It Doesn’t Matter Which Oligarch does Censorship for the National Security State

18 mins read

As it became apparent that Elon Musk would not be able to sleaze his way out of owning Twitter, Democrat and Republican media immediately resumed their commentary about Twitter’s future. While Democrat-aligned media have rekindled their anxious rhetoric about how Twitter might turn into a cesspool of hatred against the most marginalized in society, Republican-aligned media are celebrating Musk as a free speech crusader who will break, of course, the “woke left’s” tight grip on discourse. Democrat-aligned media are especially afraid that Donald J. Trump, the 46th president of the United States, may get his Twitter account back after he received a permanent ban on January 8 for his reckless behavior during the January 6 Capitol Riot. In true duopolistic fashion, both major parties and their media stooges largely ignore the real troubles with Musk’s acquisition of Twitter: Musk’s takeover of Twitter is simply another iteration of oligarchical control over our online speech. Not only is Musk no free speech warrior, but he is also a well-disguised tool for the morally bankrupt ghouls who run our repressive and violent national security state. 

While many allegedly democracy-obsessed liberals cheered after Trump was removed from Twitter, other countries and leaders (e.g., Germany, France, Navalny, Mexico) watched aghast as private companies deplatformed the democratically elected president of the United States from major channels of online speech. Such a power to censor is quite dangerous. Given that Tweets are an important enough element of the interface between elected officials and people that they are part of Federal records, it is concerning that Twitter can smite the president’s ability to Tweet. Furthermore, while one could argue that Twitter may have taken that action out of social concern, even if it had been implemented with a more robust and principled process, the ban’s length and arbitrary nature reflects that our freedom of speech lies at the whims of large, powerful corporations. However, our politics have become so polarized and incoherent that people can give lip service to democracy while completely ignoring that robust principles of free speech are an important element of democracy. This was demonstrated by how liberal media commentators instantaneously contorted themselves into libertarians and ran cover for Trump’s ban by constantly reminding us that private companies can do what they want. Hilariously enough, disgruntled actual libertarians collided against a logical brick wall when their serfdom to private companies allowed for little more than finger-wagging at Zuck and Dorsey rather than actual solutions to this unilateral censorship power.

With such unmitigated power provided to Twitter, a small group of actors have a disproportionate influence over discourse. Such a concentration of power is fundamentally anti-democratic because it allows a few to significantly affect what people know and believe. Instead of throwing fits over which oligarch is making these decisions, what we should do is nationalize Twitter to place it under public ownership. As the Socialist philosophy instructor Ben Burgis described on “The Pakistan Experience” podcast, treating social media platforms as public entities will allow the First Amendment to have bearing on decisions about content. Noting how there are still limitations on what you can say in the public comments session of a city council, he explains how the First Amendment’s application to Twitter does not allow for complete speech anarchy. Rather, it enables people to file a lawsuit if they believe that there is discrimination according to speech. In addition to the preservation of free speech, the nationalization and public ownership of Twitter will allow us to better confront what really causes malignant, racist speech and behaviors to gain so much traction: algorithmic promotion for profit. For instance, 64% of people in “extremist” groups on Facebook joined these groups because they were recommended by the algorithm, and it would be surprising if such pathologies operate differently on Twitter. Addressing this doesn’t require censorship. 

Even short of a nationalized Twitter, there are numerous policies which allow us to both promote free speech and create healthier online discourse. For example, privacy laws can ban targeted advertising, reforms to Section 230 (the current immunity from liability given to platforms) can decrease or stop data monetization, common carriage laws can prevent platforms from continuing non-uniform applications of moderation and promotion, Section 230 could include a requirement against discrimination or censorship, and more. We should be having conversations about these policies. Unilaterally obsessing over which lord gets to whimsically plot the future of Twitter censorship and discourse doesn’t address the power structures which stifle speech and also profit from increased engagement in addictive, toxic online spaces. Musk’s ownership of Twitter is just part and parcel of a dangerous trend when it comes to censorship and power over speech.

