Columns
Premium

Too Fast and Too Furious: Where Will the Free Speech Big Chill Lead?

Pelosi's unhinged tweet about the "hijacked" election, May, 2017. Twitter has never labeled or blocked this tweet.

Snow doesn’t usually stick in central Texas. When it falls, which is rare enough, the ground is usually too warm for it to last more than a few seconds.

Several years ago I worked in a tall office building in downtown Austin. One wintry afternoon, from our perches high above the streets we could see snowflakes drifting toward the ground. The flakes evaporated on their way down, though. The ground and the air around it was just too warm for the snow to land and pile up.

This past weekend we got a very rare sight in these parts. The air was cold and though the ground hadn’t frozen the snow just fell too much, too fast. It landed, it stuck, and it accumulated, a couple of inches of the stuff. 

There was little danger save for Texans’ lack of experience driving in snow. It was a beautiful sight, and even better was seeing our neighbors out walking and enjoying it, kids playing in snow for the first time in their lives, and hearing the silence that snow brings when it blankets the earth. For a few hours you’d be forgiven for forgetting there’s a pandemic out there and our politics and professional politicians are all spinning completely out of control. 

Spinning out of control they certainly are. The fact is, they have been for at least the past four years. In May 2017, with no evidence at all, one of the Democrats’ key leaders and the Speaker of the House tweeted this. 

America
Pelosi’s unhinged tweet about the “hijacked” election, May, 2017. Twitter has never labeled or blocked this tweet.

It was irresponsible. Pelosi knowingly stoked embers into flames. She’s still on Twitter with no known strikes against her. The tweet was never tagged with a “missing context” disclaimer and it piled up the likes and retweets as inflammatory social media posts tend to do. Usually that’s the only consequence. That’s a feature of social media, not a bug. What you reward, you tend to get more of. 

No one called for Pelosi to lose her Twitter account at that time.

This past year, chaos has accelerated. 2020 began with a sham impeachment then lurched into a pandemic that has tested the nation and found many of the states far from united. They’re divided in the lengths they will go against citizens and the constitution, and in the rhetoric and actions making news and feeding the algorithms that populate our social media feeds. George Floyd’s death in police hands became a national powder keg followed by riots and by fundamental rhetorical attacks on our country as “systemically racist.” No Democrat stood up to defend America’s basic goodness. Cities defunded their police, unleashing a crime wave that has not stopped. If America had a dashboard, all the lights on it would be flashing. 

In normal times, prior to 10 years ago or so, there would be some respite from some of this. News didn’t always travel so fast but now it’s in our instant alerts on our phones even if we’re miles from any TV or radio and even if we’re trying to avoid it. As I’m walking in the snow taking photos Sunday I see alerts that this company and that one are deplatforming the right with frightening speed. 

We’re fed news and instant reaction in our social media feeds, which are curated by our interests and our habits, and we’re encouraged to react in public, right now, no thought, no research, just react. Those feeds shape how we think and what we feel about things. They’re designed to feed us more of what we react to, to keep us engaged on social media longer and more often, so the owners of those platforms make more money from us. It can be a vicious cycle on a good day. You start a quick scroll and get sucked in. America hasn’t had a good day in a long time now. 

These free social media services come with a steep price. We’re the product, as many have said before, but here’s a new wrinkle: If we’re the product, the owners can decide to just take us off the shelf. Twitter did that to President Trump, and now nearly 20 technology companies have removed him and his operations. The PGA took away its 2022 golf championship from Trump’s resort. Corporate America is halting political donations to Republicans. Facebook removed Brandon Straka’s Walk Away page from Facebook, for no evident reason. The crackdown swept through the social media old guard, which destroyed the operations of competitor Parler by deleting its ability to reach customers and even function — dropping a digital Berlin Wall on those who simply wish to escape the stifling confines of Facebook and Twitter. I’d had a Parler account for some time. Google, Apple and Amazon collectively stopped my ability to use that service. Did they coordinate their actions? Should they have so much power?

In the beginning social media cast themselves as benign digital public squares. Did anyone realize the implications of having these “public” squares owned by unaccountable and agenda-driven individuals? I certainly didn’t when I first signed up for both more than a decade ago. They were novel and fun, ways to connect with family and friends and watch cat videos. But they’re not public at all. Now they can kick you out for any or no reason and their allies can make it impossible to do private business. A friend of mine used Twitter for her business before the pandemic, and to network and message with other businesses reacting to and protesting (peacefully) the shutdowns. Twitter cut her off from all of her followers with no warning. They were just — poof! — gone. GoDaddy deplatformed AR15.com. Why? They’re emboldened. Or they’re frightened of what the newly empowered Democrats will do to them if they don’t deplatform sites the Democrats deem deplorable. 

Big Tech’s actions aren’t a government silencing citizens. It may be worse: an unaccountable oligarchy hiding behind carefully crafted laws while dictating its arbitrary and changing standards on everyone it decides to, because it can. 

