In an op-ed for The Hill published on September 30, Donald Trump, Jr. rails against the power of the major internet platforms, saying that “free speech is under attack” by Big Tech. His complaint, of course, is that the big internet platforms are censoring what he calls conservative voices, blaming “the technology giants that deplatform people at the behest of liberals and then justify the action as ‘combating hate.’”
Don Jr.’s call to “break up” Big Tech is, ironically enough, a call for the industry to return to its pre-2016 policy of zero platform responsibility, to accepting revenue from any source while making little effort to mitigate hateful, violent, or illegal content—even if it happens to be paid for in Rubles. Because of course without the babbling chaos that social media created in the first place, there would be no reality in which a patently incompetent and indecent man like Donald Trump becomes President of the United States. Most real conservatives know this to be true and, I suspect, will be saying so in the relatively near future.
Seeking to align Trumpism with original patriotism, The Donald 2.0 extolls the virtues of a Reddit mob blasting Beto O’Rourke as if this kind of engagement were exemplary of the American Framers’ fondest ambitions for free speech and a free press. He writes …
“The free press that the founders envisioned looked a lot more like the Reddit users who roasted [Beto] O’Rourke than New York Times writers who misrepresent basic tenets of free speech and demand censorship to protect their friends from “online harassment.”
There is nothing surprising about a Trump making a hash of history. While Junior is perhaps correct to remind Americans that living in a society with free speech “…can be edgy, brutal, irreverent, and sometimes downright offensive,” he misrepresents the sensibilities of the Framers in a significant and telling way. Even a digest version of the reading material makes one thing very clear about America’s key architects: to a man, they were intellectual elitists who harbored few illusions about the hazards of democracy and the consequences of succumbing to the tyranny of the mob. Not even Jefferson, in his most Jacobean zeal, would likely view the average social-media skirmish with anything but contempt for the general abandonment of evidence-based reason in these discourses that so often devolve to threats and harassment. As scholar Mary Anne Franks writes in the abstract of her paper “Fearless Speech” …
“The American conception of free speech is primarily defined as the freedom to say whatever one wants, with little regard for the quality, context, or impact of the speech. Thus, American free speech doctrine is often characterized as neutral with regard to the speaker and the content of speech; in practice, however, it consistently privileges powerful over vulnerable speakers and harmful over critical speech.”
Perhaps most relevant to Don Jr.’s twisted premise is that the Framers who were especially apprehensive about the too-passionate mob, men like Hamilton, are the progenitors of the American conservative tradition. Those stuffy, patrician, and, yes, arrogant authors of the United States, who tended to display a bit too much anglophilia for the tastes of many of their contemporaries, also served as intellectual ballast in a nation that was born volatile and restless. The men who wrote the Constitution were students of the Enlightenment, not an angry, pitchfork-wielding rabble. That was the French Revolution.
The principle that the rule of law is a foundation of liberty spawned a conservatism grounded in reason, truth, and a moral context that was at least definable, if not universal enough to embrace America’s inevitable diversity. In short, there is no historic or doctrinal link between the Federalists and the straightjacket ravings of someone like Alex Jones. The Founders never hoped that the speech right would foster a circus, where evidence rooted in science would be trampled by popular consensus—let alone the kind of algorithmic sabotage at work in our politics of the moment.
As surely as MTV made Madonna, Twitter made President Trump—albeit not intentionally. Where else, other than the miasma of the Twitterverse could a man whose political bona fides began with a racist conspiracy theory attain the highest office in the land? Big Tech’s folly is not that some of its operators finally had the sense to remove an Alex Jones or a Daily Stormer from their servers, but that they initially promoted a doctrine of internet non-governance, which fostered the only medium in which neo-Nazis and sociopaths were somehow invited into tent of conservatism. That anyone would tolerate, let alone defend, the President’s recent tweets about “civil war” (a literal incitement to violence and treason), is the apotheosis of Big Tech’s misguided ideologies and a grotesque aberration of the Federalist cause.
Responding as a member of an unofficial society of Big Tech critics, I find Junior’s rationale for “breaking up” Google, Facebook, et al profoundly dysfunctional and unhelpful in a policy discussion that is already difficult to have. While many of us are advocating platform responsibility, he wants to goad those platforms to resume hosting all material without restraint, to reinvigorate Barlow’s too-idealistic notion of a world where laws do not apply. But of course that’s what he would do. How else could the United States suborn a President who flaunts his contempt for the rule of law and unironically asserts “alternative facts”? That is the internet ethos in spades, and Trump’s presidency is the Golem that Silicon Valley brought to life.
© 2019, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.