Thursday night I wrote a column on the challenges faced by Elon Musk in taking over Twitter and suggested steps to “hit the ground running.” One of those obvious steps discussed in earlier columns was to fire CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO Ned Segal and head of legal policy, trust, and safety Vijaya Gadde, the primary figures responsible for creating one of the largest censorship systems in history. He did so within minutes of taking over and their removal constitutes as singular advances in the cause of free speech around the world.
As expected, yesterday morning media figures were in full panic at the thought that one social media platform may restore free speech protections after years of biased and aggressive censorship. The controversial Washington Post columnist Taylor Lorenz lamented, “It’s like the gates of hell opened on this site tonight.” That’s right, the prospect of others having access to Twitter to express their own views is a hellish prospect for many in the media.
Agrawal and Gadde personified the censorship culture at Twitter, figures who were unabashedly opposed to traditional views of free speech and viewpoint diversity.
Not long after taking over, Agrawal pledged to regulate content as “reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation.”
Agrawal said the company would “focus less on thinking about free speech” because “speech is easy on the internet. Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard.”
I have long admitted to being an “internet originalist,” someone who viewed the internet as the greatest development for free speech since the invention of the printing press. However, the rapid erosion of free speech values – from our Congress to our campuses – has been alarming.
Led by President Joe Biden, Democratic leaders and media figures have demanded corporate censorship and even state censorship to curtail opposing views on issues ranging from climate change to election integrity to public health to gender identity. The Washington Post’s Max Boot, for example, declared, “For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.”
Many of those same figures are now apoplectic at the thought that others may be able to express dissenting views on subjects ranging from climate change to election regulations to gender identity.
Journalist Molly Jong-Fast asked, “Can someone make a new Twitter or is this a very stupid question?” In other words, a journalist wants to recreate a social media platform where others can be routinely silenced. The answer is simple: Facebook . . . and virtually every other social media platform.
The freak out from the Musk-phobic was triggered by the prospect of a single social media company offering greater free speech protections. Just one. However, they know that the effort to control political and social speech will be lost if people have an alternative. These companies are only able to sell censorship because they have largely been able to bar free speech competitors. Now there may be an alternative.
The panic over free speech breaking out on a single social media site is shared by journalism and law professors. CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis wrote “The sun is dark” and “This is an emergency! Twitter is to be taken over by the evil Sith lord.” He previously wrote, after news of the likely purchase by Musk, that “Today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany.”
He is not alone.
We have been discussing the rise of advocacy journalism and the rejection of objectivity in journalism schools. Writers, editors, commentators, and academics have embraced rising calls for censorship and speech controls, including President-elect Joe Biden and his key advisers. This movement includes academics rejecting the very concept of objectivity in journalism in favor of open advocacy.
Columbia Journalism Dean and New Yorker writer Steve Coll decried how the First Amendment right to freedom of speech was being “weaponized” to protect disinformation. In an interview with The Stanford Daily, Stanford journalism professor, Ted Glasser, insisted that journalism needed to “free itself from this notion of objectivity to develop a sense of social justice.” He rejected the notion that the journalism is based on objectivity and said that he views “journalists as activists because journalism at its best — and indeed history at its best — is all about morality.” Thus, “Journalists need to be overt and candid advocates for social justice, and it’s hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity.”
Likewise, an article published in The Atlantic by Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith and University of Arizona law professor Andrew Keane Woods called for Chinese-style censorship of the internet, stating that “in the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong.”
We will have to see if Musk can remain faithful to his pledge to restore free speech protections to the site. To that end, I have proposed a “First Amendment option” that could quickly reframe the company as a free speech site. Regardless of his approach to restructuring the company, what is clear is that there is now a serious chance for free speech on a major social media site. The panic of anti-free speech figures is enough to give hope to millions that one door has now opened for greater viewpoint diversity and discussion on social media.
Reprinted with permission from JonathanTurley.org.