No, Twitter Should Not Be Nationalized

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The Twitter Conservatives are channelling their inner central planner by their call for tighter regulation, or even nationalization of their primary social network. Actor cum conservative commentator James Woods Tweeted a link to an article reporting on radio host Jesse Kelly’s reinstatement to the platform with the caption, “When will Congress regulate these jokers?” He was then one-upped by another blue checkmark, Paul Shelter, who replied, “nationalize, don’t regulate.” Then, Will Chamberlain and Michael Malice somehow got involved, and the former posted a video, with the hope of persuading Malice, with his arguments in favor of nationalizing Twitter.

The video is good-natured and friendly towards Malice and others who disagree. He, like many conservatives, is frustrated with Twitter’s banning policy, which seems to discriminate against conservative viewpoints. He sees Twitter, headed by avowed liberal CEO Jack Dorsey, as being transformed into a left-wing propaganda platform. He says the arbitrariness of his censorship policy has been a tool for ideologues to silence opposition.

Those who identify with the right-wing are being suspended or banned for ambiguous reasons. In the case of the previously cited Jesse Kelly, his account was taken down for “repeat violation of Twitter rules,” without warning, or specifics on the offending content. He was just given back his account without explanation. Others who have been permabanned may or may not have violated the Terms of Service, but it’s enforced willy-nilly. Left-wing Tweeters with just as inflammatory content do not receive the same treatment.

Even though I am not a conservative, I do not agree with Twitter’s banning policy. It should be clearer and enforced more consistently. I’m even prepared to say that Jack Dorsey and the other Twitter heads have a political angle with enforcement. However, there is firstly nothing wrong with this, especially from a libertarian point of view, and regardless, the solution to censorship is not nationalization or even regulation of Twitter.

The issue with Twitter

The status quo is, says Chamberlain, “Our speech is being regulated by 20 liberals in a room in San Francisco.” The first response one might give is that being banned from Twitter doesn’t mean one cannot speak on other platforms, which is true, Chamberlain admits. But examples such as Milo Yiannopoulos show us that being removed from Twitter, the dominant discussion driver represents a significant diminishing of your outreach, and can lead to a cascade of banning on other platforms. The result is a “monopoly” of liberal orthodoxy.

Despite that, I would say, that’s just how the cookie crumbles. Firstly, if those platforms didn’t aggress against anyone in their removal of users, there’s nothing legally wrong occurring. Second, it represents society’s rejection of views being propagated with their facilitation. Twitter does not have an obligation to host views they disagree with, or even “facts they’re afraid of,” if the conservatives insist, at their own expense. You and I may not like the fact that Milo is banned almost everywhere, but we are not prevented from consuming his output. He has simply lost in the battle of ideas.

Above all, nobody has the right to a platform. That would represent a call to someone else’s labor on your behalf. Twitter didn’t come from the ether – it came from the foresight, ingenuity, and investment of entrepreneurs. Imagine if Twitter had been invented by a conservative instead, and its main purpose was to be a platform for conservatives to interact peer-to-peer. Then when it became popular, liberals complained that they were being marginalized, and called for the platform to be nationalized. Conservatives could rightly tell them where to stick it.

Is Twitter a monopoly? Chamberlain points out that Twitter does not make a profit, yet is valued at over $20 billion on the stock market. Investors value Twitter over profit-making institutions such as The New York Times because of its potential monopolizing influence. Profit only matters if there is competition, and there doesn’t seem to be any. The internet economy produces a winner-takes-all effect where one platform seems to represent full-spectrum dominance.

Yet this does not represent a literal monopoly. A monopoly is not just where there is no competition. It is when there cannot be any competition. There have been plenty of corporations and brands in the recent past who seemed to have had an unstoppable hold on their niche, yet are now forgotten. The obvious examples being Nokia and MySpace. It’s not obvious that Twitter will enjoy dominance forever, as they experience stock falls. They might find that it benefits them more, in the long run, to be more accommodating of opposing views. Provided the state is not involved, it cannot be a true monopoly.

The problem with State-run institutions

Chamberlain believes that a state-run Twitter would be better for free speech, even admitting that you cannot guarantee that your preferred party is in power at the time. He trusts in the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution to protect the right of dissenters to have their say. Citing journalist’s Jim Acosta’s reinstatement to Presidential press conferences through a court order, he argues that state-run institutions are more accountable when it comes to constitutionally protected rights.

