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.


Someone To Blame

One of the most memorable scenes from any movie I’ve seen was one that occurred toward the conclusion of the 1995 film An American President. During a press conference, the current President (played by Michael Douglas) calls out his opponent–an eerily pre-MAGA character named Bob Rumson–by saying

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character…

That scene is a vivid example of the way in which art–in this case, film–can illuminate life. Nearly 30 years later, the scene seems eerily prescient. 

In the movie, it was Bob Rumson. Today, it’s Elon Musk.

After Musk purchased Twitter– now renamed X– expressions of bigotry and anti-Semitism on the site increased significantly. Thanks to Musk’s chaotic administration, the number of advertisers and users had already been steadily dwindling, but advertiser departures exploded last week, after Musk endorsed a post blaming “Jewish communities” for pushing “dialectical hatred against whites” and promoting the white supremacist conspiracy theory that “western Jewish populations” are behind the “flooding” of countries with “hordes of minorities.”

Musk tweeted “You have said the actual truth.” 

As a result, a stream of prominent brands halted their advertising. The departures included Disney, Paramount, NBCUniversal, Comcast, Lionsgate and Warner Bros. Discovery, the parent of CNN. Rather than responding to the exodus by apologizing, or by vowing to improve content mediation, Musk doubled down, blaming the Anti-Defamation League–and the Jews–for the platform’s problems and its greatly diminished value.

In true Trump fashion, Musk has sued Media Matters for reporting that company ads often appeared next to anti-Semitic content, asserting that the organization had somehow falsified the data. And Musk is threatening to sue the Anti-Defamation League, for daring to publish research documenting a striking increase in hate on the platform since Musk took it over.

Elon Musk issued a series of statements in which he has blamed secret manipulation by a Jewish organization for the destruction of the X platform, which was once called Twitter. Saying the Anti-Defamation League was the “primary” reason for falling ad revenue at X, Musk first threatened, then later seemed to promise to sue for damages.

That’s right. After months in which Musk has supported racist rants; encouraged hate speech; elevated literal Nazi propaganda; fired every Twitter employee in Brazil on suspicion of being too liberal; fired the entire company press office and the entire company communications department; decimated the team responsible for content moderation; terrified advertisers with chaos, irresponsibility, and perpetuating racism; and thrown away global brand recognition by renaming the whole platform to indulge a personal whim, Musk has put his finger on the real issue.

It’s the Jews.

Shades of Bob Rumson…

Permit me to suggest that the “real issue” with Twitter/X is a man-child with way too much money and an ego that won’t permit him to admit his own inadequacies and mistakes. 

Mmm…sounds familiar.

When you think about it, that clip from An American President applies far more widely than to Musk. It perfectly describes not just Trump, but most contemporary Republican candidates and officeholders. Today’s GOP policy-free “platform” can be entirely summed up by those same two strategies: playing on voters’ fears, and telling those voters who they should blame for whatever troubles them–immigrants, Jews, Blacks. It’s what MAGA is all about.

In Indiana, it’s the modus operandi of posturing incompetents like Todd Rokita, Mike Braun and Jim Banks. 

I guess next year we’ll see if that’s really the way to win elections… sure doesn’t seem to be the way to manage a successful social media platform…


Elon Musk And The Public/Private Dilemma

Alexandra Petri recently had a gloriously snarky opinion piece in the Washington Post,comparing Elon Musk to her toddler. Titled “Things both my toddler and Elon Musk do that are signs of genius, apparently” it included things like “Constantly yelling at people to change things that cannot be changed” and “When presented with slow, patient explanations of why things are not possible, just screams louder;” and “Likes to seize nice things and ruin them because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what they are for.”

And of course, “Wants to be center of attention at all times.”

It’s disturbing enough when a man-child (“man-toddler?”) has enough money to buy and control what had been a significant mode of communication, but its terrifying to discover that this petulant child has the power to interfere in matters of global war and peace. As multiple media outlets have reported, Musk’s SpaceX refused to allow Ukraine to use its Starlink internet services to launch an attack on Russia last September–a decision that undoubtedly prolonged the conflict and benefitted Russia.

Musk has defended his decision as an effort to prevent possible nuclear war. Whatever your opinion of that excuse, or his action, the episode raises a profound question: should a single private citizen–even one less mercurial and self-aggrandizing than Musk– have the power to decide such questions? 

We live in a very weird time. Government evidently gets to decide what I do with my uterus, but not how the U.S. will assist in the defense of its allies….

I know this will come as a shock to several self-satisfied “captains of industry,” but having a lot of money does not necessarily translate into superior knowledge or nuanced understanding. Musk is actually a poster boy for that disconnect–as David French (who spent years as a First Amendment lawyer) recently wrote in the New York Times,

Despite his loud and frequent protestations, Elon Musk may be the worst ambassador for free speech in America. To understand why, it’s necessary to look at X, the website formerly known as Twitter, which he owns and rules over like the generalissimo of a banana republic….

