The Armageddon of Free Speech

Just a few days ago, as many will remember, Elon Musk trolled CNN by posting on Twitter a meme with a fake headline attributed to the the cable news network.  The image included a screenshot of anchor Don Lemon next to a stock photo of Musk.  The headline read, "CNN: Elon Musk could threaten free speech on Twitter by literally allowing people to speak freely."  Needless to say, CNN's public relations department quickly posted a screenshot of Musk's tweet, which included a disclaimer saying that the tweet was in violation of Twitter's rules.  In response, Musk brushed off CNN's response, tweeting: "Lmaoooo."  Those are the initials for "laughing my a-- off."

In addition to being funny, the episode was also in some ways incredibly meaningful and emblematic.  In other words, the "fake headline" was not so fake.  On the contrary, it was a brutal and effective synthesis of the way liberals, leftists, and progressives approach the issue of freedom of speech.  They put things less crudely; they are so often sophisticated intellectuals who speak elegantly and like to dance around things instead of getting straight to the point.  But the final result is always the same.  Their reproach for the supporters of freedom of speech — or what they call "free speech absolutists" —  is that "free speech is not simply about saying whatever you want, unchecked, but about negotiating complicated compromises."  According to the critics of Elon Musk, the "rhetoric of free speech absolutists" fails to understand that "for some speech to be free, other speech has to be limited."

It's curious that most of the time, their arguments are self-referential and self-assertive statements and propositions: "Like Trump, Musk has become the tribune of fascists and racists by way of adolescent contrarianism, an insatiable need to flaunt his control and a radicalising inability to cope with being told he's wrong on the internet.  For him, 'free speech' seems merely a vehicle for his delusional plan to make Twitter into a fawning 'digital town square' that he presides over."

Do you remember the medieval ipse dixit argument?  "He (Aristotle) said it himself," serving as a phrase capable of ending arguments.  Now it has become, "We (liberals, progressives, etc) say so."  It's true because we say it's true, and if you don't agree with us, you are a fascist/racist/homophobe, etc., and we don't want your kind here.  It's the contrary — o tempora, o mores! — of the answer Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis gave in 1927 to the question, "When someone says something we disagree with, should we shut them up?"  "The remedy to be applied," he said, "is more speech, not enforced silence."

That's also the rationale behind what White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre once said: "When you are not with what majority of Americans are, then you know, that is extreme.  That is an extreme way of thinking."  It's the triumph of self-referentiality.  The definition of what is meant by the term "extreme" is entirely arbitrary and light-years away from the principles of liberal democracy as we have known it.

The massive "immune response" to Elon Musk's commitment to free speech from left-wing activists, mainstream media, and Big Tech prompted journalist Colin Wright to tweet that people should be frightened.  "This is a battle they cannot be allowed to win," he wrote.  Musk responded, "This is a battle for the future of civilization.  If free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead."  That seems to be the best way to put things.  This is the Armageddon of free speech.  If we lose, it's the end of Western civilization.

It's not by chance that on the one hand, Elon Musk's $44-billion takeover of Twitter is being investigated by federal authorities over national security concerns that his foreign partners may be able to access user data, and on the other, the E.U. commissioner responsible for implementing the upcoming Digital Services Act (DSA), Thierry Breton, recently said that Twitter has "huge work ahead" to get ready for the bloc's strict new rules for online platforms.  He posted a short video clip of a meeting with CEO Elon Musk, saying that he welcomed Musk's "intent to get Twitter 2.0 ready for the DSA."  But Twitter "will have to implement transparent user policies, significantly reinforce content moderation and tackle disinformation."  He also told the Financial Times that Twitter needs to make a number of changes to meet the DSA's requirements.  It will need to "aggressively" tackle disinformation, submit to an audit, provide clear criteria about which users are at risk of being banned, and carefully consider how it lifts bans in the future.  It's almost a declaration of war. 

It's not just Brussels that is on the warpath.  French digital minister Jean-Noël Barrot didn't appreciate Twitter's change of policy on COVID-related information.  "COVID-19 and vaccination misinformation [are] now freely available on Twitter.  Another milestone is reached in irresponsibility," he tweeted.  In turn, in an interview with U.S. broadcaster ABC, French president Emmanuel Macron called Twitter's decision "a big issue."  "I think we need to take the issue head-on, I'm in favor of the exact opposite, more regulation," he added.  

In short, the die is cast. The Armageddon of free speech has just begun.

Samuel Robert Piccoli is a blogger and the author of the books Being Conservative from A to Z (2014) and Blessed Are the Free in Spirit (2021).  He lives in the Venice area.

Image: Elon Musk.  Credit: JD Lasica via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0 (cropped).

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