Amid the last few days’ legitimate furor over Twitter apparently censoring conservative opinions, some conservatives have vowed to quit the medium in protest. That is a mistake.
Legal Insurrection’s previous coverage of Twitter’s banning author Robert Stacy McCain and de-authenticating Milo Yiannopoulos – both noted critics of extreme feminism – is here and here. Reason and The Federalist have also picked up the story.
As Robby Soave wrote at Reason:
Twitter is a private company, of course, and if it wants to outlaw strong language, it can. In fact, it’s well within its rights to have one set of rules for Robert Stacy McCain, and another set of rules for everyone else. It’s allowed to ban McCain for no reason other than its bosses don’t like him. If Twitter wants to take a side in the online culture war, it can. It can confiscate Milo Yiannopoulos’s blue checkmark. This is not about the First Amendment.
But if that’s what Twitter is doing, it’s certainly not being honest about it—and its many, many customers who value the ethos of free speech would certainly object. In constructing its Trust and Safety Council, the social media platform explicitly claimed it was trying to strike a balance between allowing free speech and prohibiting harassment and abuse. But its selections for this committee were entirely one-sided—there’s not a single uncompromising anti-censorship figure or group on the list. It looks like Twitter gave control of its harassment policy to a bunch of ideologues, and now their enemies are being excluded from the platform.
Robert Tracinski wrote a concise legal backgrounder on the development of free speech on the internet and the practical implications. His analysis is worth the time for a full, considered read.
Doing him a disservice in trying to summarize, Tracinski correctly concludes that Twitter’s assertion of its legal, legitimate and essentially absolute power to dictate who may do and say what on its platform is a more or less inevitable mistake.
[Twitter’s] decision to appoint a “Trust and Safety Council” that will be “a new and foundational part of our strategy to ensure that people feel safe expressing themselves on Twitter.” Among a list of organizations described as members of the council are the Dangerous Speech Project, which has produced a set of guidelines for recognizing such “dangerous speech”—a set of criteria so vague and broad that they could encompass anything from the incitement that led the Rwandan genocide to an average afternoon on talk radio. And maybe that’s the point.
Then there is Feminist Frequency, the outlet used by Anita Sarkeesian as a platform to criticize video games for being sexist. Sarkeesian’s critics accuse her of using claims of online harassment to discredit her critics and get them kicked off of services like—you guessed it—Twitter. So when Sarkeesian and the “dangerous speech” types got appointed as Twitter’s speech police, there was reason to think they’re going to turn Twitter into a university-style “safe space” where “safety” is assured by removing advocates of opposing ideas.
No, really, that’s what a “safe space” is. As one student explained to a New York Times reporter, she needed a “safe space” after briefly hearing a conservative speak on campus because “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.” Safe spaces are not about freedom from harassment or physical threats. They’re about freedom from intellectual opposition.
You get the same impression when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey proclaims that “Twitter stands for freedom of expression, speaking truth to power, and empowering dialogue. That starts with safety.”
Twitter stands for freedom of expression, speaking truth to power, and empowering dialogue. That starts with safety. https://t.co/PbEoM1lCyb
— jack (@jack) February 9, 2016
No, actually, “freedom of expression” starts with “freedom.” It’s right there at the beginning of the phrase. But by recasting it as an issue of “safety,” Twitter de-emphasizes the “freedom” part and sets up a rationale to limit or ban its users in the name of protecting others.
And so we see, less than two weeks later, a particularly sharp-elbowed and combative critic of feminism getting his account suspended.
. . .That’s a loss for Twitter. In trying to lure new users with promises of “safety,” the company risks destroying the sense of free-wheeling openness that attracted many of its existing users. Twitter has had a lot of trouble monetizing its user base, which is why the company’s stock is in trouble, but before it can make money from it users, it has to have users, and lots of them. Ask your friends on MySpace what happens when a social network stops being the place where everyone wants to hang out.
Tracinski concludes with five recommendations: 1) Create objective rules so “anyone can predict what will qualify as abuse;” 2) give more tools to users, beyond the mute and block options; 3) replace the Orwellian “Trust and Safety Council” with “an ideologically diverse group;” 4) Fire CEO Jack Dorsey, and; 5) get actual liberals to advocate actual free speech.
Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Leave Twitter
Despite Twitter’s shady dealings, conservatives should not leave twitter for several reasons. The present dust-up itself is the first: if conservatives leave, nobody will be around to expose Twitter’s duplicity. McCain’s banishment and Yiannoupolos’s de-verification created a groundswell, but if they didn’t use the medium, Twitter’s Ministry of Truth would still be operating in the shadows.
Second, along the same lines, if conservatives abandon Twitter, it just cedes the territory to liberals, again. In the past, that has not turned out well. Conservatives disgusted and fed-up with liberal excess fled academia, creating an echo chamber where extremism is lauded for its own sake. After three generations or so, students and campus administrations now conspire to formalize insulating students from conservative thought under the guise of “safe spaces” and speech codes.
Don’t let Twitter or other social media go down that road. For good or ill, these venues have vast audiences. What is the benefit of only exposing them to a far left message? Conservative thought properly packaged and expressed resonates because of its essential truths. So, put those ideas out where the most people we be exposed to them.
Third, using Twitter frankly doesn’t make Twitter or its shareholders any money. Twitter’s stock is off almost 35 points and around 60% in around ten months, largely because it doesn’t monetize its user base. Using the service and not clicking advertisements, or purchasing advertisements or sponsored links imposes additional costs on the company in equipment and services personnel without providing any actual revenue.
Fourth, again building on the previous points, quitting Twitter just won’t work. It didn’t work in academia, where the Left gleefully inculcated generations without the hassle of addressing dissenting opinion or contrary facts. It won’t effect Twitter, which started this by censoring conservatives and for now has no real financial stake in whether or not conservatives use the site.
Finally, quitting Twitter is something the liberal, social justice warrior, safe spacers would do. It’s taking your ball and going home. It’s the easy way out. It’s letting the Left win; letting them force conservatives out of another place they are entitled to be.
So Twitter is being a bully and not letting conservatives speak their minds. Twitter is being unfair, obstinate, deceptive and manipulative. Twitter is erecting a facade behind which to hide its base repression of ideas it, its constituents, its advisers, board members and buddies find distasteful.
All the more reason for a prominent Hollywood conservative like Adam Baldwin (@AdamBaldwin) to tweet like mad about Twitter’s own lies. Make the arguments and let as many people as possible see them. If he’s lucky, maybe he’ll get banned and it will make even more news.
Tracinski’s recommendations are a good place to start, but one stands out. Get liberals on board, or at least make the effort to recruit them. Free speech is the sine qua non of classical Liberalism, and Twitter picking ideological sides should not be a partisan issue. Offer Liberals the opportunity to show their free speech bona fides and let them either get on board or instead show their repressive instincts.
Yes, follow Jonathan Levin on Twitter @JNLevin
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