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Glenn Harlan Reynolds On Social Media Mobs And The Last Hope For Digital Free Speech


Glenn Harlan Reynolds joined Federalist Senior Contributor Ben Weingarten on the “Close Encounters” podcast to discuss the threat social media poses to the individual and culture as a whole, the mob mentality headed by the ‘woke white Twitter crowd,’ and the importance of antitrust laws to prevent collusion among tech companies, which allows them to peddle their own ideologies and stifles free speech. You can watch the full interview here or read a full transcript below, which has been slightly modified for clarity.

Ben Weingarten: Let’s start with a very fundamental question regarding this social media upheaval: Is Big Tech evil, or does power corrupt, and absolute power corrupt absolutely?

Glenn Reynolds: Yes! Actually, we should probably put in a clip now from that taco commercial where the girl says, “Why not both?” Big Tech is evil. Whether they’re evil because they’ve been corrupted by power, or whether they started out with the seed of evil within them to begin with, that’s for somebody else to say. But the end state today is indistinguishable.

Ben Weingarten: So about a year ago, maybe a little over a year ago, you left Twitter. And you were very prolific on Twitter. Tell us why you left, and whether you have any regrets.

Glenn Reynolds: I’ll answer it in reverse order. I have zero regrets. People always ask me that. “Do you miss Twitter?” “No!” And people are sometimes trying to pressure me to go back to Twitter, and I can happily tell them, “My account’s cancelled. All my followers are gone. You wouldn’t even know if I did tweet.” I’m calmer. I’m happier. My life is better in every way. And I thought that I would miss out on a lot of breaking news and stuff, but it turns out not really very much. In fact, what you really see on Twitter is just the same old crap being beaten to death day after day.

Why did I do it? Honestly, although I was on it a lot, I never liked Twitter that much. I was a late adopter, and I always viewed it with vague contempt. But when I started doing research for the book, I saw more and more stuff about how it affects people’s minds, attitudes, and happiness, and I could see that with myself. So it was some fairly minor thing that set me off — I think they banned Jesse Kelly — but that was just a straw that broke the camel’s back. It was not a really long-considered decision. It was just like, “Screw this. I’m out of here.” And I deleted it. And like I said, I have not missed it.

And it’s not an accident that it makes you that way. And it’s not even something about human nature, or the human condition. The algorithms that all these social media outfits use are designed to promote engagement, and engagement basically means emotional involvement. As Jaron Lanier points out in his book on social media, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, the easiest emotions for the algorithms to amplify are the negative emotions – so, fear, anger, and sadness. Weirdly, research shows that a lot of people on social media tend to be more scared, angrier, and sadder. Go figure.

Ben Weingarten: It sort of follows news media: “If it bleeds, it leads.” It’s a similar psychology that goes into it. And you talk a little bit about the precursors to social media, including traditional blogging, and even what predated traditional blogging. Do you think there might ultimately be a movement — sort of like an analog versus digital movement — where people go back and they say, “Let’s go to a simpler, happier time than what we have today.”

Glenn Reynolds: Well, who knows. Who thought that we’d be selling more vinyl records than CDs in some areas, as we are now. Social media have their function, but the superiority of the old blogosphere — the internet as it existed say in 2006 — is that it’s a loosely coupled system. Bloggers could be as obnoxious as they wanted, and if you didn’t like them, you just didn’t go read their blog. And it didn’t really affect much of anything else.

Twitter — especially Twitter — is sort of the most distilled of the social media. I say in the book, the difference between Twitter and other social media is like the difference between the fancy casinos which distract you from what’s going on by having attractive women with trays of free drinks and fancy carpets, and a gas station with slot machines with some sad, older people repetitively pulling the levers. And that’s Twitter. It’s the stripped down, bare bones version. But it’s a tightly coupled system. When you do stuff on Twitter, it affects the whole network pretty quickly. People can retweet, and without any thought and without much more than a second or two of effort to click retweet, they can send it to other people and it can spread like wild fire, usually without people even actually following a link or reading what it’s about. In fact, I saw an article just recently in which the guy who invented the retweet function said that that ruined Twitter — that they wanted something to produce more engagement, and advertisers love it, so they can’t really get rid of it, but the whole tenor of Twitter changed. It quit being a conversation and became about dunking on people when you could do the retweet with the snide remark. And I think that’s right.

And one of the things you see in Twitter that you didn’t see for example, in the old blogosphere so much, are these outrage mobs, where somebody tweets something dumb — the original famous example being Justine Sacco. She had 170 followers on Twitter, and she put up something she thought was a joke about white people being excessively afraid of AIDS in Africa. People decided it was racist, and by the time her plane landed in Cape Town, her life was ruined. There was an article in the New York Times that said years later she was still shocked and hurt by it. And that happens a lot now — it’s really odd the sort of savage glee with which people jump into this stuff.

