David French’s recent commentary on the conservative response to social media’s, in particular Twitter’s, escalating suppression of political speech challenged me to fully understand my own position. A few years ago, when Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from the platform, and various “purges” began to occur, I argued firmly that Twitter was a private company and we were using it freely. If they wanted to remove certain commentary that offended other users, it was their right to do so. I no longer hold this view.
French wrote, in six tweets: "When you hear increasing right-wing... calls for government oversight of social media speech policies, it's vitally important to understand some of the career/economic context. Many of the people most alarmed made a gamble.
"They invested enormous time, energy, and effort into a platform they didn't create, don't control, and use for free. They've built impressive followings here, sometimes through edge-lord behavior, skating at the outer margins of Twitter's policies.
"As progressive speech values shift (after all, this is a site created by progressives and run by progressives) some of that on-the-line tweeting is going to cross newly-created lines, thus jeopardizing all that effort and risking extinguishing their primary public presence.
"That's why the debate often takes on a slightly-crazed tone. It's not merely an abstract debate over constitutional principles and corporate values. Lots of folks went all-in on creating an edgy presence on arguably the most progressive social media site.
"They don't want to start over on Facebook. They don't want to flee to Gab. Nor do they want to start from scratch on TikTok... or Snapchat or YouTube or Reddit. And they're certainly not content to 'only' write on the platforms they own.
"So here we are, in the grips of an incredibly self-interested effort to pull more and more of the government into social media regulation, even to the point of potentially overriding long-cherished First Amendment freedoms. It's important to understand one reason why."
Over time, my position changed as I saw the power and influence that Twitter, in particular, held in the political conversation. While the focus was on the more extreme styles of political commentary coming from the right, Milo was, after all a strong proponent of free expression, similar in nature to leftwing heroes like Madonna and Lady Gaga, a larger picture came into focus. Just like the removal of Confederate-era statues today, the left was not simply going to stop once the more abrasive elements were removed.
In 2015 and prior, President Obama’s official account tweeted, certainly. But it was the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump that demonstrated the power of this platform for political speech. Ever since then, the primary outlet for direct speech from elected leaders, across the spectrum, is via Twitter. We have watched establishment leaders to brand new voices all shake the political ground from coast to coast with mere tweets, 280 characters. The honest and directness of this communication is unlike anything we have seen before.
The news in its form from just a few years ago has dramatically shifted to this platform. Journalists live-tweet and share video of current events directly rather than through the filter of a news broadcast. The method of communicating political ideas in long form— such as this essay— are shared across many platforms, but it is Twitter where they receive direct and immediate commentary. An article on Facebook may receive thousands of comments, but the author of a tweet sees every response directly.
While French is correct that Twitter is a progressive platform created by progressives, he does not yet recognize that the medium has grown exponentially beyond being just another platform to express ideas. All major social media platforms are progressive platforms. It is an ideological monopoly, and despite dismissal from many who grew up without such concepts, represents not only a record of modern life, but access to it as well.
French’s argument is based largely on an older idea of social media stating, evidenced by his statement that “They invested enormous time, energy, and effort into a platform they didn't create, don't control, and use for free. They've built impressive followings here, sometimes through edge-lord behavior, skating at the outer margins of Twitter's policies.”
While he is accurate in his assessment of many voices in politics, he does not recognize that Twitter is made up of all of our voices and it functions as a live conversation of the human experience.
Many who agree with French’s assessment of Twitter, and social media in general, see only the origin and the purpose, but do not understand the impact. Twitter is powerful because the media came to it and chose to use it as a primary method of communication. Politicians did the same. World leaders, national and world organizations, public health officials, the police and so on have come to rely on the platform for widespread, instantaneous mass communication. The world chose Twitter for its technological ability, just as the world chose radio, television and telephones in prior eras, not its ideological purpose.
Twitter is a method of communication, not just a private company offering a free service. It is how the nation and the world engages in political speech and participation in this conversation is vital for said speech. While alternatives like Parler offer a space to express ideas much more freely, they simply cannot duplicate what Twitter is, functionally. Twitter is not just a platform to express personal ideas, it is very literally access to the public square and political conversation.
Twitter only works because of its universal usage by all media, advocacy and political voices. Segregating ourselves away from it will be like creating our own shortwave radio station. Sure we can speak without concern of suppression, but who will hear us? The point of political speech is to be able to hold our politicians accountable and increasingly, hold our media accountable. Today that requires the ability to respond directly to the media and to politicians. Not simply commenting on them in our own space.
What French and others on the right who mock or dismiss or even denounce the argument in favor of some form of regulation or government oversight into social media do not recognize is that the ability to participate in the political conversation is moving exclusively to this medium.
Whereas in the past a conservative could publish a scathing opinion, expose a political lie or correct a media story in a weekly column or monthly magazine, or in a book a year later, today relevance in the political world requires instantaneous and direct response. If we leave or are forced off of Twitter, we lose the ability to participate at all.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was necessary not only because powerful political authorities denied black Americans access to their civil rights at the local and state level, but because they were also prevented from participating in common life necessary for individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Many on the right argued the private property aspects were outside of the Federal government’s authority, and they were correct. But the nation required unique action to address a reality created by a small population of bigots that held the power to prevent Americans from participating in common life based solely on who they were.
I believe we are in a similar scenario today. It is not only the fact we are actively marginalized as individuals based on who we are, but the very nature of our speech and our worldview has been labeled unacceptable to be heard at all. In this national and global conversation, a small, powerful group has decided that not only should we not be allowed to participate in what has become the common public conversation, but our very ideas must be erased from it.
And for me, that is the breaking point of this issue. We talk about Twitter in the same way we do Walmart or Amazon. But in reality Twitter is much more like the highway system, national phone lines, television or the electric and water company. We could survive without them, but we would simply not be participating in common life if we did.
More to the point, we deserve a voice in the political conversation and we should be strong enough to demand it. What French’s commentary assumes is a life beyond the internet and social media. What he simply does not yet recognize is that era has passed. If conservatives want to have a voice in politics today and certainly in the future, our only option is to fight for our right to participate in it equally, even if we must go against our normal instincts to do so once again.