I haven’t read much from Matt Taibbi, nor do I know much about him. Finally, I can’t vouch for a lot of assertions in his substack column below, but I thought it was interesting enough to post (click on the screenshot to read).
The headline was what grabbed me, for I wouldn’t be keen on somebody important in the Biden administration having “troubling” views on free speech. It turns out that I’m not sure how important Timothy Wu is (Biden appointed him to the National Economic Council), but he does write op-eds for the New York Times and has spent a lot of time criticizing the biases of social media networks like Facebook, so let’s see what he says.
Taibbi’s point is that although the First Amendment isn’t in danger—not with the Supreme Court as it is—the actions of Twitter, Facebook, and other such venues do endanger speech. It happens, argues Taibbi, because the Left is now trying to get those companies to censor the kind of speech they don’t like. (I’m not arguing, of course, that only the Left is censorious. We know that the opposite is true: remember Donald Trump and the “fake news” trope?) But now that the Left is in power in the executive and legislative branches, Taibbi’s worried that they are going to control what can be said on social media.
Here’s Taibbi’s take on Wu’s views (Taibbi’s words):
The Cliff’s Notes version of Wu’s thesis:
— The framers wrote the Bill of Rights in an atmosphere where speech was expensive and rare. The Internet made speech cheap, and human attentionrare. Speech-hostile societies like Russia and China have already shown how to capitalize on this “cheap speech” era, eschewing censorship and bans in favor of “flooding” the Internet with pro-government propaganda.
— As a result, those who place faith in the First Amendment to solve speech dilemmas should “admit defeat” and imagine new solutions for repelling foreign propaganda, fake news, and other problems. “In some cases,” Wu writes, “this could mean that the First Amendment must broaden its own reach to encompass new techniques of speech control.” What might that look like? He writes, without irony: “I think the elected branches should be allowed, within reasonable limits, to try returning the country to the kind of media environment that prevailed in the 1950s.”
— More ominously, Wu suggests that in modern times, the government may be more of a bystander to a problem in which private platforms play the largest roles. Therefore, a potential solution (emphasis mine) “boils down to asking whether these platforms should adopt (or be forced to adopt) norms and policies traditionally associated with twentieth-century journalism.”
That last line is what should make speech advocates worry.
Why should we worry? Because, says Taibbi, authoritarian “progressive” liberals may be looking not to break up companies like Facebook, but rather to influence them to ban just those sources that they don’t like. As evidence for this, Taibbi posts this video of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grilling Mark Zuckerberg before Congress (“AOC” is, of course, the face of “progressive Democrats”):
"So, you won't take down lies or you will take down lies? I think that's just a pretty simple yes or no."
— CSPAN (@cspan) October 23, 2019
You can see this mentality in the repeated exchanges between Congress and Silicon Valley executives. An example is the celebrated October 23, 2019 questioning of Mark Zuckerberg by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a House Financial Services Committee hearing. The congresswoman, as staunch a believer in the new approach to speech as there is in modern Democratic Party politics, repeatedly asks Zuckerberg questions like, “So, you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies?” and “Why you label the Daily Caller, a publication well-documented with ties to white supremacists, as an official fact-checker for Facebook?”
Grasping that everyone who’s ever thought about speech issues throughout our history has been concerned with the publication of falsehoods, incitement to violence, libel, hate speech, and other problems, the issue here isn’t the what, but the who. The question isn’t whether or not you think the Daily Caller should be fact-checking, but whether you think it’s appropriate to leave Mark Zuckerberg in charge of naming anyone at all a fact-checker. AOC doesn’t seem to be upset that Zuckerberg has so much authority, but rather that he’s not using it to her liking.
While the first bit of the grilling didn’t seem so bad, I could see by the end what Taibbi was worried about. Zuckerberg isn’t concerned about angering the Right; he’s worried about angering the Left, who now have the power to monitor him and, if he doesn’t act the way they want, to shut him down. While of course companies like Facebook should and do monitor First Amendment violations like false advertising and threats or defamation, they should, in my view, conform as closely to the First Amendment as they can, realizing that they do this voluntarily since they’re not arms of the government. Why should “offensive” but legal speech be allowed in public but banned on Facebook?
To prove libel or slander, which are not permitted under the First Amendment, you have to show that the poster deliberately lied knowing it would cause damage to someone. And that’s not easy to do on a platform the size of Facebook. I tend to want them to err on the side of permitting speech, and I’m not sure that AOC is on that boat.
Finally, Taibbi has one more worry: Wu’s comment, “I think the elected branches should be allowed, within reasonable limits, to try returning the country to the kind of media environment that prevailed in the 1950s.”
Wu’s comment about “returning… to the kind of media environment that prevailed in the 1950s” is telling. This was a disastrous period in American media that not only resulted in a historically repressive atmosphere of conformity, but saw all sorts of glaring social problems covered up or de-emphasized with relative ease, from Jim Crow laws to fraudulent propaganda about communist infiltration to overthrows and assassinations in foreign countries.
The wink-wink arrangement that big media companies had with the government persisted through the early sixties, and enabled horribly destructive lies about everything from the Bay of Pigs catastrophe to the Missile Gap to go mostly unchallenged, for a simple reason: if you give someone formal or informal power to choke off lies, they themselves may now lie with impunity. It’s Whac-a-Mole: in an effort to solve one problem, you create a much bigger one elsewhere, incentivizing official deceptions.
That 1950s period is attractive to modern politicians because it was a top-down system. This was the era in which worship of rule by technocratic experts became common, when the wisdom of the “Best and the Brightest” was unchallenged. A yearning to return to those times runs through these new theories about speech, and is prevalent throughout today’s Washington, a city that seems to think everything should be run by people with graduate degrees.
And his conclusion:
Going back to a system of stewardship of the information landscape by such types isn’t a 21st-century idea. It’s a proven 20th-century failure, and signing up Silicon Valley for a journey backward in time won’t make it work any better.
Well, I don’t know whether to worry, but I’ll put this on the back burner, for there are real violations of the First Amendment going on in organizations like public schools and universities that must adhere to Constitutional freedom of speech. However, some readers must have thought more deeply about this issue than I, and I welcome your thoughts below.
UPDATE: In his latest Substack column (paywalled, but you can see the entirety in an email if you subscribe), Glenn Greeenwald faults Zuckerberg for being scripted and robotic, but also the Democrates for favoring social-media censorship:
But it is vital not to lose sight of how truly despotic hearings like this are. It is easy to overlook because we have become so accustomed to political leaders successfully demanding that social media companies censor the internet in accordance with their whims. Recall that Parler, at the time it was the most-downloaded app in the country, was removed in January from the Apple and Google Play Stores and then denied internet service by Amazon, only after two very prominent Democratic House members publicly demanded this. At the last pro-censorship hearing convened by Congress, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) explicitly declared that the Democrats’ grievance is not that these companies are censoring too much but rather not enough. One Democrat after the next at Thursday’s hearing described all the content on the internet they want gone: or else. Many of them said this explicitly.