For all of Jack Dorsey’s faults as a greedy tech CEO, who feebly tries to hide his ostentatious wealth by adopting the aesthetic of a highly devoted monk who is five seconds away from disappearing into a monastery, he had some level of commitment towards free speech. Of course there were huge faults during this speech king’s reign, such as discriminatory application of Twitter policies and also potential acquiescence to State goals and certain foreign policy interests, but he at least gave lip-service to, and had a more pronounced commitment to, Twitter’s independence from State-influenced censorship than others. On the other hand, his successor, Parag Agrawal, held no such pretenses. Reeking of smiling corporate loftiness, Agrawal jettisoned commitment towards the First Amendment in favor of vacuous statements about healthy online conversation and “how times have changed” as CTO in a 2020 interview. Even before Agrawal took over as CEO, Twitter has started to act more like a publisher than a platform, launching programs to boost “credible information” and editorializing in the trending tab. The brand of “credible information” has become monopolized by a mainstream media which has been increasingly infiltrated by spies from national security agencies and a fact-checking industry, too often lacking in self-awareness at best and full of shit at worst. Many of these institutions have evolved to advance ideological goals and obedience to establishment narratives under the binarized guise of “truth” instead of critical engagement with evidence. As such, Twitter’s policy reflects a subservient relationship with powerful corporate media and apparatchiks who have a history of deceiving the public

The most dangerous and effective assailants on our freedom of speech and liberties are our national security agencies (CIA, FBI, NSA, Pentagon, etc.) These covert organizations have a past and present of global and domestic surveillance and terrorism, and they facilitate the repression of the American and international working class while attempting to keep the public oblivious about the realities of the U.S. Empire. At this moment, not only is the DOJ prosecuting and attempting to extradite the Wikileaks journalist Julian Assange for revealing U.S. war crimes, but the U.S. also currently backs the devastating Saudi genocide on the Yemenese people, is about to yet again invade Haiti under bullshit pretenses, and is abusing African countries with its AFRICOM operations. We need to have journalists who do truly adversarial and investigative work to figure out whether these agencies do anything more than perpetuate exploitative and neocolonial U.S. imperialism and the subjugation of everyday people. Online censorship stifles these independent-minded journalists. 

Elon Musk is nothing like the free speech warrior that edge-lord conservative commentators, often overwhelmed with opportunistic schadenfreude towards liberals, describe. Rather, he is the next iteration of how Big Tech companies and their leaders are slowly becoming little more than lapdogs for the national security state. Elon Musk, with the help of a cult following, may put up pretenses as a free-thinking, non-ideological celebrity, but he is just another rich man of the ownership class who sports juvenile politics and has a cushy relationship with the national security state. As a Tesla CEO, he is infamous for union-busting and free speech crackdowns. Furthermore, according to reporting by Alan MacLeod at MintPress News, Musk is a Pentagon contractor and CIA darling who has sold SpaceX intelligence technology to the U.S. Empire, may have collaborated with the U.S. to instigate a coup in Bolivia for easier access to lithium, and has generally helped these agencies build a repressive surveillance architecture. Elon Musk is a billionaire who has worked towards profit; will he choose free speech, or will he choose what gives him money? His time at Tesla answers this question, and his association with the national security state makes the revelation about his commitment to free speech all the more damning. 

This travesty is not limited to Elon Musk and Twitter. In a segment on “Rising,” journalist Abby Martin describes how Big Tech companies consistently acquiesce to U.S. foreign policy imperatives, no matter how hypocritical it might make them look. Other reports by MintPress News have further revealed the security state’s influence on Facebook content policies and that Twitter has hired an incredible number of FBI agents. And on October 31, a bombshell report by Ken Klippenstein and Lee Fang of The Intercept described the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) attempts to use the unilateral censorship power of tech companies to skirt around the First Amendment and control online discourse. Not only do they aim to target information which undermines trust in courts and the financial system, but also information specifically related to “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of U.S. support to Ukraine,” as noted in a draft copy of the DHS’s Quadrennial Homeland Security Review.  

