Elon Musk must restore free speech on Twitter

by Jonathan Tobin

Anti-Semites want to take advantage of the platform, but efforts by liberal groups like the ADL to promote censorship of political speech are undermining, rather than defending, democracy.

(JNS) He’s finally done it, and organizations that claim to speak for the Jewish community, as well as others, are worried. Billionaire Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has engendered a round of hysterical commentary from the chattering classes.

Pundits at The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Anti-Defamation League all worry that if the Tesla magnate follows up on his promises to restore a degree of free speech to the social-media site, terrible consequences will follow.

While concerns about the spread of hate are real, so are the repercussions of letting the owners of America’s virtual public square practice selective and highly partisan censorship. The latter characterizes the situation at Twitter in recent years, as its staff members, supposedly acting to enforce loosely defined community standards via an algorithm that they kept secret, did their best to shut down political discourse that contradicted their liberal beliefs. They also curbed reporting about stories that might hurt causes, parties and candidates that they supported.

So, it’s little wonder that those who benefitted from this censorship are panicked by the thought of Twitter’s becoming more of a marketplace of ideas than it was under its previous management. Such people were perfectly happy with a Twitter where controversial, even openly hateful, users had free reign, so long as they weren’t associated with political conservatism or skeptical about notions treated by the left as orthodoxy that may not be challenged.

Those blasting the end of the platform’s ban on controversial figures or beliefs aren’t being straightforward about their motives. Their prediction that a less partisan and ideological approach to policing the site will unleash dark forces that destroy democracy—and turn the Internet into even more of a cesspool of anti-Semitism than it already has become—is disingenuous.

Nor should their anger, arguments or tactics deployed to pressure Musk into breaking his promises blind us to what is at stake in the debate.

Why Twitter matters

In the last decade, Twitter became the primary forum for political discussion. Though it has far fewer users (238 million) than the more ubiquitous Facebook, which boasts 2.96 billion active monthly users, it became the go-to place for journalists to promote their work and for pundits, activists and politicians to argue about the issues of the day.

Previously, the only way for ordinary citizens to have their voices heard was through highly selective letters-to-the-editor in newspapers. Twitter lets anyone respond in real time to thought leaders and political players without the filter of the gatekeepers.

It enabled those who used to depend on the vagaries of print and broadcast editors to reach the public—to have direct access to the people. That was a victory for democracy.

Unfiltered expression of opinions was not, however, a formula for elevated discourse. Cramming complex stories, polemics and political exchanges into just 140 characters—a number that was expanded in 2017 to 280—tended to make arguments there not only less nuanced, but also more intemperate; it became a freak show of mutual insults.

The memes and hashtags it popularized were a means to demean those with whom one disagreed, not a way to persuade them to consider differing points of view. And the more debasing an account grew, the more it was likely to accumulate large numbers of followers.

Still, Twitter’s openness turned it into the public square of the 21st century. In an era when so many people interact with others largely through Internet portals, it became an important and vital prop in the service of democracy.

Twitter’s partisan censorship

The Silicon Valley oligarchs who owned the companies that run the Internet have the sort of influence and dominance over political discourse and communication that even the most powerful media moguls of the past never dreamed of possessing. It is thus that when it became clear Twitter’s executives were engaging in the censorship of certain ideas, viewpoints and even news stories, it created a unique and unprecedented crisis for American democracy.

At no point in history had anyone been able to do what Twitter did when it effectively shut down the dissemination of a New York Post story about Biden family corruption in the weeks before the 2020 presidential election. None of the revelations proving the accuracy of the report, nor the falsity of the claims that it was Russian “disinformation” aimed at re-electing former President Donald Trump, can undo the damage that was wrought.

Equally disturbing, it soon became apparent that Twitter was silencing, even de-platforming, accounts it disliked—including Trump’s and those of a host of other people—on often-dubious grounds about their spreading “misinformation” or inciting or praising violence. Saying unpopular things about such issues as Black Lives Matter, climate change, the coronavirus pandemic or transgenderism could lead to suspension, shadow-banning (silenced without the knowledge of the targeted person) or open prohibition.

All the censorship ran in a single direction, at the behest of the woke leftist leading lights at Twitter. Twitter cooperated with the same partisan forces that caused it to silence the Hunter Biden laptop story. Even worse, it similarly toed the line of the government when it shut down the account of journalist Alex Berenson, who was writing many things about the COViD-19 vaccine that turned out to be true, at the bidding of the Biden administration.

Musk reportedly began to think of buying Twitter after reading about the banning of the Babylon Bee satire site, because it had the temerity to poke fun at Dr. Rachel Levine, Biden’s assistant health secretary. He understood that it didn’t matter whether you agreed with the Bee’s point of view or that of any of the other voices, including Trump’s, which had been silenced. He considered a country whose main forum for public discourse was subject to this kind of political and ideological censorship is one in which democracy is in peril.

Selective enforcement

The ADL is helping to orchestrate a pressure campaign against Musk. It has itself engaged in various efforts to promote Internet censorship.

This often amounts to an attempt to shut down views that the group—once non-partisan, but now a shrill ally of the Democratic Party—dislikes.

The problem is that Twitter’s own rules were also selectively enforced. Hence, while Ku Klux Klan figure David Duke and other far-right extremist anti-Semites like Nick Fuentes were banned, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, arguably one of the most influential and dangerous anti-Semites alive, still has a functioning account.

Trump, and even his former campaign manager and Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon are deemed too awful for Twitter. But Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is still free to use it to foment hatred of Israel and Jews.

Online hate speech is a problem. A rising tide of anti-Semitism across the globe is being increasingly mainstreamed in American culture and media on both ends of the political spectrum.

Groups that were confined to the fever swamps of the far-right or far-left in the pre-Internet era now have ways of organizing that they were previously denied. And it has become clear in recent days that some anti-Semitic extremists, like those active on the 4chan message board, are hoping to use Twitter to advance their twisted agenda.

Indeed, we saw evidence of that this past week, when Jew-haters mobilized by posters on 4chan hijacked a reader poll posted on the JNS.org Twitter account to get a result that showed most of those responding thought Kanye West’s anti-Semitic libels were truthful.

The response should be a policy that specifically targets such obvious extremists. Instead, ADL is basically advocating to use the existence of such anti-Semites to justify Twitter’s old and clearly partisan policies aimed at silencing people whom Democrats and liberals don’t like.

You don’t have to think well of Trump to know that when the ADL asserts that there is essentially no difference between letting him tweet and doing the same for the 4chan crowd, it is playing politics, not fighting hate.

Musk has rightly fired the executives who were responsible for the site’s partisan practices. But he has held off on reinstating many accounts that should never have been taken down in the first place. He says he’s going to form a content moderation council that will reform its policies.

We can only hope this will lead to a return of Twitter to its original purpose as a free-speech forum. Those who want to continue censorship in order to stop anti-Semitism should realize that Jewish rights are guaranteed not so much by bans on those who say bad things as they are by a system that is based on freedom and the rule of law.

Those, like the ADL, who claim to want to protect Jews should align themselves with the defenders of freedom, not censorship. Their efforts to silence opponents illustrate how some of the individuals and organizations posing as democracy’s defenders are actually among its most dangerous opponents.

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