When Russia invaded Ukraine February 24 of this year, protests erupted not only around the world but inside Russia. Brave Russians, knowing there could be consequences, nevertheless voiced their dissent verbally, online, or in public gatherings. Those consequences have arrived.
Over 15,000 anti-war protestors have been arrested. Thousands more have fled the country. Referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an “invasion” or “war” has been declared illegal, with maximum prison sentences of 15 years for journalists. Independent news outlets have been blocked, as well as social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
In a televised speech to his countrymen Putin said, “The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths – spit them out on the pavement. I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country.” That sounds eerily like Josef Stalin.
Russia’s communist ally to the south, China, has little tolerance for dissent itself, hence its crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020. As a result, nearly 90,000 residents fled Hong Kong between June of 2020 and June of 2021. And Putin is a newbie compared to Xi when it comes to controlling social media. China began blocking Facebook, Twitter, and Google back in 2009 in response to unfavorable images emerging from riots in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is heavily populated by Muslim Uyghurs, and in the years since the riots China has banned veils, long beards, and Islamic names, and in some instances prevents Muslims from recognizing Ramadan. China dismisses the West’s concerns over mass detention in labor camps, forced sterilizations, sexual abuse, and worse. According to China, these are actually voluntary “vocational training centers.” Of course, this is the same China where the Tiananmen Square massacre never happened – it exists in no textbooks, internet searches inside China of the event or date return nothing, and many Chinese who were not alive in 1989 have never heard of it. Chairman Xi would make Chairman Mao proud.
But surely this could not happen in the United States, could it? After all, these are authoritarian countries with repressive regimes. By contrast, in the USA individual liberties are inscribed in the constitution, separation of powers ensures that no one branch of the government becomes too powerful, and even the worst (or best) administration lasts no longer than 8 years, FDR notwithstanding.
And, perhaps most importantly, the State does not control the media in this country. Not only is the competition among network and independent news outlets fierce, but the right to free speech is deeply ingrained in the American psyche some 230+ years after its ratification in the Bill of Rights. As a result, NASCAR fans feel unencumbered about expressing their feelings toward Brandon and the current administration, and a certain comedienne felt free to display an effigy of the severed head of the president in the prior administration. Tasteful or tasteless, the fact that even the lowliest citizen can express his or her sentiments towards the leader of the free world without fear of reprisal is remarkable. One suspects such expressions do not occur in Putin’s Russia or Xi’s China.
Just because the State doesn’t control and censor communication doesn’t mean communication is neither controlled nor censored. In free market democracies like the US, private companies have taken it upon themselves to act as Official Censors. Facebook, Instagram (both owned by parent company Meta), and Twitter have suspended tens of thousands of accounts over the past few years for various reasons. Twitter reported removing over 1 million accounts in 2018 alone.
There is nothing wrong with taking a risk, founding a company, and becoming wildly successful as Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey did. Entrepreneurs like these and many others would not become wildly successful if consumers did not perceive value in the services they offered. And large social media companies do have the unenviable task of trying to prevent real terrorists (e.g., al Qaeda, ISIS, school shooters) from communicating over their networks while at the same time facilitating the unfettered exchange of information and expression that brings value to the masses and connects people around the world.
However, Facebook’s selective “fact-checking” and Twitter’s “Civic Integrity Policy,” both used to justify censoring posts and deleting accounts, have little to do with fighting terrorism. While the suspension of Donald Trump’s account in 2021 received much fanfare, Twitter has permanently or temporarily suspended the accounts of author and New York Times reporter Alex Berensen and actress Rose McGowan, among countless others. Apparently, one man’s tweet is another man’s post in need of censor if the latter disagrees with the former.
Far better to recognize that consumers are actually intelligent and allow them to separate wheat from chaff. Otherwise, we risk going the route of Russia and China. Interestingly, Elon Musk has recognized this recently. Musk, the world’s wealthiest man at the moment, has offered to buy Twitter and return it to its roots, freed of the thought police. Said Musk in announcing his offer, “I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.”
No stranger to controversy, Musk has his fans – He’s a genius and Tesla is saving the planet! – and skeptics – He’s a snake oil salesman and Tesla would have run out of money years ago were it not for government handouts in the form of carbon credit sales (literally, vaporware). And as a savvy Twitter user with 80 million followers, Musk may have an ulterior motive. But he also has a point.
A related one is this: civility is the ground on which free speech flourishes. Or, to quote Aristotle, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” The shouting down and demonizing of those with whom we disagree today is appalling. Not only does it squelch freedom of expression, it stifles independent thought, and ultimately, progress.
I have had occasion over the past decade to speak to a class of college sophomores each spring. I noticed this year that it was more difficult to draw the students into conversation. As I was discussing this with the professor after class, I speculated that it was because the students today spend so much more time texting that they had lost some of the art of communicating verbally. The professor replied that while that could be true, he felt the more likely culprit was students were so cowed from being beaten down online when expressing contrary opinions that they were reluctant to speak up without knowing how others in the room felt. And that is a loss for us all.
Kelley Williams is a Northsider.