Robert Reich, a former U.S. secretary of labor who served under Bill Clinton between 1993 and 1997. Since 2006, he has been a professor of public policy at University of California Berkeley. He is one of today’s most prominent progressive economists and commentators.
His column, “Elon Musk’s Vision for the Internet Is Dangerous Nonsense”, attracted a lot of attention via social media Tuesday. It was published in The Guardian
Reich condemns Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. Reich then focuses on how Putin conceals the truth by outlawing opposition, imprisoning protesters, as well as prioritizing propaganda from government over independent media. Reich turns his attention then to ex-President Donald Trump and writes that social media companies’ decision to ban him was necessary in order to preserve American democracy.
Wait, a second: How does silence protecting a political view protect democracy? This is no different to Putin declaring that his suppression of dissidents is required in order to protect Russia. Reich seems to not realize that he condemns one type of tyranny and lionizes another. This leads him into an extremely strange attack on Tesla CEO Elon Tesla, who was recently the biggest shareholder in Twitter, having purchased a 9 per cent stake.
Musk has expressed misgivings about Twitter’s treatment of dissenting views, and is worried that the social media site—which serves an important function as a place of discussion and debate among the political and journalistic classes—is increasingly unfriendly to free speech. When we refer to free speech in Twitter, it is important that we are referring not only to the First Amendment but the principle of freedom speech. Because social media platforms are privately owned companies, the First Amendment allows them to establish whatever moderation policies and guidelines they wish. Anyone shadow-banned, de-platformed, blocked on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube cannot use the First Amendment as an excuse. We have the First Amendment right to condemn bad and hypocritical conduct without any restrictions. Regierung censorship.
Musk is right. I agree.
But not Robert Reich. He says:
Musk will use his influence to allow Trump to go. He will, I’m afraid.
Musk was a long-standing advocate for a libertarian vision that allows the internet to be “uncontrolled”. It is dangerous junk. It’s not possible to find such an animal and it will never be. …
In Musk’s vision of Twitter and the internet, he’d be the wizard behind the curtain – projecting on the world’s screen a fake image of a brave new world empowering everyone.
It would actually be the world ruled by the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet, with no accountability to the rest of the world for science, facts or the common welfare.
That’s Musk’s dream. Trump has his. Putin’s. It is the ultimate dream for every dictator, strongman and demagogue, as well as modern-day robber barons on Earth. It would be an entirely new nightmare for the rest of us.
Reich is unfortunately deeply confused. Reich is confused by the libertarian dream of an “uncontrolled internet”. Putin and other dictators want an uncontrolled internet. Controlled internet. Reich is also advocating for a controlled internet—and apparently likes the people who control it right now: i.e., the sort of progressive-minded moderators who don’t want people to read about the Black Lives Matter foundation spending millions in donations to buy up real estate rather than promote change, a story that Facebook decided to suppress.
An internet where Facebook hides the truth from users is a controlled internet—it’s just one controlled by people Reich approves of. Musk claims to desire something completely different. A social media platform where users can decide their beliefs and opinions, not suppressed information.
This vision will allow people to encounter incorrect information frequently. That’s true. But they will also be free to judge for themselves—and thus, we would run less risk as a society of having a truth vigorously suppressed from public discussion because it embarrasses someone in power. Facebook had refused for several months to let users discuss the laboratory leak theory. The policy is now in place, because the laboratory leak theory enjoys enough widespread credibility and plausibility to be accepted by everyone. The risk is that we may become blind to truth when we are trying to eradicate all lies.
Reich is not the only person who likes things just as they are. Ellen K. Pao was the ex-CEO of reddit. She wrote an opinion piece for The Washington PostIt will not be good for Twitter if “Elon Musk”‘s vision of free speech is realized. She writes that it will cause Twitter to suffer because Musk would like more people to use Twitter and not be censored.
Pao and Reich are not to be seen as rejecting tyranny when they dismiss free speech. It’s the opposite: It’s an embrace of tyranny—of a kind of tyranny that is popular in both Russia and China, the U.S.’s main political, social, and economic rivals. Russia and China aren’t interested in their citizens saying what they wish on social media. Elon Musk did. It’s what separates an uncontrolled liberty-oriented ethos for internet from the ethos that censors.