Twitter’s Patronizing Populism
Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, is basking in accolades for his decision to ban all political ads from his platform. That is Twitter’s call to make, but if Dorsey is going to wrap himself in a populist defense of the common man’s voice, he might conjure a justification whose posture toward that man is less condescending.
Dorsey argued that the reach of political messages “should be earned, not bought.” To what extent anything on Twitter is “earned” through 280 characters of substantive, nuanced political conversation is questionable. Shallow outrage is likelier to “earn” retweets, which is not to say that Twitter—which can encourage concision, a precondition of wit—does not have its place. Regardless, Dorsey’s claim is the populist celebration of social media: Anyone can speak and, with a sufficiently compelling message, reach a limitless audience.
Yet Dorsey’s reason for pulling political ads is that the same everyday people whose voices deserve projection are so easily duped by readily disprovable claims that they must be protected from seeing them in the first place. A people that cannot exercise sufficient discernment to separate propaganda from information has no business governing itself. Why a people Dorsey so characterizes is qualified to participate in his call for “more forward-looking political ad regulation,” which he acknowledges is “very difficult” but which is actually very unconstitutional, is unclear.
There is no question that platforms like Twitter can be used to inflame and mislead. So can newspapers, books, and television. Dorsey’s argument is online exceptionalism: “Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.”
This claim—that the Internet has changed everything that preceded it and revolutionized humanity and taken all phenomena to eleven—is the particular conceit of Silicon Valley. The broader conceit—Twitter users cannot tell truth from fiction or be bothered to fact-check what they read—is more widely held. It informs proposals to regulate political speech on the specious grounds that money rather than votes buys elections, a conclusion that prefers to conceal its premise: People are powerless to resist propaganda and need protection from it.
Dorsey is being lauded as more virtuous than Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Neither’s position is wholly tenable. Zuckerberg has disclaimed any responsibility for the accuracy of political messages on his platform. It is only dangerous for Zuckerberg to do so if his platform is so all-consuming and monopolistic that it exercises the equivalent of the coercive power of the state. In that case, the issue is one of anti-trust law, which should not be used as a political cudgel. (Republicans upset about Twitter’s decision might do well to question U.S. Senator Josh Hawley’s attempts to legislate more neutral algorithms as well.)
Zuckerberg is a grownup, and he is capable of taking a modicum of responsibility for messages on Facebook. But while the line between truth and falsehood is metaphysically clear, it is often prudentially obscure. Drawing it requires making distinctions between lies and disagreements and perhaps even between noble lies (the kind, for example, that conceal legitimately classified information) and base ones. Should a post declaring that you can keep your health plan if you like it be removed as false?
The more important question is who should be responsible for policing all this: a decentralized marketplace of ideas or a government whose interest is to suppress criticism of itself?
Again, if that market is too centralized, let the anti-trust regulators get to work. But no one is forced onto Facebook or Twitter. Dorsey apparently believes otherwise. He is concerned that online political ads “forc[e] highly optimized and targeted political messages on people.” Forced how? The claim is silly enough in the brick-and-mortar world. In the digital one, it is absurd.
Dorsey is likewise concerned that Internet advertising is so powerful it “brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.” Wait, influencing people in politics is a “risk”? Editor: Please delete this post. Hey, @Jack: Please delete yours too. They risk influencing people.
If the American electorate is so vulnerable to propaganda that it must have its eyes and ears covered by corporate or political protectors, the answer is not fewer messages. It is more discernment and, consequently, better education. The high-tech crowd may finally be forced to confront the possibility that the dilution of liberal education in the name of techne is making skilled workers but poor citizens.
Some advocates of speech regulation acknowledge this point and say the answer is transparency in all things. Dorsey, too, endorses “ad transparency requirements” as “progress, but not enough.” Maybe. An employee of a corporation that supports Donald Trump and who consequently wants his or her donation to Elizabeth Warren to be anonymous might disagree.
The reality is that disclosing the source of revenue is a smokescreen for what the speech regulators believe citizens cannot do, which is evaluate the evidence and arguments before them, regardless of who paid for them. Dorsey’s regulatory desire to “ensure a level playing field” is similarly flawed. Level between whom? White supremacists and egalitarians? Communists and capitalists? If Dorsey really meant what he initially said—that reach should be “earned”—then it almost certainly will be earned unequally because not all ideas have, or should have, an equal audience.
Dorsey’s pious claim that Twitter simply wants its decisions not to be clouded by “the additional burden and complexity taking money brings” raises similar questions. His users might wonder whether that is philanthropy or sanctimony—after all, one presumes that Dorsey’s own fortune, which he earned fair and square, testifies to the fact that money and corruption are not synonymous—and whether a speech-free zone actually shields the entrenched from challengers whose best bet is outspending incumbents.
All this makes for a strange populism that seeks to empower people by condescending to them. If Dorsey’s desire is to produce a political climate of discernment and honest debate, he should invest in citizenship, not silence. Institutions of genuine liberal learning in the classical mold might appreciate his munificence. The readers he patronizes should not.