Republicans aren’t the only ones alarmed by Twitter and Facebook’s actions. Figures ranging from Germany’s Angela Merkel, who is no fan of Trump, to actress and model Emily Ratajkowsky, who supports BLM, to the ACLU, expressed shock or raised concerns at Big Tech’s unchecked power. Merkel grew up in communist East Germany, by the way. 

Former Rep. Ron Paul joined Big Tech’s critics. Facebook responded by suspending him. Facebook didn’t take this action against the 85-year-old libertarian out of safety, the stated reason for quashing Trump. Then why did they? Twitter won’t say. Who will make them answer for their actions? Who even can?

At the same time, Facebook knows its addictive algorithms are a major problem. An internal report found:

“Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” read a slide from a 2018 presentation. “If left unchecked,” it warned, Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.”

Here we are. It wasn’t left unchecked, it was enhanced. They knew the product poses real dangers. They pushed it on us anyway. With each update, are they making it even more effective?

In any other time, the Democrats would be the first to slam a big corporation for pushing a bad product on an unsuspecting public. Why are they not now? Cui bono?

Antifa rioters used social media to organize, communicate, and foment deadly violence in numerous American cities in the second half of 2020. They still do, as Andy Ngo demonstrates on Twitter and his website week after week. They brag about it. Portland is still subjected to nightly riots. Democrats failed to denounce the violence when their words could have made a difference and saved lives. Cooler heads should have prevailed months ago. They didn’t. Americans have died. Sections of cities are burned. 

Big Tech did nothing but now social media is banning figures on the American right, while leaving genocidal tweets from Iran’s brutal dictators publicly available, until they got called out for a stunning double standard. They didn’t delete Ayatollah Khameini’s tweet because it was the right thing to do. They did it because they believed they had to. 

None of this is right or normal. And it’s all spinning out of control faster than anyone can contain. The madness has a mind of its own now and no one — not Pelosi, not Joe Biden, not Kamala Harris who called for Twitter to banish Trump months ago — knows where it will lead. They may think they do. History shows that events can take on an iron logic all their own and the leaders become the enemy, as Robespierre and so many have in the past. 

In ordinary times, probably none of this would have happened. States would not have changed their election rules outside the legislative process. Those legal and constitutional processes have been shunted aside in the name of “safety” against the very real and some exaggerated COVID-related emergencies. This led to grave doubts about the election that were never fully aired. Conspiracies about and social media feeds them. Millions of Americans wouldn’t have spent months on end with their main, perhaps only, connections to the outside world being the algorithms designed to keep feeding us and stoking emotions. Millions wouldn’t have had their businesses shuttered, their schools closed, their cities engulfed in riots, with feckless local leaders heeding the “systemic racism” call and shirking their basic duties to their fellow citizens. Everything got kicked out of balance.

Then we had a disputed election, a rally, the president’s speech that promised too much and put his vice president in an untenable position on January 6, and a riot at the heart of our republic, all after four years of the toxic Russia hoax and an unending stream of lies and smears directed at Trump and his supporters. Even before the election it was dangerous to publicly support Trump. Now? 

The threats from Pelosi, her disgusting racist catcall, and her move to get the military to deny the chain of command, the obscene language from former CIA head John Brennan, the media pile-on, the threats to people’s livelihoods, the shock of the riot and death at the Capitol. The beating murder of Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick, who supported Trump, shocks us. The police shooting of Ashli Babbitt also shocks us. The violence done to the Capitol itself shocks us. The violence done to our bedrock rights should shock all of us too, but that’s passing through a partisan lens. 

After a terrible year it’s all too much, too fast, too furious, and there’s no outlet and no end to the strife in sight. It’s likely to get worse. The algorithms are in our heads now, rewarding extreme reactions with likes and retweets whether we’re on social media or not. What you reward, you get more of.

The nation’s massive problems continue to accumulate and pile up. Months of riots that have done billions in damage. A deeply wounded economy, jobs disappearing. “Two weeks to flatten the curve” was almost a year ago. A generation missing school despite the clear science that it’s safe for them to return to the classroom. A government dangerously overspending by the trillion. China growing stronger and more influential over speech and thought norms worldwide. The final end of the media’s credibility. The end of anyone anywhere thinking our government will defend us, our rights, our families, or our property, as Americans, in our own cities. The death of trust among friends and family because of how they voted, who they listen to, whether they wanted to reopen their business or wear masks, and whether they might turn on you at some point over a tweet, a video, or a theory.  

They might. That’s the reality. Our nation was, recently, strong enough to melt away any threat, any insult. No amount of threats could come at us fast enough. No challenge could break us.

But what about now, after months of violence and slanders, after the lie of “systemic racism,” the looming economic crunch, the riots, the deplatforming, and the nation now in the hands of those who slandered it, who were at best silent when riots burned our cities, and now seek to silence and perhaps criminalize millions?