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.


Bumper-Stickers And Tweets

I have previously noted that I consider Ezra Klein one of the most thoughtful and insightful observers of American government and society.  A recent essay for the New York Times, reminded me why I came to that conclusion.

Klein–like many others in the Chattering Classes–was considering the chaos created at Twitter  by Elon Musk (aka the “Chief Twit”). He began by pointing out that the handwringing over losing a “town square” is misdirected, because Twitter and its ilk are not analogous to town squares. Permit me to quote his reasoning at some length:

This metaphor is wrong on three levels.

First, there isn’t, can’t be and shouldn’t be a “global town square.” The world needs many town squares, not one. Public spaces are rooted in the communities and contexts in which they exist. This is true, too, for Twitter, which is less a singular entity than a digital multiverse. What Twitter is for activists in Zimbabwe is not what it is for gamers in Britain.

Second, town squares are public spaces, governed in some way by the public. That is what makes them a town square rather than a square in a town. They are not the playthings of whimsical billionaires. They do not exist, as Twitter did for so long, to provide returns to shareholders. (And as wild as Musk’s reign has already been, remember that he tried to back out of this deal, and Twitter’s leadership, knowing he neither wanted the service nor would treat it or its employees with care, forced it through to ensure that executives and shareholders got their payout.) A town square controlled by one man isn’t a town square. It’s a storefront, an art project or possibly a game preserve.

Third, what matters for a polity isn’t the mere existence of a town square but the condition the townspeople are in when they arrive. Town squares can host debates. They can host craft fairs. They can host brawls. They can host lynchings. Civilization does not depend on a place to gather. It depends on what happens when people gather.

Klein references the lofty goals that accompanied the creation of these social media platforms. They were going to enable democratic deliberation, allow people to connect across barriers of ethnicity, geography, religion. As he points out, the predicted improvements haven’t arrived–democracies are weaker, not stronger, Humans are no wiser, no kinder, no happier.

The reason, he says, that so few aspects of our common lives have gotten better– and so many have arguably gotten worse–is the role played by these platforms in diminishing “our capacity for attention and reflection. And it is the quality of our attention and reflection that matters most.”

In a recent paper, Benjamin Farrer, a political scientist at Knox College in Illinois, argues that we have mistaken the key resource upon which democracy, and perhaps civilization, depends. That resource is attention. But not your attention or my attention. Our attention. Attention, in this sense, is a collective resource; it is the depth of thought and consideration a society can bring to bear on its most pressing problems. And as with so many collective resources, from fresh air to clean water, it can be polluted or exhausted.

He compares this reduction in collective attention to “the tragedy of the commons.”

Farrer argues that our collective attention is like a public pasture: It is valuable, it is limited, and it is being depleted. Everyone from advertisers to politicians to newspapers to social media giants wants our attention. The competition is fierce, and it has led to more sensationalism, more outrageous or infuriating content, more algorithmic tricks, more of anything that might give a brand or a platform or a politician an edge, even as it leaves us harried, irritable and distracted.

Klein notes that Twitter, especially, makes it easy to discuss difficult issues poorly. Complex matters are reduced to bumper-sticker memes. The algorithm that determines what you see takes its cues from likes and retweets, and the quote tweet function encourages mockery rather than conversation.

As Klein says, Twitter has facilitated the growth of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. It has allowed socialists to get a new hearing in American politics .It has also given new life to the racist right. “Put simply, Twitter’s value is how easy it makes it to talk. Its cost is how hard it makes it to listen.”

The Internet has enabled immensely productive collaborations–Klein singles out Wikipedia as an example–but social media is arguably a different animal–one Klein believes is in decline. I’m not sure about that. Humans have a longing for connectivity.

But surely we can do better than substituting bumper sticker slogans for dialogue.


Who’s Grooming?

The public expression of bigotry and hatred is evidently cyclical. The election of Donald Trump gave racists permission to voice sentiments that had previously been banished from polite company; that permission has since extended to an eruption of anti-Semitism and homophobia.

