“Republicans like hats.”
You may agree or disagree with the above statement, but Twitter’s content moderation algorithm thought it problematic enough to limit the spread of such a dangerous idea. Their algorithm hid it beneath “More Replies.” It might seem silly to many people—perhaps, even a bug. However, as someone who has been edge testing the algorithm for two years, it came as no surprise to me.
The power wielded by the global internet superpowers is as awesome as it is underappreciated. But, to overcome it, we must understand how we got here.
Back in 2004, the internet played an important role in debunking the President Bush National Guard memo forgeries aired by Dan Rather on CBS. They were later forced to apologize and four people were fired. The world was beginning to see the power of the internet to counter fake news. Today, increasing numbers of Americans get their news from social media. But, rather than continuing to empower people to challenge biased and inaccurate reporting, they ban stories, influencers, and Presidents they do not agree with.
To make things worse, Apple and Google ban apps with content they do not agree with from their apps stores. Gab and Parler were removed from both stores pending review of their speech moderation policies. Gab remains independent, but users of iPhones and iPads cannot choose to access their content through an app, and you cannot search Gab using Google (although their “trends” subdomain is indexed).
Social media companies take advantage of psychological factors such as availability bias to manipulate the public. Availability bias is our tendency to make decisions based on how easily information comes to mind. When the Twitter algorithm ignores statements like “Republicans wear hats,” and restricts the reach of “Republicans like hats,” it is manipulating how easily those ideas come to mind across its 199 million daily users.
Of course, this is not about hats. In one case, a reply of mine advocating “passion” was limited until I added the text, “I like Joe Biden.” This is exactly how these two replies appeared in the thread after un-hiding the first one:
For my Twitter account, a typical tweet at the time would get five to twelve impressions when limited, versus hundreds or thousands when not. Multiply that by 500 million tweets per day across the platform, then imagine the impact Twitter’s algorithm has on cultural reality. Social media algorithms limit the spread of perspectives, not misinformation. It is no wonder we are so divided.
On September 11th, 2001, nineteen terrorists hijacked four commercial jets and used them to blast open a long-festering cancer within the United States. It exploded with the stink of rancid authoritarianism.
WHEN CONSERVATIVES EMBRACED CENSORSHIP
Now, authoritarians, to be precise, trap other people within their own dogma, usually through fear. It requires power, but not necessarily state power. For decades, college faculty have been purging their institutions of conservative values through attrition, invidious discrimination, and a hostile environment. But then, in the 1980s conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh rose into prominence. So while the purges continued, we conservative students were educated about history and politics by a man on the radio who shared our values—values that were vanishing from campuses across the country.
So 34 years later, when people spoke against the war, we shamed them and shut them down.
Limbaugh often spoke of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s “marketplace of ideas,” but there was little opportunity to apply or demonstrate the concept. Consequently, when the planes struck and the calls for war came, downtrodden and enraged patriots broke free of the dogma shackled to them by their authoritarian educators.
Sadly, we fought against the authoritarians with more authoritarianism.
Our mindset was understandable. The disgraceful treatment of Vietnam veterans was still prominent in our minds. We believed our government won that war, but abandoned South Vietnam to face the North and her allies alone without our promised support. And we thought we had learned our lesson.
So 34 years later, when people spoke against the war, we shamed them and shut them down. We called them “unpatriotic.” We even wore yellow ribbons—a counter to the liberal ribbon culture of the time. In 2003, we chased the “Dixie Chicks” off the air, justifying it as exercising our own free speech.
But it was a Pyrrhic victory. Not only was the war in Afghanistan a waste of trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives, but it was also a missed opportunity to fight for freedom at home. All those years spent defending the forever wars was also spent not talking about, say, a rational immigration policy, for instance. Because, you cannot create more freedom—a more perfect union—by fighting over which authoritarians are in power. To understand why we need to remember our lost heritage.
TRUE EQUALITY OF IDEAS
America was founded on the principle of equality. But what does that mean? Why did the United States become so prosperous? And why is she such the envy of the world that people in other nations still wave American flags as they protest for freedom?