Beyond these specific examples is the chilling point that these powerful corporations are working with the security state to giftwrap the quelling of dissent against surveillance, wealthy oligarchs, and U.S. Empire under the sheen of benign liberal concern about safety, domestic terrorism, and the largely debunked conspiratorial Russiagate hysteria. As Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote in an article cited by the report from The Intercept noted above: “Our government produces lies and disinformation at industrial scale and always has. It overclassifies vital information to block its own citizens from becoming any the wiser. It pays thousands of press aides to play hide the salami with facts.” This propaganda model serves to hide the realities of the horrendous actions of the national security state which prop up the U.S. Empire and oligarchs who control the lives of everyday people. Propaganda, such as this iteration of the DHS’ effort to change how people think about various subjects, does not address the root causes for our society’s dysfunction, the suffering in people’s lives, and distrust of institutions. 

In general, American institutions need to win back people’s trust by serving them, and this can happen if dissent fuels the creation of democratic infrastructure which empowers the people to hold leaders and institutions accountable. We need free discourse, free speech, and free journalism to make this possible, so that we can then rebuild a shared knowledge of the world around us. However, many elitist technocrats, entirely detached from reality in their little echo chambers but titillating themselves and each other with their credentials, have filled these institutions and hold the thinly veiled, contemptuously sneering position that everyday people are but toddlers who cannot be reasoned with and need to be “Here Comes The Airplane”-ed information through manipulation and deceit. Consequently, they have tended to encourage, collaborate with, or even lead the repressive bond between Big Tech and the national security state while failing to challenge oligarchs and the national security state. With a gravy train cottage industry which simultaneously concern-trolls about misinformation and unironically collaborates with the nastiest liars in the world, institutions are only further losing their trust and giving cynical, Trumpish right-wingers an ideological opening to exploit for their destructive agendas. As an alternative but also horrific outcome, these institutions, at the behest of oligarchs and the national security state, might even manage to squash out the people’s dissent and halt progress to further benefit their anti-democratic status and hegemony.

To lose ourselves in the elite-led, partisan fights about whether Elon Musk is a free speech warrior who will restore Trump’s account, or steward Twitter’s descent into an ocean of hate, may feel impactful at the moment. However, these arguments serve to distract from how the symbiotic relationship between the purveyors of the U.S. Empire and the accumulation of capital enables systematic censorship against dissent by leaving our freedom of speech to the whims of oligarchs who will bow to profit. There are many gray areas between information curation by Big Brother and a platform which is purely racism; we should democratically decide what kind of infrastructure best promotes free speech and addresses how profit-oriented algorithmic promotion can make online platforms more harmful. As such, we must organize ourselves to take control of our liberty to speak freely on and off the internet so that we are afforded a truly robust free speech, incorruptible by covert shadow states or the ebbs and flows of public opinion. This will allow us to critically and more accurately engage with the facts of the world around us. We must remove Big Tech’s monopoly on speech through policy, hopefully including public ownership, and foster a principled commitment to free speech and against surveillance, secrecy, and censorship.

3 Comments

  1. Respectfully, please go outside. Touch grass. Stop reading Matt Taibbi and Jacobin and edgy BS and go speak to a real person outside of Swarthmore and the Internet. Even irrespective of your actual political opinions, which are ill-informed and childish, this column is an unreadable screed which has absolutely no persuasive power for anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.

    It’s a lot more fun to attack Twitter’s content moderation policies than to recognize that your movement is just politically unpalatable. Twitter is useful for connection but about one percent of the US population actually actively uses the thing. You can put whatever you want on the internet—that is still true and will be true so long as the *actual* common carriers (ISPs and network backbone companies) don’t censor content, which they show no signs of doing in the US. Do you not see the irony in claiming that the Big Scary Three-Letter Agencies are “dangerous and effective” internet censors, then backing up your claim with a bunch of publicly accessible links including the New York Times and The Guardian?

    Re-evaluate your model of the world. There are many more actors than you think, with goals that sometimes conflict and sometimes align. There is not just one “Big Tech” or one “mainstream media” or even one “U.S. Government” that could be accurately modeled as a singular coordinated entity.

    In other words: Go outside. Or refocus your online energy into something more productive, like that guy who spent a year memorizing how to guess every country in Google Street View. That would at least bring more joy and light into the world than whatever you’ve done here.

    • Hello “A Swarthmore Student,”
      Thank you for your comment. I just wanted to address some of the points in your response.
      ——————————————————————————————
      “Twitter is useful for connection but about one percent of the US population actually actively uses the thing.”

      While it is true that a minority of the American population uses Twitter (22%, which is about 75 million), Twitter carries much traction among journalists. That is still a sizable portion, and of that 22%, roughly 84% use it weekly.

      However, what makes Twitter quite impactful is that it carries much traction among journalists, the people who are responsible for disseminating information. In fact, 69% of journalists use Twitter for work-related tasks, and if you take a look at the biggest outlets, like the NYT, CNN, FOX, etc., nearly all of the commentators/writers are relatively active on Twitter. Moreover, it has become increasingly common practice to even embed Tweets within news stories now, something which happened a lot during the Trump era.

      There are many instances of Twitter affecting our national politics. Consider that the Black Lives Matter movement’s usage of Twitter to organize, or the LibsofTikTok account’s usage of Twitter to influence politics in Florida with respect to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

      Yes, not everyone is on Twitter, but I would disagree that it, in conjunction with other social media platforms, does not have a significant influence on our national politics and discourse, especially as many more powerful people are. As such, I do believe content policies and their bearings on free speech are worth discussing very seriously.
      ———————————————————————————————–
      “You can put whatever you want on the internet—that is still true and will be true so long as the *actual* common carriers (ISPs and network backbone companies) don’t censor content, which they show no signs of doing in the US.”

      Sure, we can put whatever we want on the internet at this moment, but that is besides the point. Now that you bring it up, I wish I had clarified this in the article, so I will keep that in mind next time, thank you. The reason I am focused on Twitter is because of an at least somewhat shared understanding (although, I suppose, not between us :P) that it functions as a virtual public square and is at the nexus of much communication and discourse. You can say that I have some legal sense of free speech if I can put things on the internet, but the truth of the matter is that a lot more people will see it if placed on Twitter/FB, and so it doesn’t achieve the desired consequences of free speech. Similarly to how a culture of free speech is important for the law of free speech to take effect, some level of uniformity in ability to “speak” virtually is important.
      ——————————————————————————————
      “Do you not see the irony in claiming that the Big Scary Three-Letter Agencies are “dangerous and effective” internet censors, then backing up your claim with a bunch of publicly accessible links including the New York Times and The Guardian?”

      The New York Times, The Guardian, and other more “mainstream outlets” have always had remarkably courageous reporters who have broken incredible stories. However, the existence of these stories does not diminish the pressure which they have historically faced from both “management” and national security contacts to not publish these stories or information about these stories (for reasons beyond any legitimate claim to national security!). Two good examples of this, from No Place to Hide, are how the Post hid the locations of CIA blacksites in their 2005 report and how the New York Times had to wait for one full year to get approval for the publication of information about warrantless NSA programs. This was because of the collaboration between the national security state and journalistic outlets.

      In recent years, this relationship has become much more formalized, especially as opposition to Trump has aligned itself with security agencies who have advanced into more pronounced roles at various liberal-inclined outlets. That has made these outlets more reluctant to publish information, and when they do, it seems to be out of a reporter’s courage and/or the institution’s necessity (someone else already has, it will look bad). Furthermore, the information which has been revealed about their behavior is enough to draw conclusions about their broader operation, is it not?

      Look, I feel quite blessed that we have the First Amendment in the U.S., which largely prevents these entities from taking down information which has been published. I am very glad that our country makes it harder (although not impossible) for national security agencies to take down information from the entire internet or kill/imprison journalists (most of the time). But there is very disciplinary covert influence, surveillance (which itself implicitly supports censorship), and pressure, and there are great penalties for whistleblowers who leak information. That is why I didn’t say they are internet censors; that is a subtle misrepresentation of the piece on your part — I just said they attack free speech, have an interest in attacking free speech, and are using tech companies to do their bidding! There are examples of this — just because some of them are from Jacobin or Taibbi doesn’t make them false.
      ———————————————————————————————
      “There is not just one “Big Tech” or one “mainstream media” or even one “U.S. Government” that could be accurately modeled as a singular coordinated entity.”