It makes Twitter, especially, kind of like that Shirley Jackson story, “The Lottery,” where the village picks one of its members each year to be randomly stoned to death — except it happens more than once a year.

Ben Weingarten: Do you think that that is a reflection of the fact that human nature is somehow different in today’s society than in past societies [a notion I reject], or do you think it’s just that these vehicles sort of promote people acting on their most base emotions and instincts?

Glenn Reynolds: I think it’s the latter. Human beings always formed mobs, and people like to form a mob. You get a catharsis, a feeling of power without responsibility. It’s a primate characteristic to form a mob. But it used to be sort of hard to form a mob. You had to get people to put down what they were doing, pick up a pitchfork or torch, and go to the town square or whatever. John Hayward actually had a great line on this. He said, “Twitter has drastically lowered the cost of forming a mob, and it’s basically a subsidy to mob formation.” And when you subsidize things, you get more of them. And that’s exactly what we get.

Ben Weingarten: One of the underlying theories that is reflected in your book, The Social Media Upheaval, is the idea that the way that ideas spread today is analogous to the way that diseases spread when cities originally sprung up. I wonder if you could walk us through that.

Glenn Reynolds: Sure, actually, that’s where the idea for the book came from. I was reading something that had nothing to do with social media. It’s a really interesting book, Against the Grain by James Scott, who’s at Yale and who’s a really interesting guy. He also wrote Seeing Like a State and Two Cheers for Anarchism, and some other really interesting books. But this book is about the earliest agricultural societies. And one of their characteristics was, you would build a city — and they had some pretty big early cities with thousands or even sometimes over 10,000 people in them, and all their animals crammed cheek by jowl — and they would flourish for a while and then be depopulated by some hideous outbreak of disease, which nobody understood because when everybody was hunting and gathering, they didn’t have things like that. There was just this one line in it that crystallized it to me. He said, “You know, the founders of these early urban ecologies probably had no idea of the disease vectors they were unleashing because, how could they?” I read that, and then I saw a tweet by Richard Fernandez almost immediately after that where he said, “Society seems to be getting crazier, and who knows what viruses of the mind are being unleashed by social media.” And I was like, “Yeah.”

So these social media platforms, which cram a bunch of people together with no effort of sanitation – and honestly, the way the algorithms are designed, they basically encourage people to fling poo at each other — allow for the spread of toxic ideas, fake news, irrational ideations and such, with no control for people whose immune systems, mental immune systems, were not really designed to withstand that.

And so it’s not surprising that, as I say [in] the breakout quote in the back of the book, “Society seems to be getting crazier — and maybe just doesn’t seem to be, maybe it actually is getting crazier.” And I think at least at the level of, sadly, the intellectual movers, shakers, and opinion formers who are the “Blue Check” [verified users] crowd on Twitter, it is crazier and they are literally crazier.

Ben Weingarten: If Twitter is an echo chamber — and I think it’s self-evident and the statistics on it show that that’s the case — should that make us feel any better about its impact, or is it worse than because the elites are even further insulated in a bubble from the actual country?

Glenn Reynolds: I think the latter, and I think you sort of see that in the Democratic Party now. It’s being driven by the woke white Twitter crowd, and there are loads of polls, which Democrats are worrying about, that show that even most Democratic voters don’t actually agree with the woke white Twitter crowd. It’s interesting, blacks and Hispanics are actually much more conservative about immigration than the woke white Twitter crowd. They’re much less supportive of affirmative action than the woke white Twitter crowd, but the woke white Twitter crowd is really driving the Democratic primary process right now.

And, on a larger scale, as David French points out, “The trouble with Twitter is, you can quit Twitter, and then you get saner and your life gets better, but you also lose all influence.” And you could try to tell yourself, “Well, Twitter’s stupid. What happens on Twitter just happens on Twitter.” Until you realize that many of the most hysterical people on Twitter all the time are in fact the Blue Check crowd — that is, the top journalists, pundits, and political operatives of the country, and they’re freaking crazy.

Ben Weingarten: And I guess one of the benefits is we get to see that in real time.

Glenn Reynolds: That’s the upside. Although, it’s also weird because on the one hand, yes, you can see how crazy they are, and that’s useful – frightening, but useful. But on the other hand, it allows them to coordinate – it’s like an open conspiracy. We had a scandal in D.C. [around a] decade ago, the JournoList scandal, where Ezra Klein was running a secret email list for lefty journalists — which was most journalists — to basically get their story straight and agree on a common narrative. And when it was exposed, a few people lost their jobs for a while — there weren’t that many consequences because they were good lefty journalists, and good lefty journalists aren’t going to be punished for being lefties any more than necessary. But now they basically do the same thing on Twitter. They just tweet out what the story is going to be, and pretty soon, they’re all singing the same song. And you can watch it happen in real time, but it still happens.