In sum, if you want to maximize innovation, equality is your friend.
These are important questions because, even as the equality experiment was a success beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, the pull of authoritarianism has the strength of 10,000 years of history behind it. And, as nature abhors a vacuum, so too it abhors equality.
Equality means we all have the same worth under God, who loves us all equally. (If you are an atheist, think of God as a fictional abstraction. It still works.) Thus, rules, rights, and privileges apply equally to one and all, and we each deserve respect.
Consider a brainstorming session: Everyone throws out ideas, and everyone’s ideas are respected regardless of how ridiculous they sound initially. Think of how much innovation happens that way. Now, multiply that by 150 million people. That is the power of a free marketplace of ideas. That is the power of equality. In sum, if you want to maximize innovation, equality is your friend.
Ridiculous ideas are nothing to be afraid of.
At best, ridiculous ideas might be right. Imagine a dairymaid proclaiming cowpox gave her special immunity to smallpox. Today, she would be banished from society, and you would never have a smallpox vaccine. (Fortunately for us, Facebook did not exist back then.)
Often, ridiculous ideas lead to better ideas. At worst, they challenge us to improve our thinking. I remember watching the MythBusters episode debunking the Moon landing hoax. It was a fascinating episode that looked at lighting, lunar regolith, and how objects behave in a vacuum and in low gravity. I would not have known about these concepts but for those conspiracy theorists.
Thank you, Moon landing deniers and dairymaids!
Imagine if, instead of blackballing war dissenters in 2001, we had listened to them respectfully. We did not have to agree with them, but President Bush would have had to answer some serious questions, and we could have learned something. Why has no other country been able to pacify Afghanistan? What are we going to do differently? What assurances do we have that a future feckless administration will not throw away everything we accomplish?
Even unpatriotic people can have a point. And if your ideas cannot survive ridiculous challenges, how can they survive substantive ones? What’s worse, in the past twenty years, conservatives have lost the moral high ground. We were living under the yoke of authoritarianism, and we missed our opportunity to demand something better.
Osama bin Laden bought plane tickets for the 9/11 hijackers. (Not literally.) We let them come. (Literally.) But he never had the power to choke the distribution of a New York newspaper that criticized a political candidate. We did that to ourselves.
Ironically, hundreds of thousands of American civilians could be indirect casualties of the War in Afghanistan. During the recent pandemic, the dark guardians of the Internet used their full authoritarian might to banish innovators who challenged their dogma. Even if the innovators’ promising early treatment options did not pan out, the damage to the marketplace of ideas was done. Only narrow-minded top-down options are safe to discuss openly.
THE WAY FORWARD
So, can we please have an honest chat about liberty? There is a way to get it back.
First, conservatives must drop the fiction that private authoritarianism is okay. It may be black-letter legal, but it is spiritually un-American. And it is America’s spirit we are fighting for. As long as Google and Apple are the gatekeepers of the Internet, we cannot have equality because they control the marketplace of ideas. And, without equality, we hobble innovation and wreck democracy.
Conservatives must drop the fiction that private authoritarianism is okay.
With that in mind, we must require App store choice, the same way Microsoft was required to give users a choice of default Internet browser. That will bring back competition and innovation to Internet communication and even open the door to new hardware. Imagine buying an app on an iPhone from a neutral store then transferring the license to some future device that has not been invented yet.
Next, we must admit we were wrong. It does not matter who started it. We cannot complain about authoritarianism in Hollywood, the media, and online without pulling the log out of our own eye first. Repeat after me, “Republicans made a terrible mistake branding war-skeptics as unpatriotic. If we had respected and listened to them, the war in Afghanistan, even if fought, would have turned out better.”
Finally, honesty about our own mistakes opens the door to talking to pro-equality liberals. We need their help. When it comes to restoring America’s hope and making America great again, the battle is not between left and right.
The battle today is between the authoritarians and the innovators.
This article is part of a Human Events Opinion Special Collection released September 11th, 2021: “9/11: A Twenty Year Retrospective.”