Until Elon Musk bought Twitter, much of that vitriol was confined online to the “dark web” and a sprinkling of small social media platforms serving communities of bigots. Musk has now invited them back, making it more difficult to avoid encountering the seamy underworld populated by these angry and hateful people.

There have always been fabrications shared among people needing to justify their prejudices–against Jews, there was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and a variety of blood libels. More recently, attacks against LGBTQ people have been focused on hysteria over so-called “grooming”–accusations that echo old libels about gay pedophilia.

Suddenly, drag queen story hours have been re-imagined as preludes to child sexual abuse.

Salon recently reported on an incident that reflects this effort to paint gay people and their allies as “groomers”–and the willingness of GOP politicians to jump on that bandwagon.

Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, falsely accused Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., of saying that “pedophilia isn’t a crime” when Porter actually said that LGBTQ people have been wrongly branded on social media as “groomers” and “pedophiles.”

The exchange between Porter and Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, came during a Congressional hearing held to listen to survivors of the Club Q shooting and other activists, who testified that anti-LGBTQ violence was being encouraged by hateful right-wing rhetoric.

HRC had reported on  “the 500 most viewed, most influential tweets that identified LGBTQ people as so-called ‘groomers.'”

“The ‘groomer’ narrative is an age-old lie to position LGBTQ+ people as a threat to kids,” Porter said. “And what it does is deny them access to public spaces, it stokes fear, and can even stoke violence.”

Porter went on to ask why Twitter allows posts calling LGBTQ+ people “groomers,” since it presumably has a “hateful content” policy; Robinson responded that while community guidelines exist, platforms also need to hold users accountable to those guidelines. Twitter  clearly isn’t doing so.

“[T]his allegation of ‘groomer’ and of ‘pedophile,’ it is alleging that a person is criminal somehow, and engaged in criminal acts, merely because of their identity, their sexual orientation, their gender identity,” Porter said. “So this is clearly prohibited under Twitter’s content. Yet you found hundreds of these posts on the platform.”

If anything about HRC’s report could be considered “good news,” it was a finding that a very small group is driving this homophobic effort. The bad news is their attacks are reaching millions of people.

Just ten people drove 66% of impressions for the 500 most viewed hateful “grooming” tweets — including Gov. Ron DeSantis’s press secretary Christina Pushaw, extremist members of Congress like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and pro-Trump activists like “Libs of TikTok” founder Chaya Raichik.

The report found that posts from the 10 people alone reached more than 48 million views, and the top 500 most influential “grooming” tweets altogether were seen 72 million times.

In tweets by Jackson and Libs of TikTok, the exchange between Porter and Robinson was deliberately and falsely reported as Porter saying that pedophilia “isn’t a crime.”

Jackson further amplified the falsehood and tweeted: “Katie Porter just said that pedophilia isn’t a crime, she said it’s an ‘identity.’ THIS IS THE EMBODIMENT OF EVIL! The sad thing is that this woman isn’t the only VILE person pushing for pedophilia normalization. This is what progressives believe!”

As despicable as this Rightwing effort to blame the nation’s troubles on “those people”–gays, Blacks, Jews, immigrants, progressives–these attempts at misdirection aren’t new.  Would-be authoritarians, lacking any positive agenda (the GOP hasn’t even bothered to produce a party platform lately), fall back to inculcating fear and repeating a tine-tested message: if your life isn’t going the way you want it to, it’s the fault of [fill in your targeted demographic.]

Ignore us. Look at the shiny object.

Unfortunately, there really is “grooming” going on. Those campaigning to paint “the other” as dangerous, nefarious and unAmerican are the ones grooming young people and those who don’t know any better–teaching them that differences are threatening, that they are victims, and that the problems they face are never their fault or the fault of the people who look and pray like they do.

As a witness at that hearing testified, that hateful lesson–“grooming” children to become bigots– evidently requires attacking someone in a wig reading “Red Fish, Blue Fish” to a group of children at a library.