Instead of creating a platform for free speech, Musk created a platform for Musk’s speech — or, more precisely, Musk’s power. First, he has demonstrated that he’s perfectly willing to take action against people or entities that challenge him or challenge X. As my friends at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (where I used to serve as president) have detailed, he has used his authority to suspend accounts, to throttle (or limit the traffic of) competitors and reportedly to boost his own voice.

As French quite accurately notes, rather than making Twitter (now X) into a free speech paradise, Musk has turned it into the generalissimo’s playpen, where the generalissimo’s values shape everything about the place.

X is Musk’s company, and he can set whatever speech rules he wishes. But do not be fooled. When Musk defends his decisions by shouting “free speech,” I’m reminded of the immortal words of Inigo Montoya in the movie “The Princess Bride”: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Musk isn’t promoting liberty; he’s using his power to privilege many of the worst voices in American life.

Power and privilege. Those two words are–or should be– at the heart of the public/private distinction. Once again, we come back to that fundamental question: what is government for? What functions are properly left to the private sector–to the individual, to the marketplace, or to the wide variety of nonprofit and voluntary organizations–and which must be exercised by a democratically-elected government? 

Right now, that essential inquiry is mired in a host of very serious concerns about the declining health of democratic decision-making, and the increasingly obvious effort of MAGA Republicans to turn America into an autocratic, White Christian Nationalist state. If they are successful, American government will no longer be legitimate under any definition of that term, and the allocation of power between those privileged by the regime and the rest of us will be moot.

If we do manage to salvage democratic governance–if voters come out in 2024 and deal a sufficiently robust defeat to the MAGA Confederates still fighting the Civil War–we will need to turn our attention to the necessary divisions between public and private power.

Governments can and do make grievous mistakes, but that is no reason to allow individuals–even individuals considerably more mature and informed than Elon Musk–to usurp decision-making in realms that must be subject to public accountability.


Lying As Free Speech

I really have to stop reading the news. It’s bad for my mental health.

Just recently, I’ve learned that Wisconsin’s Republican legislature plans to reverse April’s election of a state Supreme Court Judge–who won by eleven points–by impeaching her. (Grounds to be concocted later…)

DeSantis appointed the co-founder of Moms for Liberty to the state’s ethics commission.

Elon Musk threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League for reporting on the steep rise of anti-Semitic content on “X.” Musk claims that it is the ADL’s reports, not his wack-a-doodle management of the platform formerly known as Twitter, that is responsible for the steep drop in companies willing to advertise on the site.

And I see that Florida–which has been waging war against “woke” (i.e. accurate) education–is being joined by Oklahoma in authorizing the use of PragerU propaganda in public school classrooms.

The Guardian recently provided an in-depth look at PragerU.

A rightwing media outlet promoting climate-crisis denialism and other “anti-woke” staples to young students and adults via social media has become a fundraising Goliath, raking in close to $200m from 2018 to 2022 with big checks from top conservative donors, tax records reveal.

Founded in 2009 by the conservative talkshow host Dennis Prager, the eponymous Prager University Foundation is not an accredited education organization. But via online media its PragerU Kids division has become a key tool in spreading false claims to young people with short videos aimed at undercutting widely accepted science that climate crisis disasters are accelerating due, largely, to fossil-fuel usage.

PragerU’s influence in pushing false narratives about climate change and other far-right shibboleths such as airbrushing the brutal reality of American slavery gained ground when the Florida board of education in July gave the green light to using its videos and other materials in classrooms, a move that PragerU is trying to capitalize on in Texas and other states. On Tuesday, Oklahoma’s school system also approved the use of PragerU’s materials.

On its website, PragerU claims to be the “world’s leading conservative non-profit, focused on changing minds through the creative use of digital media.”

In other words, through lying. They call it “edutainment.”

The site’s funders include the Right-wing’s “usual suspects”–  oil and gas billionaire brothers Farris and Dan Wilks ($8m over the past decade), the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the National Christian Charitable Foundation and (predictably) the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation

PragerU cartoons and videos include one about Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America, which has Columbus explaining that slavery isn’t so bad.

“Slavery is as old as time, and has taken place in every corner of the world, even amongst the people I just left. Being taken as a slave is better than being killed,” the cartoon Columbus said. “I don’t see the problem.”

Other PragerU videos about the climate crisis make various false claims: they depict solar and wind power as environmentally dangerous, liken environmental activists to Nazis and claim recent record-breaking heat is just part of the natural weather cycle.

What truly drives me up the wall is the emerging “conservative” argument that the First Amendment protects such unconscionable lying.

In an extraordinary display of chutzpah, Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, and fellow Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have accused Democrats of violating the First Amendment rights of election deniers.

