“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” — John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” 1859.
“We’re labeling @RealJStuartMill’s tweets with fact-checking links to additional information, since his writings could make him an ally to accounts which spread hate speech, violence and smallpox misinformation. In addition, Mill has been an advocate of the debunked conspiracy theory that women are capable voters.” — Twitter if it were around in 1867 or so.
Yes, historical Twitter is a bit of a reach, considering the social media service has been around since 2006 and now exists, 15 years later, in a time where the cultural left in the West has decided they’re the only moral beings who have ever tread upon this Earth.
In conjunction with our benevolent tech overlords, they’ll decide who you get to hear. Given that, it’s interesting to think, for instance, what they would have thought of Malcolm X having a Twitter account in the 1960s.
The point is that there’s one way for a politician to get their opinion out via a microblogging social media platform, and that’s Twitter.
Thus, the fact the site has silenced so many voices — no matter outré they may be — has irritated a whole lot of politicians, particularly after the lifetime ban against former President Donald Trump.
One of the irritated, surprisingly, is former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.
In an interview with former Vox impresario Ezra Klein for his new New York Times podcast this past week, the Vermont independent (and self-identified socialist) said he disagreed with Trump’s Twitter ban — although he didn’t particularly paint a flattering picture of the former president.
The answer came in response to Klein’s question: “Do you think there is truth to the critique that liberals have become too censorious and too willing to use their cultural and corporate and political power to censor or suppress ideas and products that offend them?”
“Look, you have a former president in Trump, who was a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, a pathological liar, an authoritarian, somebody who doesn’t believe in the rule of law,” Sanders responded.
“This is a bad-news guy. But if you’re asking me, do I feel particularly comfortable that the then-president of the United States could not express his views on Twitter? I don’t feel comfortable about that.”
“Now, I don’t know what the answer is. Do you want hate speech and conspiracy theories traveling all over this country? No. Do you want the internet to be used for authoritarian purposes and an insurrection, if you like? No, you don’t,” he continued.
“So how do you balance that? I don’t know, but it is an issue that we have got to be thinking about. Because yesterday it was Donald Trump who was banned, and tomorrow, it could be somebody else who has a very different point of view.
Sanders added that he doesn’t “like giving that much power to a handful of high-tech people. But the devil is obviously in the details, and it’s something we’re going to have to think long and hard on.”
If that’s a curious ally, keep kind there are others.
Take Alexei Navalny, the prominent Putin critic who was poisoned with a nerve agent on a flight to Moscow last year, also spoke out about the Twitter ban.
“In my opinion, the decision to ban Trump was based on emotions and personal political preferences,” Navalny wrote in a Twitter thread.
5. Don't tell me he was banned for violating Twitter rules. I get death threats here every day for many years, and Twitter doesn't ban anyone (not that I ask for it).
— Alexey Navalny (@navalny) January 9, 2021
“Don’t tell me he was banned for violating Twitter rules. I get death threats here every day for many years, and Twitter doesn’t ban anyone (not that I ask for it),” he continued.
“If you replace ‘Trump’ with ‘Navalny’ in today’s discussion, you will get an 80% accurate Kremlin’s answer as to why my name can’t be mentioned on Russian TV and I shouldn’t be allowed to participate in any elections.”
9. If you replace "Trump" with "Navalny" in today's discussion, you will get an 80% accurate Kremlin's answer as to why my name can't be mentioned on Russian TV and I shouldn't be allowed to participate in any elections.
— Alexey Navalny (@navalny) January 9, 2021
World leaders also hit back upon the suspension. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the suspensions were “troubling,” according to Reuters.
“The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” said Merkel in January in a statement through a spokesman. “Given that, the chancellor considers it problematic that the president’s accounts have been permanently suspended.”
“How can you censor someone? Let’s see, I, as the judge of the Holy Inquisition, will punish you because I think what you’re saying is harmful?” said Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, according to the Washington Examiner. “Where is the law, where is the regulation, what are the norms? This is an issue of government. This is not an issue for private companies.”
And yes, we hear all the time that Twitter is a private company and can do what it wants. It also has a monopoly on short-form, one-to-many speech right now — something that’s critical to politicians.
How many politicians can you think of without a Twitter account? GovTrack’s unofficial list of congressional Twitter accounts lists 522 accounts. Congress has 535 members.
And what about those that challenge them? Well, how many people running for president didn’t campaign on social media this last time? The answer is zero.
And yet, we’re going to operate under the assumption Twitter and other social media companies aren’t chilling free political speech when politicians are banned for life even though they may still be the top Republican contender for the 2024 nomination.
It’s rare that we get to say this, but Bernie Sanders is right: Our tech overlords don’t get to hack the First Amendment. John Stuart Mill, if he were around today, would agree.