Dear Elon, Please Let Me Back on Twitter
Twitter was not protecting someone from hate speech when it banned me. Twitter was silencing an unpopular voice.
Dear Mr. Musk,
Big fan. I cheered to see an African-American like yourself rising to the top, owning one of America’s largest media companies, Twitter. I’m also a big fan of free speech, which is why I am writing to you to ask that my lifetime ban on Twitter be rescinded.
In August 2018, Twitter banned me for life for a tweet that allegedly “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice.” I was on Twitter telling some journalists they had allowed the government to lie to them about the Iraq war. I said I used to work for the U.S. State Department, and I was one of the ones who lied to them. It was actually part of my job to lie to them, to give them the false impression our reconstruction programs in Iraq were coming along nicely. What I tweeted about was already in my book.
I could name several journalists I lied to directly during the war but what’s the point in that? They all still have jobs and Twitter accounts and it is not exactly a secret what they wrote about the reconstruction programs was false and wrong. Me, I told the truth on Twitter and lost my account.
The truth is that one night on Twitter I was explaining about my lies, as a kind of atonement, and several journalists ganged up on me to criticize my writing and the work that I have done as a journalist since leaving the government. It was all kind of rude (one said I was a “garbage human being” and another claimed I was a Russian stooge) but must have been within the schoolyard boundaries of the scrappier side of Twitter I guess, because none of them got life banned.
It never occurred to me to report them for harassment or bullying. I happened to have the television on with the Walking Dead playing in the background and I cranked off a tweet, as many of us do, that I’m not particularly proud of (no edit function means no second chances). I said to one of the pack “I hope a MAGA zombie eats your face.” You can read all my offending tweets here.
Within about five minutes of posting I was slammed with a lifetime ban on Twitter. A person with a fair amount of free time and a chip on his shoulder who continually slurs on my Wikipedia page says I was removed from Twitter for threatening someone, or something along those lines. Twitter Support claims I “incited other people to engage in the targeted harassment of someone,” but it was a zombie.
Anyhow, I can’t help but thinking my lifetime ban really had something to do with the fact that I had previously promoted free speech without boundaries on Twitter and other social media; two anti-war others banned alongside of me fall into that same category. Yes, yes, I’m aware the First Amendment does not cover social media, that these are private companies, but, like you, I believe they play such an enormous role in the tapestry of our speech that they deserve the protections of the 1A.
We all understand Jefferson and Madison wrote the Bill of Rights long before the internet, but I think they would be on board with expanding the 1A to companies that have grown to be more powerful censors than the government ever could be. BTW, FYI that’s U now, LOL.
I hasten to add that there is no such thing as MAGA zombies and so my tweeted threat to have one of them eat someone’s face was actually a bit of a jest. You see since there are no zombies the threat was not real, sarcasm at worst, and so I’m hoping that you can forgive me where your predecessor @jack was unwilling to. He never even answered my inquiries.
To be fully honest, what bothers me is not the scolding per se, or (most of the time) the inability to tweet. It can be a big time sink when you’re as busy as we two guys are. I think the thing that bugs me is I feel I was rounded up and sent off because I wrote true things, albeit critical things, about the media on what they consider their turf, your new acquisition, Twitter.
I obviously meant no one harm with the silly zombie remark, but it was used as a very thin excuse to send me down the memory hole (you remember, from Orwell’s 1984, a place where facts and ideas could be disappeared in service to the powers that be). Twitter was not protecting someone from hate speech. Twitter was silencing an unpopular voice.
My cancellation took place late on a Friday night, which leads me to wonder how the journalist (he’s tweeting today about how you’re like a real-life Tony Stark) I was engaging with got through to Twitter’s censoring staff so quickly. I certainly don’t have that access. It felt kind of more like a set up than a gatekeeper protecting someone against whatever hate speech is (and you know there is no such crime as hate speech, and whatever people insist on calling “hate speech” is fully protected by the First Amendment). So what’s up with the lifetime ban for one tweet? That’s the kind of thing I have in mind when I say it did not feel fair.
I don’t think anyone needs protecting from my ideas, but I guess I can figure out why they’d be frightening to charlatans, pols, and grifters. That’s why I guess one journalist whose livelihood ironically depends on the 1A tweeted at you “for democracy to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.” Robert Reich, veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations, argued you’re putting us on a fast track to fascism. He thinks an uncontrolled internet is “the dream of every dictator, strongman, demagogue and modern-day robber baron.” I think he thinks you’re one of those.
Another of your critics nearly exceeded Twitter’s character limit writing a poetically tragic cliche: “Today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany.” While I am not fully comfortable with billionaires deciding the fate of free speech, lots of folks are downright terrified of you, Elon. If you want to scare them more, reinstating me would be excellent for that purpose.
I have experienced their version of the internet. When I was in Iran, the government there blocked Twitter and many other sites, deciding for an entire nation what it could read. In America, Twitter decides for an entire nation what it cannot read. It matters little whose hand is on the switch: government or corporate, the end result is the same. This is the America I always feared I’d see, where Americans not just tolerate, but demand, censorship.
Now if you really want to shake things up (you’re that kind of guy, right?) publicly acknowledge the interplay between the First Amendment and corporations like your Twitter is the most significant challenge to free speech in our lifetimes. Pretending a corporation with the reach to influence elections is just another place that sells stuff is to pretend the role of debate in a free society is outdated.
The arrival of global technology controlled by mega-corporations brought first the ability the control speech and soon after the willingness. The rules are their—er, your—rules, and so we see the permanent banning of a president for whom some 70 million Americans voted from tweeting to his 88 million followers (ironically, the courts earlier claimed it was unconstitutional for the president to block those who wanted to follow him).
Then there was that game-changing Twitter ban on news about Hunter Biden just ahead of the election. Let someone take Twitter to the Supreme Court and see if they’ll extend the 1A in some form to the digital public square. The ability of a handful of people nobody voted for to control the mass of public discourse has never been clearer. It represents a stunning centralization of power.
Speech in America is an inalienable right, and runs as deep into our free society as any idea can. Thomas Jefferson wrote it flowed directly from his idea of a Creator, which we understand today as less that free speech is heaven-sent so much as it is something that exists above government. And so the argument the First Amendment applies only to the government and not to private platforms like Twitter is both true and irrelevant—and the latter is more important.
So Elon, thank you very much for your consideration. I realize you have many things on your mind but I hope you find time to at least delegate this to someone. The old Twitter sold censorship as a product, a dissent-free happy place for libs. You can do something important, freeing ideas, and I’d like again to be a part of that.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.