In a report titled “The Weaponization of CISA: How a ‘Cybersecurity’ Agency Colluded With Big Tech and ‘Disinformation’ Partners to Censor Americans,” they argue that

the First Amendment recognizes that no person or entity has a monopoly on the truth, and that the “truth” of today can quickly become the “misinformation” of tomorrow. Labeling speech “misinformation” or “disinformation” does not strip it of its First Amendment protection. As such, under the Constitution, the federal government is strictly prohibited from censoring Americans’ political speech.

These people have no shame….

These civil libertarian claims of unconstitutional suppression of speech come from the same Republican Party that is leading the charge to censor the teaching of what it calls divisive concepts about race, the same party that expelled two Democratic members of the Tennessee state legislature who loudly called for more gun control after a school shooting, the same party that threatens to impeach a liberal judge in North Carolina for speaking out about racial bias, the same party that has aided and abetted book banning in red states across the country.

The linked column focuses upon the GOP’s hypocrisy, but that hypocrisy’s effectiveness relies on Americans’ widespread ignorance about the operation of the First Amendment.

Free Speech doesn’t allow you to engage in defamation or commit fraud with impunity; it doesn’t allow  science teachers to substitute creationism for evolution.

It does, however, protect the ADL from Musk’s anti-Semitic  threats….


Diagnosis And Prescription

In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, David French shared his theory that the recent, astonishing number of sign-ups to Meta’s Threads occurred–at least in part– “because Elon Musk did to Twitter what Donald Trump did to America.”

Not that Twitter was so great before Musk acquired it–as French quite accurately notes,  understanding what Musk did to Twitter doesn’t require an exaggeration of Twitter’s virtues before Musk, “any more than we should exaggerate the health of our body politic before Trump.”

Even before Musk, Twitter had become a toxic force in American culture, so toxic that I wrote last year it might be beyond repair. The site lurched from outrage to outrage, and the constant drumbeat of anger and crisis was bad for the soul.
So, yes, when Musk purchased Twitter, it needed help. Instead, he made it worse. Much worse.

For all of Twitter’s many flaws, it was still by far the best social media app for following breaking news, especially if you knew which accounts to follow. It was also the best app for seeing the thoughts of journalists, politicians and scholars in real time, sometimes to our detriment. It wasn’t the American town square — there are still many places where we talk to one another — but it was one of our town squares. Twitter mattered.

French enumerates the numerous decisions that have made the platform much worse–decisions that rather clearly rested on Musk’s flawed understanding of its strengths and weaknesses.

French’s essay makes a point that is applicable not just to the marketing of a social media platform, but to policy–and for that matter, human decision-making–more generally. As he says,

The new right’s theory of culture and power is fundamentally flawed, and both Trump and Musk are now cautionary tales for any conservatives who are willing to learn.

According to French,

The new right’s theory of power is based on a model of domination and imposition, and it just doesn’t work. In the new right’s telling, the story of contemporary American culture is the story of progressive elite capture of the nation’s most important institutions — from the academy to big business to pop culture to the “deep state” — followed by its remorseless use of that institutional power to warp and distort American values.

And what’s the new right’s response to its theory of the left’s use of power? Fight fire with fire. Take over institutions. They tried to cancel us? Cancel them. They bullied us? Bully them.

The “cautionary tale” to which French alludes is actually pretty simple: in order to fix a problem, you need to diagnose it properly. Medical personnel understand that–duh!– if the disease being treated isn’t the disease from which you’re suffering, you won’t be cured. If a social dysfunction is rooted in X and policymakers insist upon addressing it by attacking Y, the likely result will just be additional dysfunction.

That axiom is simple, but of course, its application can be complicated. The actual roots of many social problems are complex. That said, a significant cause of America’s political divisions can be found in the wildly different diagnoses of the country’s problems offered by the GOP cult and by more thoughtful Americans.

The cult is convinced that America’s problems are rooted in a modernity that has discarded “tradition,” by which they mean the dominance of White Christian males. The cult’s frantic efforts to outlaw abortion and its attacks on efforts to increase diversity, inclusion and equity grow out of that diagnosis. The most recent example: House amendments to the bill funding the military– funding that passed only after the far Right attached provisions limiting abortion rights, gender transition procedures and diversity training in the armed forces.

When a diagnosis–an explanation of causation–is rooted in fantasy, the medicine prescribed is likely to make the condition worse. Gun violence won’t be ameliorated by making more guns available to “good guys;” the working poor won’t be helped by reducing taxes on presumed “job creators;” history won’t disappear if we pass laws against teaching it…

What happens when a sizable portion of the polity misdiagnoses reality–when the “medicine” imposed by people in power is exactly the wrong prescription? We’ve seen the result. As French put it, a government that needed reform “encountered a politician who broke far more than he built. A social media platform that needed repair was purchased by its most prominent troll. The results were predictable.”

We inhabit a complicated world. It isn’t always easy to locate the roots of our problems–but government by people whose diagnoses and prescriptions are  reliably simple and just as reliably wrong won’t cure what ails us.