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The Musk of Censored Speech

Your awareness of censorship is the result of the censors’ and regime’s weakness.

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(Photo by Carina Johansen / NTB / AFP) / Norway OUT (Photo by CARINA JOHANSEN/NTB/AFP via Getty Images)

In an age of Current Things, Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter may seem to be just another current thing. In fact, it is more significant than that. The many-headed hydra that lives on the East Coast, consisting of the press, academia, the civil service, and other institutions, has fought many enemies, both foreign and domestic, over the past 75 years. And while it has won most of these battles and lost some, none of its losses has been like its loss of Twitter to an independent businessman. This was the first time in recent memory that power was taken from the hands of the elite and given to a dissident. Put simply, Goliath was weakened, and David strengthened. 

This was not a victory for "free speech." Contrary to the myth believed by many Americans, every society, including ours, has limits on speech. Any government or platform that really permitted unlimited freedom of expression would soon find itself in sufficient chaos that it would either have to reassert itself or perish. The experience of social media sites such as Gab and Parler shows that complete freedom of speech is not really desired by anyone.

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The nation's founding generation understood this. When they said "freedom of speech," they implicitly admitted of qualifications. The case of the People of New York v. Ruggles, for example, where the defendant was convicted for the common law crime of blasphemy in 1811 for questioning the Virgin Mary's virginity, demonstrates this adequately.

What people then and now really seek is a well-moderated public "conversation." And the word "censor," derided today, comes from Ancient Rome meaning "moderator." The role has its pitfalls: many censor seek to use their power for factional, rather than public, ends. But limits on speech will be set, whether formally or informally. Responding to this fact by howling for an end to "censorship" fails to appreciate the inevitability of speech restrictions.

Indeed, those who believe that America has "lost" free speech fail to consider that modern awareness of censorship is the result of the censors' and the governing regime's weakness. In the past, state governments and Washington itself cracked down directly on dissident or subversive speech. Washington's relative unwillingness to exercise that power in recent decades, combined with the rise of broadcast mass media and its favoritism of state interests, relegated many points of view to back channels: conversations by truck driver over C.B. radio, self-published magazines, Usenet forums that only computer geeks understood how to reach, and more. 

But the arrival of the internet and social media blew away that relegation tool. Overnight, all sorts of characters, scrupulous or not, had the theoretical and, in time, actual ability to compete with NBC. Many of these tools were built by men like Jack Dorsey, who considers himself the "free speech wing of the free speech party," to the bamboozlement of many "conservatives."

For a long time, these developments were largely ignored by the ruling class. Even in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama dismissed a question about marijuana legalization with "I don't know what's going on, on the internet..." as though the internet were still only being used by computer science grad students. The delusion that the internet is not real life was and is strong, despite the very same people spending ever-increasing amounts of their own time on it.

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For the most powerful institutions, the delusion that the internet is not "real life" was shattered at 2:30 a.m. EST on November 9, 2016, when the networks called Wisconsin, and thus the presidential election, for Donald J. Trump, who had largely rode his Twitter account to victory. In response, "Civil Society" rapidly began planning to censor social media, and the unanimous voice of the mainstream press ordered the tech companies to comply.

Conservatives, having limited vision, did not see that disobeying a unanimous order from the mainstream press is more difficult than disobeying a court order, and thus blamed "big tech" figures like Jack Dorsey, who very much wanted to go in the opposite direction. Unlike a court, the mainstream press doesn't take yes for an answer, and soon, plenary authority over Twitter and other social media platforms was vested in the hands of H.R. hall monitors. People who ran businesses with followings that took years to build could find themselves banned without recourse by the will of a low-level employee. The real rules of Twitter were not public, and the real processes, if there were any, were too opaque to be useful to those banned.

Although such a system of censorship was formidable, its second-order effects were its undoing. The fact that the system caused Elon Musk to launch a successful takeover, limited so far only by wailing and gnashing of teeth, is but the least of those effects. The larger result was that the censorship yielded a selection effect; by kicking off so many grifters, shills, and strawmen (i.e., "neo-nazis"), Twitter allowed voices of genuine merit in the dissident space to rise. As iron sharpens iron, those who were able to sidestep the censorship were more intelligent, but would have been drowned out in the old Twitter. They have gained power, prestige, and resources. Ironically, the censorship forged an enemy much stronger than the H.R. regime ever had to deal with, at a time when it is weaker than it has been in recent memory. 

There is an effect even bigger than that one. While the press has focused on the Parler-and-Gab approach to avoiding the censors, another approach was discovered. Many of the most interesting conversations on Twitter simply moved beyond their reach—to group chats in D.M.s and in private forums. Now, every “influencer” of note is trying to start a “community,” where their followers can access a sort of private social media site. There, followers can network with people with some of the same trust that social clubs of yore enjoyed.

It is conventional wisdom in tech that one of the places to look for the next thing is in what people are already doing. The next big social media site will put private communities at the center, which will be far more difficult to censor. Those conversations are going to happen, with or without permission. 

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