Christopher Hitchens, the much-missed contrarian and provocateur, once commented on libertarianism by saying, “I have always found it quaint, and rather touching, that there is a movement in the U.S. that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.”
Today, sadly without Hitchens to help guide us, we are dealing with a movement that argues social media platforms and other means of mass communication are not yet irresponsible enough.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox created one small speed bump in this road to ruin by vetoing a bill that would have made a small, likely futile, attempt to tell social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter that they don’t have the unlimited right to ban whatever and whomever they wish from their servers and screens.
Cox said he vetoed the bill over “technical issues,” which is an odd way to describe a measure that would have been as unconstitutional as all hell and an idea that would only serve to hasten the demise of the republic.
Of course, the idea is not yet dead in the Utah Legislature. Senate President Stuart Adams says he will bring the matter back before lawmakers under the guise of protecting the First Amendment rights of, mostly, the “conservative” voices that, he says, are disproportionately banned, blocked and bounced from social media.
I put the word “conservative” in quotes here because even a fuzzy-headed old liberal such as myself is still reluctant to equate the philosophy of Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan with the 21st century fascists who claim the right to use other people’s companies to incite violence and spread The Big Lie and other examples of hate speech.
There are antitrust issues that need to be addressed, as when one Big Tech company buys another one, or a search engine directs people to its own products rather than to the competition.
But when Facebook bans Donald Trump, or Twitter deplatforms QAnon accounts, they are exercising their own First Amendment rights to disassociate themselves from people and groups that promote overthrowing the government of the United States by violent means — aka treason — as happened in broad daylight at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Companies can make these decisions because they think those messages are bad for their business. Because it creeps them out. Because it’s Tuesday.
The fact that some people think social media giants are wrong to do that is absolutely chilling.
It is true that being open and even-handed is more difficult than it used to be. When the choice was Bush vs. Dukakis, or Bush vs. Gore, any media platform could, with a minimum of oversight, quote both candidates and print letters from supporters of both parties and call it good.
Now the media, old or new, would be engaging in serious, if not fatal, malpractice by pretending that racist, fascist and Trumpist propaganda should be weighed equally with pro-democratic speech, rather than recognized for the call to violent sedition that it truly is.
I am not generally the biggest fan of social media, even though I spend a lot of time on Twitter and a bit on Facebook. It’s been clear for a long time that they are part of the demise of legacy media institutions, stealing our advertising and our readers and promoting the belief that any yahoo with a smartphone and access to public library wi-fi is as trustworthy and accurate as professional journalists.
More trustworthy, in fact, if they spout bilge the reader already agrees with.
The tech giants are making some amends by providing grants to new and to traditional media organizations, including this one.
But I am doing my best to channel Martin Niemöller, speaking up for Mark Zuckerberg, even though I am not a Facebook influencer, because after the right wing has come for him, there may be no one left to speak for me.
Telling someone they may not use your property to say whatever they want is not censorship, silencing or canceling. It is editing. Which is what I do for a living.
Over the last 40 years I have often rejected missives from people who wished to use my printing press, and later my website, to spread lies, promote scams, insult neighbors or competing businesses, make racist or homophobic arguments or describe, in 2,000-word essays, the absolute infallibility of Lyndon LaRouche and his plan to revamp the world economy.
And, for your sake and for mine, I will not tolerate the Utah Legislature, the American Legislative Exchange Council, Tucker Carlson, Josh Hawley or anyone else (who doesn’t sign my paycheck) trying to tell me I have to print all that rot in the name of free speech.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is old enough to remember when people thought the internet would be good for democracy. He hopes that someday it will be.