Let’s face it: No matter what your political and media skew — as a deadline plugger, op-ed writer or news organization head who confuses agenda with truth — the deadly, insurrectionist actions that took place in our nation’s capital a week ago turned into a freak show that made “Tiger King” look like Tiger Woods putting on the back nine. It ranked as reality TV at its most realistic, dark and shocking.
I can only wonder how many of us were titillated as opposed to shocked. I know for my own part I was mesmerized; I spent literally a dozen hours taking in every news story from every news outlet I could, left and right: Fox News, the Washington Post, New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Post and Wall Street Journal among them. My eyes are still aglaze.
Curiously, the properties of two would-be media moguls just inches shy of taking victory laps with public preening and self-congratulatory posing were not on my list of go-to news sources. But for months and even years, rioters on the right and the livid on the left have deferred to them as primary sources of information. Wait, strike that: vitriol, lies, hatred and calls to arms — literal arms — masquerading as free speech.
Now, this one’s for the billionaires: Mark Elliot Zuckerberg, 36, and Jack Patrick Dorsey, 44, you have this blood on your hands, too.
The primary issue for me, as a media pundit in training, centers around what makes for a responsible, high-profile media owner and leader. Social media is not media. But try telling that to the zillions of users of these two platforms who can dive in without a thought to what the truth looks, smells or sounds like. Granted: People who post rants (and I do it, too) may not think in these terms. But people who stridently advance lies as truth and espouse dangerous viewpoints that are wrapped in the American flag and posited as free speech, represent something else entirely.
This in large part traces back to who Dorsey and Zuckerberg are –and who they are not. They are, in their origins, programmers and coders. They became, in their ambition, adept salesmen in pursuit of venture capital. Eventually, they fashioned themselves into leaders of publicly traded companies that, to date, have seen their stocks rise 163% and 165% respectively over the last five years. That, as they like to say on Wall Street, is a high correlation.
All of that’s admirable. I suppose. As capitalists they have more than proven their mettle. But programmers and tech entrepreneurs are not by default responsible stewards of free speech any more than I can code my way out of a paper bag or smooth talk some VC hotshot to hand over $200 million in Series A funding.
I’ve said much about Zuckerberg’s third-grade understanding of free speech; you can read that here. Suffice to say that at the 2016 bookend of the Trump administration, Russian actors used his platform to influence the results of our election. It happened on Zuck’s watch, as he made a greedy grab for Twitter’s lock on traffic related to its dissemination of news.
Now we have the other bookend: Twitter in 2021 finally owning up by way of some brave employees to its responsibility in the spreading of lies, damned lies, lies posing as truth, and conspiracy theories that have seduced a nation of people who operate not out of THINKING but EMOTION and BELIEF.
In the impeachment proceedings that moved swiftly through the U.S. House on Wednesday, Rep. Andrew Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, called Twitter “The biggest megaphone in the world.” I’d have to agree. Dorsey isn’t stupid. Why did he let this go on for so long? I think it’s because both he and Zuckerberg have a simplistic, adolescent understanding of what free speech is and how that dovetails with responsible speech.
The oldest saw in the world is that you don’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. But in Dorsey’s theater of the absurd, Trump and his more radical supporters have been incendiary for years.
Do not take my word for it. Here’s an excerpt from the letter Twitter employees wrote pushing to ban Trump from the platform:
We are disturbed by the day’s events in Washington, D.C. and request three actions of Staff:
1. Permanently suspend @realDonaldTrump over his actions on January 6
2. Provide a clear account of the day’s decision making process regarding the President’s tweets
3. An investigation into the last several years of corporate actions that led to Twitter’s role in today’s insurrection.
Why is Dorsey referred to vaguely as part of the “Staff”? I smell some mighty big fear of the boss there. Anyway, the letter reached this somber conclusion:
Despite our efforts to serve the public conversation, as Trump’s megaphone, we helped fuel the deadly events of January 6th.
I have dedicated more than half of my adult life to learning all I can about how the media works — not by way of theory, but daily practice. First, as an investigative and court reporter. In 16 years as a staff writer at the Chicago Tribune. As a Pulitzer Prize finalist in a team reporting effort that won a Polk Ward. In earning my Masters degree in Communication. In writing a journalism textbook. In coaching a team of college journalists to capture a best in the nation award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Most college reporters can see what Zuck and Jack cannot see or refuse to acknowledge.
It’s this simple: No matter what conspiracy theorists say about Twitter and Facebook censoring the president, these are public companies. Don’t like them reserving the right to determine who’s allowed and who’s not on their platforms? Tough. That’s not blocking your free speech. In many cases, it’s not even free speech to begin with. Still, you are perfectly “free” to take it elsewhere. You’re not being censored by a government body but restricted by a for-profit company.
And for techies out there who thought they were protecting free speech to being with: Why did you elevate the adolescent pettiness of passing nasty, catty, mean girl and bully boy notes in class to a place at the apex of the public square? That’s damn irresponsible. No Twitter trump-et? No Capitol riot. End of story.
Again, take it from the “Tweeps” themselves: Despite our efforts to serve the public conversation, as Trump’s megaphone, we helped fuel the deadly events of January 6th.
Those employees were courageous enough to stand up. So where is Jack Dorsey? If we’re going to hold our political leaders accountable we need to ask the enablers to do a reality check as well. At least I know this: Journalists are held accountable every single day for their actions. How about the coders-turned-(social) media titans?
If only. As I learned long ago, billionaires both conservative and liberal hide behind shields of privilege and a phalanx of media reps. If Dorsey has any guts, he will repent in public. I promise, I will not hold my breath.
Remember: Repentance is bad for business and shareholder value. Twitter closed Wednesday at $47.22 per share, up 37.35 percent over the last six months.
Let freedom ring, share prices rise, conspiracies pose as truth, and enablers rationalize.
Enablers like Jack Dorsey.
God Bless the United States of America, 280 characters at a time.