In a stark warning from a reporter, Politico’s Sam Stein weighed into a dispute over the verification of a fake account for Senator Ed Markey (D., Mass.), who has demanded answers from Elon Musk. Liberals are using such verification problems to attack Musk for threatening to restore free speech protections to Twitter. When Musk mocked Markey’s letter, Stein ominously warned that it is “[a]lways risky to attack members of congress. Especially risky with Dems assured of Senate power. Curious play by Musk here. He has many interests before Congress.” For many of us, it was a chilling message coming from a reporter that you would be wise not to risk the ire of powerful politicians.
Markey himself made no effort to hide the opportunistic use of the verification error to pressure Musk not to reduce Twitter’s massive censorship program. He declared
“I’m asking for answers from @elonmusk who is putting profits over people and his debt over stopping disinformation. Twitter must explain how this happened and how to prevent it from happening again.”
The use of “debt” to describe the obligation to censor is fascinating in this context. Many of us have long criticized the alliance of Twitter censors with Democratic members and groups. Recently, evidence emerged of back channels between government officials with social media companies. The allegations raise the concern over what I have called censorship by surrogate.
In one telling hearing, tech CEOs appeared before the Senate to discuss censorship programs. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey apologized for censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story, but then pledged to censor more people in defense of “electoral integrity.”
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, however, was not happy. He was upset not by the promised censorship but that it was not broad enough.
He noted that it was hard to define the problem of “misleading information,” but the companies had to impose a sweeping system to combat the “harm” of misinformation on climate change as well as other areas. “The pandemic and misinformation about COVID-19, manipulated media also cause harm,” Coons said. “But I’d urge you to reconsider that because helping to disseminate climate denialism, in my view, further facilitates and accelerates one of the greatest existential threats to our world.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal also warned that he and his colleagues would not tolerate any “backsliding or retrenching” by “failing to take action against dangerous disinformation.” He demanded “the same kind of robust content modification” from the companies – the new Orwellian term for censorship.
Others have sought even more “robust” action. For years, Democratic leaders, including President Joe Biden, have called for corporate censorship on a variety of subjects.
I understand if Stein is trying to note that corporations are generally more solicitous to senators. Moreover, while the verification issue is being used unfairly to pressure Musk into restoring censorship policies, Musk should not make light of a fake account controversy raised by any user. However, the comment suggests that Musk should cut Markey slack because Musk’s own “interests” may be impacted through retaliation by the Massachusetts senator.
Stein’s warning comes at a time when journalists are apoplectic about free speech protections being restored on social media. Former Politico magazine editor Garrett Graff summed up the collective vapors succinctly: “Be afraid, be actually afraid.”
Now, however, journalists appear to be shifting to make Musk afraid, very afraid, of what awaits him if he confronts powerful Democrats or allows a greater diversity of viewpoints on Twitter. While some of us believe that it is good to “risk” criticism of powerful leaders in a democracy, Stein cannot understand why Musk would take such a risk, even as figures like Markey try to coerce him to restore censorship on Twitter.
The message does not appear to be sinking into Musk but there is clearly hope that repetition will finally scare the billionaire to heed the demands for censorship: