Western Governments Keep Assigning Themselves The Authority To Regulate Online Speech
Depending on what political echo chamber you’ve been viewing it from, the ongoing release of information about the inner workings of pre-Musk Twitter known as “the Twitter Files” might look like the bombshell news story of the century, or it might look like a complete nothingburger whose importance is being wildly exaggerated by the far right.
From where I’m sitting, the Twitter Files look like entirely newsworthy revelations which add new detail to information that had already been spilling out about the way government agencies have been inserting themselves into Silicon Valley’s processes of regulating online speech. Right wing punditry has of course been exaggerating the significance of the releases and spinning them in all kinds of disingenuous ways, and Musk himself plainly has a partisan agenda in releasing the information in the way that he has been, but it’s not actually difficult to separate that from the value of the information being released.
Many liberals and leftists have struggled to grasp this (in my view simple and obvious) distinction, but we’re now seeing articles coming out in publications like The Guardian and Jacobin explaining to their respective audiences that it should actually concern anyone who opposes government tyranny to see secretive agencies taking it upon themselves to control the way people talk to each other on the internet.
“Make no mistake: while some criticisms of the project coming from left of center certainly have merit, that doesn’t mean the disclosures aren’t important, or that the accuracy of the information contained in the files is somehow undermined by the political slant of some of those reporting on it,” writes Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic. “The Twitter Files give us an unprecedented peek behind the curtain at the workings of Twitter’s opaque censorship regime, and expose in greater detail the secret and ongoing merger of social media companies and the US national security state.”
The Twitter Files show an outrageous and unacceptable amount of overlap between Twitter management and many US government agencies — including the CIA — in not just the censorship and shadowbanning of unauthorized speech but also whitelisting and amplifying actual psyops of the US military. The justifications for this have ranged from fighting “Covid misinformation” to combating “foreign influence” (the latter of which is odd because those efforts seem to have focused primarily on domestic speech), but what apparently went completely unquestioned the entire time was whether these government institutions have any business inserting themselves into the regulation of public speech at all.
This bizarre assumption that governments need to involve themselves in policing online speech has been rapidly normalizing itself around the western world. Here in Australia we’ve got government officials suddenly babbling about the need to restrict the spread of “conspiracy theories” after a shooting that left two police officers dead. The EU has its controversial Digital Services Act, which Elon Musk is interestingly an enthusiastic supporter of despite being publicly warned that Twitter could be banned throughout the European Union if Twitter doesn’t sufficiently restrict speech on the platform.
(Musk has, while we’re on the subject, continued the practices of branding media figures as “state-affiliated media” if they’re associated with empire-targeted governments, banning people for questioning official narratives about the war in Ukraine, and restricting the visibility of state media for empire-targeted governments while letting western propagandists run rampant. So while some are falling all over themselves in fawning hero worship of the billionaire Pentagon contractor, I personally am not expecting to crown him a free speech warrior anytime soon.)
And what’s important to remember about the Twitter Files is that Twitter has historically been the least compliant with government demands for speech regulation of all the major platforms. Everything we’re learning about what’s been happening in Twitter has surely been happening to a much greater extent with Google/YouTube and Meta/Facebook/Instagram.
Do you remember voting for government agencies to insert themselves into the regulation of online speech? I don’t remember any such vote. I don’t remember any politician campaigning to do this or any part of the public being asked for their permission at all. It sure seems like they appointed that authority to themselves without the permission of the electorate, solely for their own benefit. It’s almost like democracy is an illusion and our rulers do whatever they want to us, up to and including restricting the ways we’re allowed to communicate with each other, in whatever way benefits them and their agendas.
Online speech has nothing to do with the government. Nothing whatsoever. Governments have no more business regulating online speech than they have regulating what consenting adults do in the bedroom, and until very recently this was universally understood as one of the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy. But with a little narrative-diddling over the last few years they’ve managed to intertwine themselves with the online platforms we use to communicate with each other worldwide.
And as all this information comes out we’re seeing imperial narrative managers working to manipulate the debate into an argument about what kinds of government interventions in public speech are acceptable and how far they should go, rather than whether the government should be involving itself in the business of online speech regulation at all. One of main jobs of an empire propagandist is to get people arguing over how ugly imperial agendas should be rolled out, rather than if they should.
This is insane. Let the powerful involve themselves in the regulation of public speech and they will regulate it to their advantage every time. This should be obvious to everyone.
The response to all this should not be mitigated. The response should not be to get bogged down in partisan bickering and culture war distractions. The response should not quibble about whether this or that activity was technically legal or a breach of the First Amendment or not. The response should be an unequivocal, “No. This is not your area. Out. Now.”
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