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Elon Musk characterized the verdict of the user poll he ran on Twitter about allowing former President Donald Trump to rejoin the platform by invoking the Latin phrase, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” (“The voice of the people is the voice of God.”)
I’m cynical enough to prefer Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s take on that same expression: “Vox Populi. Vox Humbug.”
The collective will of the electorate is not always right, let alone a manifestation of the Divine. But in a free country, the people and those who seek their votes must be heard. In the 21st century, the public square in which those voices get an airing is virtual.
And in the last decade, the primary venue for that virtual public square with respect to political discourse and journalism has been Twitter. That’s why the decision on the part of its former owners—as well as the other main Big Tech companies—to engage in political censorship by suppressing stories and ideas that conflicted with their left-wing ideology was so dangerous.
One of the most notorious examples, but by no means the one whose impact on our discourse and democracy was the most serious (that would be Twitter’s silencing of reportage about Biden family corruption in the weeks before the 2020 election), was Twitter’s banning of former President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot.
Musk’s purchase of Twitter was not primarily motivated by a desire to restore Trump to his former perch on the site. But doing so is of enormous symbolic importance.
While Musk hesitated at first to drop some of the most notorious bans, and said he would create a “content moderation council” to make these determinations, he seems to have come to the conclusion that such a board would likely perpetuate the problem rather than solve it.
Some of the embargos, such as the outrageous one imposed on the Babylon Bee satire site, have already been lifted. But before removing that to which Trump had been subjected, Musk opted for a stunt, asking Twitter users in an online poll to vote on the matter. Of those who answered the survey, 52% favored allowing Trump to return, and Musk then announced the result.
An effort to persuade companies to pull their advertising from Twitter had begun long before this. Almost from the moment the sale went through, liberals were declaring Musk’s desire to end the partisan censorship to be unacceptable.
But the Trump reinstatement has created a surge in left-wing anger. Notable among those leading the charge against the move, predictably, is the Anti-Defamation League and its CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt.
The former Obama White House staffer has been waging a campaign to falsely accuse Trump of fomenting antisemitism since before he became president. But Greenblatt, who, like many others on the left likes to pose as a defender of freedom, is a firm believer in the idea (like the title of Nat Hentoff’s 1992 book) of “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
He now claims that Trump should be silenced because he spurred intolerance, issued threats and incited the events of Jan. 6.
I would argue that the first two claims are thinly veiled partisanship. Greenblatt treats differing views on issues like illegal immigration as beyond the pale. And while Trump’s Twitter bluster is often absurd and wrongheaded, it’s actually no worse than much of the political invective pointed in his direction.
As for the third argument, though Trump played with fire for initiating the protest against the certification of the Electoral College, and deserves blame for not acting to stop it quickly enough, strictly speaking, he didn’t incite violence.
Here, too, Greenblatt’s stand is hypocritical. The Black Lives Matter movement that the ADL supported was responsible for sparking in the summer of 2020 far more violence, which led to property damage and human casualties. Yet we have heard nothing from the ADL about de-platforming those who backed BLM, even though it is closely connected to antisemitism.
Democrats and their corporate media cheerleaders were thrilled by the de-platforming of Trump, on the grounds that his complaints about the “theft” of the 2020 election constituted misinformation. But you don’t have to support Trump, or think his assertions are true, to understand that when you muzzle the leader of one of the nation’s two major parties, you can’t pretend to be defending democracy.
Trump may utter a great many untruths and he does refuse to accept the results of the last presidential election. But the idea that it is only Republicans who lie, or who deny the legitimacy of votes they lose, is itself a fabrication.
The only way democracy works is when both sides make their case and voters have the final say. That’s why it’s vital for social-media platforms, which dominate American political discourse, to welcome a free exchange of ideas, even those owners and users consider wrong or foolish.
This transcends opinions about Trump. Indeed, it can be argued that both the efforts by the Biden administration—whose Justice Department just appointed a special prosecutor to consider pressing charges against him for his role in the Capitol riot and his alleged illegal holding of classified documents—and the liberal freakout about Twitter is helping the former president more than hurting him.
Many on the right are tired of Trump’s obsessive egomania, which seems to prioritize his personal grudges over the best interests of the GOP or the nation. But as long as the left is determined to try to take him down by fair means or foul, many conservatives will stick with him.
They do so not merely because he speaks for a great many people whom the Washington establishments of both parties have long ignored. They also, not unreasonably, consider the attacks on him to be an example of banana republic-style retaliation against a political opponent.
Whether one thinks the country is better off without Trump in public life, that should be up to the electorate, not the ADL or whoever runs Twitter.
Yet the ADL has shown a dangerous propensity for Internet censorship—an authoritarian impulse that it usually veils behind a desire to quell the rising tide of antisemitism. Its consultations with the PayPal online payment system, for instance, were geared toward demonetizing anyone, not just far-right extremists, whose opinions were out of favor with the left.
The attempt to sink Twitter by persuading advertisers and users to exit it goes beyond those efforts to harness Big Tech clout to enforce woke orthodoxy on the Web.
What the ADL is now demanding is to set a standard by which no social-media platform or Internet service can survive if it enables conservatives to participate on an equal footing with liberals.
Censored or uncensored, Twitter—or any similar company—will always be something of a sewer, as it prizes angry discourse and discourages thoughtful exchanges. But if the ADL and others succeed, a precedent will be set to ensure that no platform encouraging debate from both ends of the spectrum can survive.
The consequence of the above—such as the Biden administration’s use of social- media companies to squelch COVID-19 debate—will be an even more divided country and greater civil strife.
Just as important, it will create an atmosphere in which free speech is not merely under assault, as it is on college campuses and other places that have been completely captured by the left. It will mean we are moving closer to a society where the norm will be to silence dissent on all important topics.
It is already a disgrace that the ADL treats partisan advocacy as more important than its core mission of fighting antisemitism. But its effort to sink Twitter makes clear that its real goal is to shut up those who don’t toe its political line.
Think what you like about Trump or Musk. But this latest stand shows that there is no greater foe of democracy than the ADL under Greenblatt.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.