Robert Reich is a former US Secretary of Labor, having served under Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997. He has taught public policy at the University of California, Berkeley since 2006, and is one of the most progressive economic writers and commentators alive today.
He attracted attention on social media on Tuesday for writing a particularly awful column titled “Elon Musk’s Vision for the Internet is Dangerous Nonsense.” It ran in The Guardian.
Reich begins by condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism: how he hides the truth from the people of Russia by outlawing dissent, jailing the protesters, and prioritizing government propaganda over independent media. Reich then turns his attention to the former President Donald Trump, writing that the decisions by social media companies to ban the president “were necessary to protect the American democracy.”
But wait a minute: Why does silencing a political viewpoint protect the democracy? How is that any different than Putin saying his silencing of dissenters is necessary to protect Russia? Reich doesn’t seem to realize that he is condemning one kind of tyranny while lionizing another, which leads him into a very, very odd attack on Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who recently became the largest shareholder of Twitter after buying a 9 percent stake in the company.
Musk has expressed misgivings about Twitter’s treatment of dissenting views, and is worried that the social media site—which serves an important function as a place of discussion and debate among the political and journalistic classes—is unfriendly to free speech. It’s important to be clear that when we’re talking about free speech in the Twitter context, we’re talking about the principle of free speech, not free speech as protected by the First Amendment. Social media sites are private companies, and the First Amendment protects their right to set whatever moderation policies they want: The First Amendment cannot be cited as a defense by anyone who is shadow-banned or de-platformed on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or anywhere else. What we possess, under the First Amendment, is a right to criticize bad and hypocritical behavior free from government censorship.
That’s what Musk thinks, it’s what I think, and it’s what many independent voices on both the left and the right think.
But not Robert Reich. He writes:
Will Musk use his clout to let Trump back on? I fear he will.
Musk has long advocated a libertarian vision of an “uncontrolled” internet. That vision is dangerous rubbish. There’s no such animal, and there never will be. …
In Musk’s vision of Twitter and the internet, he’d be the wizard behind the curtain – projecting on the world’s screen a fake image of a brave new world empowering everyone.
In reality, that world would be dominated by the richest and most powerful people in the world, who wouldn’t be accountable to anyone for facts, truth, science or the common good.
That’s Musk’s dream. And Trump’s. And Putin’s. And the dream of every dictator, strongman, demagogue and modern-day robber baron on Earth. For the rest of us, it would be a brave new nightmare.
Reich, unfortunately, is deeply confused. The libertarian vision of an “uncontrolled” internet is not the dream of dictators. Dictators like Putin want a controlled internet. Reich is also advocating for a controlled internet—and apparently likes the people who control it right now: ie, the sort of progressive-minded moderators who don’t want people to read about the Black Lives Matter foundation spending millions in donations to buy up real estate rather than promote change, a story that Facebook decided to suppress.
An internet where Facebook hides the truth from users is a controlled internet—it’s just one controlled by people Reich approves of. Musk purports to want something entirely different: a social media site where the gatekeepers don’t try to suppress information, but instead, allow users to decide what to think and believe.
Under this vision, people will frequently encounter information that is wrong. That’s true. But they will also be free to judge for themselves—and thus, we would run less risk as a society of having a vigorously suppressed truth from public discussion because it embarrasses someone in power. Recall that for months, Facebook refused to allow users to talk about the lab leak theory on the platform. Now that policy has changed, as the lab leak theory has enough mainstream credibility and plausibility that even they can’t deny it. That’s the risk: When we attempt to vigorously stamp out lies, we can blind ourselves to the truth.
Reich is not alone in preferring things the way they are. Ellen K. Pao, the former CEO of reddit, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post that “Elon Musk’s vision of ‘free speech’ will be bad for Twitter.” It will be bad for Twitter, she writes, because Musk wants to let more people speak on Twitter without fear of censorship.
Progressives like Reich and Pao shouldn’t frame their dismissal of free speech as a sort of rejection of tyranny. It’s the opposite: It’s an embrace of tyranny—of a kind of tyranny that is popular in both Russia and China, the US’s main political, social, and economic rivals. Russia and China don’t want their citizens saying whatever they want on social media. Elon Musk does. That’s the difference between an uncontrolled libertarian ethos for the internet, and the ethos of the censors.