      Firstly, I will note that I never used the phrase “U.S. Government,” so I do not know where you got that from. I think it is clear that I think the U.S. government has many functions, some of which can be quite excellent and others quite bad. One of my quotes from Jack Shafer of Politico used “government,” but my defense for him is encapsulated in my next point.

      However, to respond directly to this critique, I do generally agree that there is always a risk of losing nuance when we use broad categories to define collections of actors. However, in some way or the other, we do have to talk about larger institutions and structures, otherwise we will be stuck isolating problems and not paying broader attention to the larger contours of behavior which are formed — I want to focus on concentrations of power. Politicians use the word “Big Tech” all the time, the media uses the word “Big Tech” all the time, because we have some level of shared understanding for what it means and we have to talk about what this somewhat amorphous entity does in our society. A more single-agent analysis of the actors can be important, but that is a different kind of analysis which further reveals the inner workings of the multiplicity of institutional interests, and I welcome that! Related to this and the last comment, I should have also differentiated between broader tendencies of institutions that generally fall between “mainstream media” vs. the fact that they can put out great work.
      ——————————————————————————————-

      Thank you, and have a good day!

      Sincerely,
      Tarang Saluja

      Sources:
      https://www.statista.com/statistics/234245/twitter-usage-frequency-in-the-united-states/
      https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/06/27/twitter-is-the-go-to-social-media-site-for-u-s-journalists-but-not-for-the-public/
      https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/legacy/How-Mainstream-Media-Outlets-Use-Twitter.pdf
      https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/07/29/how-black-lives-matter-demands-accountability-twitter-when-it-works/
      https://www.mediamatters.org/twitter/anti-lgbtq-twitter-account-libs-tiktok-seemingly-inspired-attacks-florida-governors-press
      https://www.justsecurity.org/books-read/book-synopsis-place-left-hide/
      https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/sep/27/senior-cia-officials-trump-discussed-assassinating-julian-assange
      https://www.trtworld.com/perspectives/is-julian-assange-destined-to-die-in-a-us-prison-52827

    • Hello “A Swarthmore Student,”

      Thank you for your comment. I just wanted to address some of the points in your response.

      ——————————————————————————————

      “Twitter is useful for connection but about one percent of the US population actually actively uses the thing.”

      While it is true that a minority of the American population uses Twitter (22%, which is about 75 million), Twitter carries much traction among journalists. That is still a sizable portion, and of that 22%, roughly 84% use it weekly.

      However, what makes Twitter quite impactful is that it carries much traction among journalists, the people who are responsible for disseminating information. In fact, 69% of journalists use Twitter for work-related tasks, and if you take a look at the biggest outlets, like the NYT, CNN, FOX, etc., nearly all of the commentators/writers are relatively active on Twitter. Moreover, it has become increasingly common practice to even embed Tweets within news stories now, something which happened a lot during the Trump era.

      There are many instances of Twitter affecting our national politics. Consider that the Black Lives Matter movement’s usage of Twitter to organize, or the LibsofTikTok account’s usage of Twitter to influence politics in Florida with respect to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

      Yes, not everyone is on Twitter, but I would disagree that it, in conjunction with other social media platforms, does not have a significant influence on our national politics and discourse, especially as many more powerful people are. As such, I do believe Twitter content policies are worth discussing very seriously.

      ———————————————————————————————–

      “You can put whatever you want on the internet—that is still true and will be true so long as the *actual* common carriers (ISPs and network backbone companies) don’t censor content, which they show no signs of doing in the US.”

      Sure, we can put whatever we want on the internet at this moment, but that is besides the point. Now that you bring it up, I wish I had clarified this in the article, so I will keep that in mind next time, thank you. The reason I am focused on Twitter is because of an at least somewhat shared understanding (although, I suppose, not between us :P) that it functions as a virtual public square and is at the nexus of much communication and discourse. You can say that I have some legal sense of free speech if I can put things on the internet, but the truth of the matter is that a lot more people will see it if placed on Twitter/FB, and so it doesn’t achieve the desired consequences of free speech. Similarly to how a culture of free speech is important for the law of free speech to take effect, some level of uniformity in ability to “speak” virtually is important.

