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Why liberals cannot acknowledge Twitter discrimination against conservatives
This week, the US journalists Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi released documents which suggested that Twitter had blacklisted conservatives. Under the liberal owners who ran Twitter prior to Elon Musk's takeover, high-level moderators seem to have restricted the reach of prominent conservative accounts, this practice being known as ‘shadowbanning’.
It is too early for firm conclusions, yet the revelations certainly merit scrutiny. Whilst social media companies must fight serious misinformation and hate, affected accounts do not seem to have fallen into these categories. For example, the Stanford medicine professor Jay Bhattacharya was targeted, Bhattacharya warning that Covid lockdowns would harm children. Given Twitter's function as a global town square and quasi-public utility, this is concerning.
Depressingly, certain liberals rejected the allegations outright, asserting that the policy was already in the public sphere and attacking the ethics of Weiss. Whilst liberal defensiveness is understandable, the serious nature of the allegations means that outright dismissal is disappointing. But such behaviour is increasingly common. When partisans encounter feasible allegations of malpractice on their side, most dismiss the accusations outright, reflecting crude heuristics (i.e. mental shortcuts which dictate that one’s side is always right) and increasing social divisions.
There are two reasons why I distrust liberal dismissals of these allegations. Firstly, such apologies tend to be contradictory. Following publication of the allegations, certain liberals asserted that the practice was common knowledge; but, prior to the disclosure, some of these liberals dismissed conservative complaints. Emphasis on the rights of private firms seems equally confused. Liberals argue this when it is convenient, apologizing for pre-Musk Twitter and Paypal actions against conservatives, yet abandon this when it is inconvenient, few defending Musk’s management of Twitter.
Friends of liberal democracy should distrust such partisan stances. Reality is complicated and ideology is path dependent, implying that almost all movements have certain legitimate claims. But rather than starting from this premise, many liberals rely on unsophisticated heuristics. Whilst such shortcuts are unavoidable, all of us using them, excessive reliance leads to crude engagement with politics. Today, heuristics have become less sophisticated than ever; many people think that their side is always right and refuse to engage with opponents.
Secondly, liberal dismissals of these allegations ignore conditions within the technology sector. Highly stratified environments tend to produce cultures which flatter the dominant group. In the technology sector, there are overwhelming majorities of liberals. Whilst individual employees might have conservative values, individuals having greater room for manoeuvre, it is difficult to imagine this happening at organizational level. Culture is selected at group level, being composed of multiple individual preferences which regress to the mean. Whether the organization is the Catholic Church or Manchester United, culture therefore promotes predominant values and interests, entailing the usual blind spots towards outgroups. Why should liberal organizations be different?
Perhaps Twitter did not systematically target conservatives, but the allegations surely warrant scrutiny, given the biases which develop in stratified organizations. At the very least, there must be some partiality within organizations with liberal super majorities. Apologists must explain why liberal stratification does not engender bias.
This is a dangerous time for liberal democracy. Stratification and partisanship reinforce each other and it is difficult to see how society will escape this vicious circle. Increasingly, partisans will indulge any attack on liberal democracy, provided it targets an outgroup. Conservatives have serious problems, particularly in the United States, yet attacks on freedom of speech tend to involve liberals, reflecting the dominance of liberal values in contemporary societies. Where do liberal apologies for the attacks of firms on conservatives end? Do firms have the right to deprive conservatives of bank accounts and mobile phones?
Scrutiny of the Twitter allegations is surely legitimate. In liberal democracies, the rights of all groups are occasionally infringed, given different balances of power. Reasonable analysis should reflect this; one can worry about these allegations and the Musk ownership. Alas, such nuance is increasingly absent from the public sphere; where this will end remains to be seen.
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