I am so tired of these people!


The Fox Effect

There’s clearly a lot that could be said about former President Trump’s lunch with one full-fledged Neo-Nazi and and one wanna-be Nazi, and most of it has been said or written. I won’t add my two cents to the reactions, except to say that I agree with the two most common ones: Trump’s anti-Semitism is disgusting but hardly a surprise to anyone who follows the news even superficially; and the most telling element of this whole sordid story was the lack of pushback–or even comment–from most Republicans.

Far and away the best comment I’ve come across, and the impetus for this post, was an observation by the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah.

Everyone agrees that Nick Fuentes should not be having dinner with former president Donald Trump. He’s much better suited to be a host on Fox News.

The Daily Show followed up with an absolutely devastating “mash up” of speeches by Nick Fuentes, the Neo-Nazi, and various Fox News personalities, including  its most reliable and prominent bigot, Tucker Carlson. You really need to click through and watch it, and then consider the effect of Fox’s poison on its (largely elderly) audience.

There is a reason President Biden has identified Fox as one of the most destructive forces in the world, and Rupert Murdock as the most dangerous man in America. 

As the linked report shows, four elements make Fox News a” uniquely damaging part of the American news landscape: its strength on the political right, the demonstrated way in which it shapes its viewers’ beliefs, its grip on Republican power and the views of its leadership.”

A national poll conducted by he Washington Post and the University of Maryland looked at where people with varying political ideologies get their news about politics and government. Researchers found that  Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents consulted a reasonably wide variety of essentially mainstream sources. At least three out of ten of that group identified CNN, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, NPR, the Times, and/or The Post as  their main sources of news.

Among most Republicans, though, only two sources were identified: local television and Fox News.

Cable-news viewership skews toward demographics that are more Republican in the first place, and CNN and MSNBC are fighting for a similar base of viewers — viewers who also partake of news from other outlets. Fox News’s strength with 43 percent of the country (the percentage that is Republican or Republican-leaning independent, according to Gallup) gives it a distinct advantage in ratings.

Most Americans don’t care about ratings, of course. So it’s important to put this in a more useful context: Fox News has a larger audience than its competitors — an audience that is largely politically homogeneous. And new research reinforces that this homogeneity is not solely a function of Republicans choosing Fox News but of the network filtering what it shows its viewers.

In other words, Fox chooses what it presents as “news”–and what it omits.

Another recent study paid  a group of regular Fox viewers to watch CNN, then compared  how those viewers understood news events with how a control group of Fox News viewers understood them. The study found “large effects on attitudes and policy preferences about COVID-19” and in “evaluations of Donald Trump and Republican candidates and elected officials.”

Participants in the experiment even grew to recognize the way in which Fox News presents reality: “group participants became more likely to agree that if Donald Trump made a mistake, Fox News would not cover it — i.e., that Fox News engages in partisan coverage filtering.”

Researchers also found that much of what Fox News did show was exaggerated or untrue.

There is a growing body of research confirming that Fox is a propaganda outlet serving the GOP, and not a real news organization–a conclusion brilliantly supported in the Daily Show mash-up.

To belabor the point: where people get their news matters–which explains the considerable concern  generated by Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. In pursuit of his profound misunderstanding of the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause,  Musk has opened the Twitter floodgates–the frequency of racist tweets and hate speech has grown significantly. 

Twitter has thus joined Fox in normalizing bigotry and incivility. Those of us who were already worried that Twitter was shortening attention spans and increasing Americans’ tendency to substitute bumper-sticker memes for thoughtful debate, now see the platform exacerbating racial and religious divisions and reinforcing pernicious stereotypes. 

The social media admonition not to feed the trolls seems appropriate here. In a very real sense, both Fox News and Twitter are America’s trolls. Somehow, we need to figure out how to keep people from feeding them.

Given the undeniable lure of confirmation bias, it won’t be easy.