      ——————————————————————————————

      “Do you not see the irony in claiming that the Big Scary Three-Letter Agencies are “dangerous and effective” internet censors, then backing up your claim with a bunch of publicly accessible links including the New York Times and The Guardian?”

      The New York Times, The Guardian, and other more “mainstream outlets” have always had remarkably courageous reporters who have broken incredible stories. However, the existence of these stories does not diminish the pressure which they have historically faced from both “management” and national security contacts to not publish these stories or information about these stories (for reasons beyond any legitimate claim to national security!). Two good examples of this, from No Place to Hide, are how the Post hid the locations of CIA blacksites in their 2005 report and how the New York Times had to wait for one full year to get approval for the publication of information about warrantless NSA programs. This was because of the collaboration between the national security state and journalistic outlets.

      In recent years, this relationship has become much more formalized, especially as opposition to Trump has aligned itself with security agencies who have advanced into more pronounced roles at various liberal-inclined outlets. That has made these outlets more reluctant to publish information, and when they do, it seems to be out of a reporter’s courage and/or the institution’s necessity (someone else already has, it will look bad). Furthermore, the information which has been revealed about their behavior is enough to draw conclusions about their broader operation, is it not?

      Look, I feel quite blessed that we have the First Amendment in the U.S., which largely prevents these entities from taking down information which has been published. I am very glad that our country makes it harder (although not impossible) for national security agencies to take down information from the entire internet or kill/imprison journalists (most of the time). But there is very disciplinary covert influence, surveillance (which itself implicitly supports censorship), and pressure, and there are great penalties for whistleblowers who leak information. That is why I didn’t say they are internet censors; that is a subtle misrepresentation of the piece on your part — I just said they attack free speech, have an interest in attacking free speech, and are using tech companies to do their bidding! There are examples of this — just because some of them are from Jacobin or Taibbi doesn’t make them incorrect.

      ———————————————————————————————

      “There is not just one “Big Tech” or one “mainstream media” or even one “U.S. Government” that could be accurately modeled as a singular coordinated entity.”

      Firstly, I will note that I never used the phrase “U.S. Government,” so I do not know where you got that from. I think it is clear that I think the U.S. government has many functions, some of which can be quite excellent and others quite bad. One of my quotes from Jack Shafer of Politico used “government,” but my defense for him is encapsulated in my next point.

      However, to respond directly to this critique, I do generally agree that there is always a risk of losing nuance when we use broad categories to define collections of actors. However, in some way or the other, we do have to talk about larger institutions and structures, otherwise we will be stuck isolating problems and not paying broader attention to the larger contours of behavior which are formed — I want to focus on concentrations of power. Politicians use the word “Big Tech” all the time, the media uses the word “Big Tech” all the time, because we have some level of shared understanding for what it means and we have to talk about what this somewhat amorphous entity does in our society. A more single-agent analysis of the actors can be important, but that is a different kind of analysis which further reveals the inner workings of the multiplicity of institutional interests, and I welcome that! Related to this comment and the previous comment, I suppose I should have also noted the differences between the broader actions of the “mainstream media” vs. the great work that individual journalists at these entities do publish.

      ——————————————————————————————-

      Thank you, and have a good day!

      Sincerely,
      Tarang Saluja

      Sources:
      https://www.statista.com/statistics/234245/twitter-usage-frequency-in-the-united-states/
      https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/06/27/twitter-is-the-go-to-social-media-site-for-u-s-journalists-but-not-for-the-public/
      https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/legacy/How-Mainstream-Media-Outlets-Use-Twitter.pdf
      https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/07/29/how-black-lives-matter-demands-accountability-twitter-when-it-works/
      https://www.mediamatters.org/twitter/anti-lgbtq-twitter-account-libs-tiktok-seemingly-inspired-attacks-florida-governors-press
      https://www.justsecurity.org/books-read/book-synopsis-place-left-hide/
      https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/sep/27/senior-cia-officials-trump-discussed-assassinating-julian-assange
      https://www.trtworld.com/perspectives/is-julian-assange-destined-to-die-in-a-us-prison-52827

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