“Can’t go through it on the old iambic pentameter,” mused Albert Corde, one of Saul Bellow’s usual literary stand-ins. “Must modernize” he concluded when trying to understand a senseless and grizzly urban murder.
That advice—to ditch the old mental formulations in light of present conditions—is a helpful heuristic for contending with the seriated Twitter Files.
What’s that? You say I’ve already addressed the birdsite’s internal leaks in these pages? And that no tweetie dispatch broke revelatory ground, because ghost banning and reply deboosting of heterodox (meaning: right-wing) users was long suspected?
Fair enough. That social media is inherently geared toward muffling the right’s digital windpipe isn’t news. But now, thanks to the eccentric whims of electric car magnate Elon Musk, conservatives finally have a consistent leg to stand on when opposing online censorship: the government! I knew it was the government! Even when it was the subcontracted Twitter moderators, I knew it was the government!
In true aspie spectrum style, Musk approved a slew of Twitter File releases in the run-up to Christmas, with one dropping just as Ol’ St. Nick was making his rounds. So what did Santa Musk give all the good little conservative boys and girls? A loophole to object to a private company exercising its freedom of association
The Xmas Eve Files revealed just how hands-on the federal bureaucomplex is with monitoring the Twittersphere. “The files show the FBI acting as doorman to a vast program of social media surveillance and censorship, encompassing agencies across the federal government—from the State Department to the Pentagon to the CIA,” observed veteran journalist and Musk confidante Matt Taibbi. Essentially, J. Edgar Hoovercrats regularly arranged meetings between their capacious cluster of ex-colleagues in San Francisco and their federal near-peers. This coordination—or, dare I say, collusion?—between mods and feds was aimed at muting a mix of ideological conspiracies, from COVID vaccine skepticism to questions over election integrity.
Quick aside: talk about a demotion. Imagine you’re a mid-level spook used to planning “organic” coups in unstable countries, but now you’re assigned to sleuthing out what user @trumppatriot69 is tweeting about Philly poll drudges tossing Republican ballots in the Schuylkill River. From planting the Shah in Tehran to rooting out online anti-vaxxers—oh, how far our Langley boys have fallen.
Intervention under the guise of misinformation mending wasn’t the only reason the Deep State pushed its weight on social media companies. Alphabet agencies also actively encouraged Twitter to blacklist the Hunter Biden laptop reportage, providing an electoral boost to then-candidate Joe. The FBI—easily the biggest offender in internet info policing—informed Twitter executives that the incriminating computer may have been a Russian hack job despite having the machine in their possession for over a year and clearly knowing it wasn’t a foreign op, but another foible from a careless, crackhead, silver-spooned brat.
The FBI used a false premise to bully a private company into covering up a notable news story on behalf of a Democratic candidate for president, all without an in-kind payment filing to the FEC. In other words, the Bureau spread misinformation in the name of fighting misinformation. Oh, Orwell, we hardly knew ye!
All told, the conservative case for objecting to online censorship has been bolstered by the government’s bumbling foray into discourse-correction. No longer must the right’s intellectual set make up abstract arguments about “digital public squares” and “common carry” laws, or lawyerly gobbledygook about whatever 47 U.S.C. § 230 is, to justify state intervention into online gagging. No more publicity-sniffing senators introducing an Internet Bill of Rights on Tucker Carlson Tonight to rationalize Washington-enforced free speech.
Charges of hypocrisy carry less weight now—these are, as Sohrab Ahmari puts it, “state-directed private-sector censors” on patrol. The former leaves the latter open to conservative criticism, even as an ostensibly private company is still applying posting muzzles. The right can comfortably recede to more familiar argumentative waters: IT’S THE GOVERNMENT’S FAULT! Even the hardest of hardcore Rothbardians can be onboard with smashing the state… surveillance of online information dissemination. Or, as anarcho-economist Walter Block puts it, “[a]ll major problems can be fairly laid at the door of the government.”
The old Oppenheimerian public-private distinction keeps its grips on the conservative mind. But I’m afraid the binary no longer holds up given the nature of the state and modern technology—or, at least, it’s not as cut and dry. This view is not a question of tax designation, but of scale. The so-called FAANG firms have, taken together, more financial assets and resultant influence clout than most governments on earth. The bigness of these companies matches the seemingly boundless girth of our leviathan along the Potomac. As Matthew Walther once wrote, “the resources that any of these firms would be able to marshal in the event of an actual antitrust prosecution would dwarf the legal forces currently available to the relevant departments of the executive branch.” PayPal can’t jail you, but it can appropriate your funds and leave you destitute.
We aren’t talking about a scrappy billion-dollar tech empire resisting the pernicious demands of the DOJ to install easy-to-breach spyware anymore. Silicon Valley and Washington have achieved a symbiosis: bureaucrats act as de facto Twitter referees, Amazon runs the security complex’s servers. As Elon Musk soon discovered after taking Twitter’s reins: “*Every* social media company is engaged in heavy censorship, with significant involvement of and, at times, explicit direction of the government.”
The arrangement—privatized profits for tech concerns, socialized supervision—is too beneficial to both parties to simply adopt pure nationalization or give Facebook a chair on the UN’s Human Rights Council. Surveillance capitalism’s incentive structure maintains the perfect balance for plausible deniability: social-media mods can scrub accounts without limits while suggesting it came at the behest of a DC bureaucrat. Meanwhile, the government can maintain the fiction that the technopolists act independently of state coercion.
The dynamic is a funny-paper cartoon of two Colossus looking askance at each other but surreptitiously shaking hands out of eyeline from the viewer. Or Dr. Fauci and Bill Gates toasting with Pfizer-booster cocktails while sitting on mounds of money. The robber barons of old never had it so good.
To address big-tech-big-government operational singularity, libertarian epistemology needs a firmware update. The old iambic pentameter of the state is not legitimate ever isn’t enough. The villain isn’t just a one-dimensional concrete, colonnaded hall anymore. It’s an entire abstract apparatus, diffused throughout the country and permeating into everyday life.
This new-found recognition isn’t a justification for going full-bore nation-conservative and demanding Facebook’s keys be given over to Republican boomers, or forcibly relegating all gender-weird communists to Tumblr. (Though separate digital fiefdoms per ideology does sound pleasant—social media subsidiarity!) But it is about recognizing reality: the government’s monopoly force is exercised hand and glove with Bay Area techiecrats.
Happy New Year and happy new paradigms.