Trust, Safety And Twitter

The New York Times recently published a guest essay by the former head of Trust and Safety for Twitter, who has now resigned.

 In some ways, Yoel Roth’s essay was “more of the same,” for readers who’ve been following the chaos at Twitter since Musk acquired it. But what struck me was Roth’s recitation of all manner of complicated issues that Musk had obviously never considered: as he says, “even Elon Musk’s brand of radical transformation has unavoidable limits.”

The influence of advertisers has perhaps been the most obvious limitation, since it has been highlighted in a number of news reports. You’d think it is one aspect Musk would have understood, since –according to Roth–ninety percent of Twitter’s revenue comes (came??) from advertising. When Musk’s acquisition was immediately followed by a wave of racist and antisemitic trolling, wary marketers took a pause. They’re still paused.

But  even if Mr. Musk is able to free Twitter from the influence of powerful advertisers, his path to unfettered speech is still not clear. Twitter remains bound by the laws and regulations of the countries in which it operates. Amid the spike in racial slurs on Twitter in the days after the acquisition, the European Union’s chief platform regulator posted on the site to remind Mr. Musk that in Europe, an unmoderated free-for-all won’t fly. In the United States, members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have raised concerns about the company’s recent actions. And outside the United States and the European Union, the situation becomes even more complex: Mr. Musk’s principle of keying Twitter’s policies on local laws could push the company to censor speech it was loath to restrict in the past, including political dissent.

You would think someone able to pay 44 billion dollars for a social media platform would have good lawyers–and would have consulted them about the legal landscape he was about to enter, but evidently not. (The first clue that he’d failed to do so was his immediate, wholesale firing of half of Twitter’s employees–a move that neglected legal niceties like required notice.)

Regulators have significant tools at their disposal to enforce their will on Twitter and on Mr. Musk. Penalties for noncompliance with Europe’s Digital Services Act could total as much as 6 percent of the company’s annual revenue. In the United States, the F.T.C. has shown an increasing willingness to exact significant fines for noncompliance with its orders (like a blockbuster $5 billion fine imposed on Facebook in 2019). In other key markets for Twitter, such as India, in-country staff members work with the looming threat of personal intimidation and arrest if their employers fail to comply with local directives. Even a Musk-led Twitter will struggle to shrug off these constraints.

As daunting as the legal landscape, however, is a constraint of which I’d been totally unaware–and something tells me it hasn’t been at the forefront of Musk’s mind, either: the app stores operated by Google and Apple. The author says that  “failure to adhere to Apple’s and Google’s guidelines would be catastrophic, risking Twitter’s expulsion from their app stores and making it more difficult for billions of potential users to get Twitter’s services.”

Apple’s guidelines emphasize creating “a safe experience for users” and stress the importance of protecting children.

The guidelines quote Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” quip, saying the company will ban apps that are “over the line.”

In practice, the enforcement of these rules is fraught.

In my time at Twitter, representatives of the app stores regularly raised concerns about content available on our platform. On one occasion, a member of an app review team contacted Twitter, saying with consternation that he had searched for “#boobs” in the Twitter app and was presented with … exactly what you’d expect. Another time, on the eve of a major feature release, a reviewer sent screenshots of several days-old tweets containing an English-language racial slur, asking Twitter representatives whether they should be permitted to appear on the service.

Reviewers hint that app approval could be delayed or perhaps even withheld entirely if issues are not resolved to their satisfaction — although the standards for resolution are often implied. Even as they appear to be driven largely by manual checks and anecdotes, these review procedures have the power to derail company plans and trigger all-hands-on-deck crises for weeks or months at a time.

As the author points out, Musk has criticized the capriciousness of platform policies. (I believe this is an illustration of a pot calling a kettle black).

In appointing himself “chief twit,” Mr. Musk has made clear that at the end of the day, he’ll be the one calling the shots.

And  the “chief twit” is nothing if not arbitrary and capricious..

I hope I have enough popcorn…