from the use of all of those are our lives in splendid comfort and safety.

    Our culture adapted over time and now we are angry at everyone and fearful of everything because of what we could lose.

    We live immersed in advertising with its never ending message that we each are entitled to even more comfort and safety and we could also lose it all in a flash as all of those with less look at us with envy (the advertising tells us).

    Perhaps the tools aren’t the problem as much as greed is.

    Capitalism is powered by greed. Regulation is necessary to steer and control it but greed has so infiltrated regulators who are skilled at advertising that we, the people, have lost control.

  4. Personally, I’d like to see control of AI. Possibly by requiring that any videos or pictures that are created using it have a distinguishable mark, that can be found easily.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how the EU decides what to do to regulate social media sites.

    One thing that truly bothers me about private contractors using the government’s resources popped up when Musk intervened in a Ukrainian strike on Russian Naval ships, by turning off access to “Starlink” . If he’s able to do that, then he’s able to do a lot more. It seems that we have given too much power to an erratic, possibly dangerous man.

  5. my small town chats are getting interesting here,not in content,more like lack of basis knowlege. NoDak is a hotbed of pure lack of context.seems the latest gripe is those entitlements. by those who are within a decade of getting them. im working in a automotive/repair/local parts outlet/ and beer time after 4. the conversations get er,lively. im middle age here,at 69. seems the youngers prefer to push their no research/context/argument against whatever to employ the “im right”because everyone else told me,or,like above subject matter has been influenced by whatever social headline agrees with his(yes its a closed circle of males) mulitfaceted small town existance. over the past 4 months its become a show of how bad their search for any answer to any subject, has only been led by his bigoted next,kin,neighbor etc. yes social media is involved,focused to the same closed silos. we came into a conversation of trumps lies and the news media who supprt them. after their a slam or two on socalled liberal media and their lies.(cnn etc) mmmm, seems even people here never knew there was a fairness doctrin in media,until reagan made sure there wasnt.ive mede a few conversations rather uncomforable for the majority.being im a in your face kinda man ,and I wont allow ignorance to betray our democracy, we settle in for some facts. they are taken well. the shop has a high school student who is a after school mechanic, is getting a lesson in what the real world is like outside this silo. hes getting into a economics class in school.ill be following his curriculum to see if NoDaks is going to send him into a closed mind of credit is the answer. hes a avid listener to the living wage,and the unhoarding of the untra wealthys stash. seems that having such money in a free economy,would make main street a better place,instead of haves,and have nots. all together,they never thought of living wage that they can save something for retirement,and support thier own dusty streets. all that has been lost in todays conversation by the above subject matter and whos driving a bigoted world online to keep us wishes.

  6. Before the birth of AI, we were aware that humanity had already outpaced its capacity to adopt to new social situations. We do not, really, even multi-task, but unknowably switch back and forth between tasks, albeit quickly. And we are terribly vulnerable to buying into garbage that reinforces our biases, as in “Ah, it’s those people, I knew it!”
    Yes, we do need some sort of “tag” to announce that what one is about to see/hear, has been manufactured!

  7. The growing idea that free speech is the freedom to lie is fallacy that endangers the society.
    We used to hear the limitations of it in this phrase – Lying is not permitted in a crowded theater. And the Trumpists have taken that to its logical conclusion with the Jan 6th ‘demonstration of patriots’. See how a little lie is laughable, and then just grows & grows until it overwhelms truth? And now, thanks to an antiquated electoral system, it still has veracity.
    Other great cultures have collapsed because of things of a lesser nature, so be warned that everything has its limits and the tolerance of lies in the name of ‘free speech’ is one of them.

  8. It seems to me that this era of compromised truth and knowledge is due to the combination of Trump and millions of US voters uncomfortable with this era because it’s different (as all eras are compared to former eras).

    Change is not new, Trump is.

  9. I think the way to combat egregious, harmful lies is through the courts. Dominion voting machines won. E. Jean Carroll won. The Sandy Hook patents won. Yes, it’s a laborious process but can be well worth the effort. Maybe we need to think about ways to make it easier for those harmed by such lies to get redress. If the serial liars knew they were likely to be held accountable, it might give them pause. And I’ve never understood why public figures are so vulnerable.

  10. It seems we have some interlocking problems here.

    First, rules of the road. We don’t want “Catcher in the Rye” removed from libraries, but in the ’60s, they did remove a “American history” book from the Detroit public schools. I don’t think many would disagree with pulling that “textbook” from the schools.

    I was subjected to that book in the fifth grade. It was a pre-MAGA, Manifest Destiny meant that First Nations had to leave or die, freed slaves were too stupid to fend for themselves, textbook. Of course, nobody in my class, including the teacher, believed any of it, except for the dates of events. Still…

    The issue is how to draw the lines.

    I am reminded of a controversy in Detroit about 50 years ago. TV news always had commentaries offered by different individuals from the ones presenting the news, and clearly stated something like “and now a commentary by”. A local news anchor, who aspired to national status began to offer commentaries, still marked by on-the-screen disclaimers, but he was the one delivering the news. Some thought that this was not appropriate.

    Now we have an entire network (several actually) of mixed lies and commentary parading as “news”. We have to think about facts versus opinions and how we can properly separate them.

    The second issue is how we allow billionaires to buy up access to information conduits, or to own them as a near monopoly. It gives them too much unelected power. The “invisible hand” is invisible because it doesn’t exist. If anything, capitalistic greed spurs dissension and the spreading of lies. They compete to reach the bottom because it makes money.

    The third issue, a more generalized version of the second, is how we now rely on the private sector to control our every more complex lives, from making foreign policy, as Peggy pointed out, to controlling outer space, and more. Again, I link this to the extreme view that money is the ONLY measure and that common good is for fools and commies.

    I will quickly add a fourth problem. We always trust the “free market” and regulate AFTER the damage has been done. It’s a bad habit.

  11. We’re living in entirely novel times. I guess every generation can say that, but current technological and political developments, and the way they operate in tandem, have led us to what strikes me as an extreme instance of “novel.” For one thing, the public square used to be a truly public place. Everyone pontificating was subject to such public sanctions as derision or even institutionalization, and none of them packed heat on their hip.

    I agree with Steven Smith’s observation that what’s currently happening is tantamount to “lying in a crowded theater” and that some restrictions in “free” speech are warranted. The problem that proposition makes obvious, though, is encapsulated by the question of who decides what is “lying” (restricted) and what isn’t. At this point, I’m not sure it matters. A shockingly large minority of our citizenry is already divorced from reality and doesn’t know and can’t determine veracity, nor do they trust facts or those who promote them. Bad actors in power haven’t been constrained by truthfulness or veracity for decades now. They’ve already created an “alternate reality” with their “alternative facts.” I don’t know that legislation restricting provable lies would matter as anything but a propaganda tool to justify quelling their opponents’ speech; they’ve not been showing the slightest regard for laws or the Constitution anyway. And if the authoritarian rule I dread is instituted, whether or not we remain committed to free speech, they won’t.

  12. It isn’t lying, per se, that is banned in a crowded theater; It crying “FIRE” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. The reason is because it can cause panic among the patrons that results in injuries and possible loss of life.

    Thus, the proper concept is that it needs to be against the law to promulgate ideas or concepts that are likely to cause panic or other dangerous actions among the society at large. The problem is with who, or whom, gets to decide which ideas or concepts fall under such a rule. Donald Trump, Mike Braun, Jim Banks, Todd Rokita, Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan, Antonin Scalia (thankfully deceased), etc.

    I think that the problem is obvious.

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