This is a naive trust in the efficacy of government to protect rights. There are many ways that the government makes a mockery of the 1st amendment that doesn’t involve direct censorship. Even the current mainstream news bloc is not truly private – being stuck to the hip of government. You don’t need to censor anybody if you shape the terms of the debate.

Even in the case of Presidential press conferences, not everybody is allowed in. The realities of space and time prohibit everyone in the country with a press hat shoving a microphone in the President’s face. The parameters for letting people in necessarily limit the bounds of debate – the three by five card of allowable opinion.

This form of soft-censorship is apparent in the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Defenders of the BBC claim that it is not a state broadcaster in the sense that it is funded by a source separate from taxation, and is separate from the government. It’s true too that it does not explicitly put forward an agenda. The BBC agenda is more about streamlining the bounds of debate. You can disagree vociferously, providing it is within that impossibly small Overton window it presents.

As an example of this in action, check out this clip of a BBC Newsnight interview with Glen Greenwald around the time of the “Trump memo” in early 2017:

The presenter is happy to have him on, but as soon as Greenwald begins to question the validity of the CIA, she transforms from the dispassionate journalist to the ideological crusader. She is appalled by Greenwald’s assertion, and repeats it back in a tone that suggests, “It’s hard to believe anybody would ever dream of having this opinion.” It’s not censorship, but shame.

This is one example of how state broadcasters shape the terms of the debate without actual censorship. It’s true, Britain does not have the same constitutional protection for freedom of speech that the United States does, but regardless, what the BBC does is not directly denying a platform to anyone, or censoring at all. It’s a sleight of hand that the US government would be just as capable of doing if Twitter was nationalized.

They could do this via filtering – only showing “appropriate and relevant” content at the top of the feed. They could have keyword filtering. In other words, the many means in which Twitter soft-censors now will be available to the government too. It’s irrelevant if nobody is banned if nobody can see their content in the first place.

Moreover, nationalization of media is a totalitarian option more becoming of communist hyper states than those that supposedly champion individual freedom and a free press. No one seriously denies that RT, despite its occasional good journalism, is primarily designed to be a defender of the Russian regime. It is not a means to protect the rights of the Russian people. Suggesting the US Twitter would be anything else other than The Ministry of Truth, like every other state broadcaster, is ungrounded speculation.

International quagmires

There are also severe practical problems that prevent Twitter from being nationalized. Twitter is an international platform. Even though the US is the biggest Twitter user, Japan comes close, followed by the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia. Twitter is also known for hosting content put out by extremist political groups such as The Islamic State. The nationalization of Twitter would necessarily produce a conflict of interest as the US might be obligated to host content by opponents of the West.

The other option would be that the US would only be obligated to host opinions of American citizens, as they are the only ones whose speech is protected by the constitution. The government could then censor content from other countries as it saw fit. That’s all fine until international content legitimately challenges the US government. Content that might be of interest to the American people could reasonably be censored under the excuse of protecting national security.

No, it is better that Twitter is politically independent. Although not perfect, and some views are bound to be marginalized, the alternative presents more serious moral hazards.

The problem is State power

Will Chamberlain does highlight a real problem with the relationship between social media and government. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Twitter is a dominant platform with a liberal political agenda, it is an issue that those persuaded by that agenda will then go to lobby government to change public policy. But that is a problem with state power, not with Twitter per se. You could argue for nationalization of just about anything, as just about any institution can influence government.

It is inherently nonsensical to combat state control with more state control. Nationalising Twitter only increases the potential spoils of political power. There will be even more incentive for censorship and control as any slight change in tone could produce serious policy repercussions.  It will create more conflict as opinion will only be more influential in our lives.

Let’s take for example the almost perennial issue of prayer in schools. The only reason why we still argue about this is that of the inherent zero-sum-game that comes from government coercion. It wouldn’t be necessary to vociferously debate about the merits of prayer in school if people were free to choose schools based on their own will. As it stands, education is compulsory, so no matter who wins, someone has to lose. In a free society, there are schools with prayer and schools without. Parents may choose either.

So too with the media, we must err on the side of freedom. Nationalization is inherently a violation of liberty.

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James Michael Smith

Contributor to Think Liberty. Writer and film-maker from the UK. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'. Cineaste.