The “Twitter files” Elon Musk released to two journalists have produced a cloud of confusion. So far, we have not seen the files themselves, only what one journalist, Matt Taibbi, has reported about them.
The main findings reinforce what we have known all along: Twitter’s former management strongly favored Democrats and used its powerful platform to aid them. It was far more likely to suppress the speech of conservatives and Republicans than of progressives and Democrats. Twitter’s systematic bias went far beyond its most famous instance, when it killed the New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s infamous laptop. Freddy Gray makes these important points in his recent piece here at The Spectator.
Bias like this can harm free, open, and robust political discourse in a democracy, especially if the bias is pervasive and hidden. But before criticizing Twitter, it is important to understand how our First Amendment protects free speech and what its limits are. Its protections do not require every media source to be fair and balanced. Each one can be as partisan as it wishes. Moreover, private entities, whether they are individuals, corporations, or nonprofits, are free to say whatever they wish, so long as they don’t directly threaten others. (If they libel or defame someone, then of course they can be sued.) These aspects of free speech reinforce each other. They encourage many voices to be heard, perhaps on different platforms, so citizens can judge for themselves.
That means Twitter, under Musk today or under the previous management, is perfectly free to say whatever it likes as a corporation, and free to encourage or discourage different political viewpoints from its users. Newspapers, TV stations, and podcasts can do the same thing. So can Donald Trump’s social media platform, Truth Social. Trump doesn’t have to broadcast the views of Rachel Maddow, and MSNBC doesn’t have to broadcast his. These platforms are also free to take whatever advice and guidance they wish from other private entities. If the Democratic National Committee wants Twitter to plug certain stories and deemphasize others, they are free to collaborate — or refuse to do so.
These principles apply only to private entities and individuals. The government’s role here is different. It is tasked with encouraging and protecting speech rights, not suppressing them. The unresolved question, still hidden in the Twitter files, is whether government bureaucrats actually did try to suppress political speech at Twitter, Facebook, and other media outlets. That’s a crucial question, and we need to know the answer.
As we consider these issues, it is important to remember that the government is permitted to restrict some speech, but within narrow bounds. No one, for instance, is allowed to make unsubstantiated claims about financial products or services: “My Miracle Investment Fund guarantees you will make 20 percent annually.” The same is true for medical claims: “My Miracle Pill guarantees you will lose 20 pounds.” Would that it were so.
During the Covid crisis, the government seemed to stretch — indeed, overstretch — its authority to regulate medical information to ensure everyone towed the official party line. The Centers for Disease Control wanted to stop social media from spreading private messages that favored certain unapproved treatments. They also seem to have wrongly discouraged public discussion about how Covid originated and which public health measures were effective in dealing with it. Even if much of that discussion was wrong, it is still free speech, not medical advice, and it is protected by the First Amendment. The best way for public health experts to respond is by presenting their own theories and evidence, not by suppressing others.
Suppression was certainly the hallmark of Twitter’s decision to kill the Hunter Biden story. They prevented private users from linking to the New York Post stories (which we now know were true). As a private company, that’s Twitter’s prerogative. But it is not the prerogative of the government. To do so would mean social media firms, such as Twitter and Facebook, were acting as agents of the state, not as purely private companies, when they suppressed speech. That would be a big deal, if it can be shown. We certainly deserve to know whether it did.
But it is ludicrous for Donald Trump to say, as he has on his own social network, that these recent Twitter revelations justify the complete overturning of the US Constitution, allowing him to be returned to office. Trump wrote: “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”
No. No, it doesn’t. Trump’s hyperbolic language is dangerous. It is a direct assault upon our Constitution and the rule of law. We should condemn it even as we try to learn more about just how the government worked with social media companies to shape what citizens could and could not read.
We need to know about all contacts between the state and social media platforms regarding political speech. We need to know exactly which officials tried to suppress speech and on what authority. Elon Musk has done a public service by beginning this process. Now, it’s up to Mark Zuckerberg, who has so far been silent.
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org