Legally speaking, all American women or people of color or both who have ever been discussed in a meeting or been denied a book deal or not hired to give their opinion on television benefit from the protections of the First Amendment. Constitutional protection of speech does not, by itself, create a society in which the opportunity to be heard is truly abundant, free and fairly distributed.
“The freedom of the wolves has often meant the death of the sheep,” Mr. Berlin once said. This is a point often lost on Americans. Government – or great centralized authority – is a threat to freedom, but not the only one. When it comes to speech, what has often stopped many people from speaking out is not censorship but the lack of a platform. Social media, including Twitter, came in and promised to change that. But when it became a cesspool of hatred and harassment for women and people of color in particular, it began to offer a miserable bargain: you can be free to say what you want, but your life can be taken back. inexorably painful if you dare.
The “censorship” that Mr. Musk performatively laments is efforts to rectify these very real issues of harassment and abuse. Twitter took modest but extremely inadequate measures to improve security on the platform. He admitted he had a problem. He recognized positive freedom of expression – the creation of a safe and non-obtrusive environment for the broadcasting of thoughts. And that’s what Mr. Musk and his ilk seem to hate.
That’s why his deal to buy Twitter is so dangerous. In recent years there has been progress towards positive freedom of expression – real work to give everyone, really everyone, a more meaningful opportunity to speak. Mr. Musk apparently wants to shut this down. Instead, in a moment of proto-fascism on the political right, his priority seems to be countering the flood of bile and bigotry, bullying and misinformation.
The country is already facing the very real prospect, from noon on January 20, 2025, of a descent into racist authoritarianism and a protracted slide away from liberal democracy. If your idea of what the country needs right now is less repression of hate and lies and more right-wingers gone mad, phew.
The plutocrats have already rigged the economy. This is only the first step. Then you take some of the loot and reinvest it into buying even more political influence, so that political inequality can help maintain economic inequality. You buy media or social media platforms and can help rig the narrative in your favor, taking control of the tools ordinary people use to fight back. You venture, as Mr. Musk did, to a TED talk and, without too much hindsight, brand yourself as some sort of public intellectual, thought leader, visionary, and so on, in the mind of many people, you have become a sage, not a robber baron. .
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can have beautiful things. But we’re going to have to learn to see through the fraudulent stories that elevate characters like Mr. Musk to heroes. We’re going to have to legislate real safeguards – perhaps like those created by the European Union’s Digital Services Act – on social media platforms that are too big to entrust democracy. We’re going to have to create non-profit alternatives to platforms and see if they can become meaningful places.