Ben Weingarten: Given all the downsides to much of social media as it currently exists, the free marketeer would say — and you grapple with this in your book — “Well, if there’s a desire for an alternative, then someone can make it work.” What say you?

Glenn Reynolds: “Yeah, but…” In the book, I come out primarily for the enforcement of antitrust laws, and one of the things antitrust laws forbid, besides just monopoly, is collusion. And what we’ve seen pretty clearly is collusion on the part of the Big Tech companies to keep out competitors..

I’ll give you a good example. James O’Keefe had a video of a Google executive admitting to doing a lot of shady stuff. Google owns YouTube. So, it was pulled from YouTube pretty quickly on completely bogus claims that it had violated terms of use. And that was okay because there is a video competitor to YouTube called Vimeo. It’s much smaller, but it’s there. But then Vimeo pulled it too, basically as a courtesy I guess to Google, which is much bigger and richer. And the only place it wound up being, besides his [O’Keefe’s] own website, was a video site called BitChute. Well, when BitChute came up, PayPal — which is hand in glove with these other Big Tech companies — cut them off from receiving payments. So this is a competitor to an established company that was cut off from receiving payments by another established company, which works hand in glove with them.

And the same thing happened to Gab, which was designed to be a Twitter competitor. PayPal cut them off as well, and that’s harmed them considerably. So, I think — collusion is a popular word — but one place were collusion is a real crime is in the antitrust world, and there’s no real doubt that that’s been going on. So that’s number one.

The second thing is bigness. These companies are effectively monopolies. And libertarians split on this. There is a school of libertarianism that says, “Well, if a business does it, it can’t be bad.” And that’s not true. Certainly in terms of the antitrust laws, Robert Bork notwithstanding, the — it’s sort of weird to have to say this — original intent of the antitrust laws was not simply to get the lowest possible prices for consumers. The drafters of the antitrust laws, and the early enforcers of the antitrust laws like Teddy Roosevelt, were extremely concerned that economic power would be hand in glove with political power, and that it would be abused for political reasons. And it’s much worse now. When John D. Rockefeller owned Standard Oil that gave him a lot of money, and with that money he could get political power. But companies like Google and Facebook, etc., actually basically have their feet on the neck of the political communications in the country, and they can take a story and make it go away, or they can advance it. And again, we had another case recently where they admit that Google is fiddling with their searches of Trump to make him look bad, just because they can. So that is a kind of political power that is something previous eras of monopolists didn’t have, and I think that it’s entirely consistent with libertarian principles to break up that kind of source of unaccountable power.

Ben Weingarten: I suspect a libertarian counter-argument would be, “Well, if they are dominant players in their space and there’s no competition to them, they’ll likely grow complacent, make mistakes, and do all sorts of things that basically upset their user bases because there is no competition, and as such, the incumbents might ultimately kill themselves.” Do you think there’s anything to that argument?

Glenn Reynolds: Maybe — but where’s the country if it takes 50 years? And maybe not. Monopolies sometime last a long time, especially if they’re allowed to collude with other companies to maintain their dominant position. So I’m not super sanguine about that. It could happen, and certainly I hope it would happen. But it will happen a lot faster if they are policed. I’ll give you a counter-example. Tim Wu, who is a professor at Columbia Law School, has a good book called The Curse of Bigness on reviving antitrust law. He points out that when IBM designed the PC, it was doing so with basically a policeman looking over its shoulder – it was in the middle of antitrust litigation with the Department of Justice. So it wound up designing the PC as a very open system that allowed a lot of people to get in and allowed a lot of ferment, development and progress. It was super-competitive. They probably wouldn’t have done that if they hadn’t been under that supervision, and we probably wouldn’t have had anything like the personal computing revolution that we had as a result.

Ben Weingarten: Maybe some folks at the Justice Department read this book, The Social Media Upheaval, because recently it was announced in the Wall Street Journal that the “Justice Department is opening a broad antitrust review into whether dominant technology firms are unlawfully stifling competition, adding a new Washington threat for companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple.” What do you make of that?

Glenn Reynolds: Well, I certainly hope they are reading and listening to me. If so, nobody’s told me. But I’ve been beating this drum actually for a while. The book came out this spring, but I was writing columns about it before that, and I’m not the only one. In fact, what’s really interesting to me is…[several] months ago, I went out to Stanford. They had a conference on free speech and social media that Michael McConnell put together. It was a really good conference, and very diverse crowd. And I went out there loaded for bear, expecting to get a lot of flack for my argument. And I discovered there that basically almost everybody agreed with me, other than the people who were there from Google and Facebook or wherever. And actually there were a couple of former Facebook people who came up to me and said, “I can’t say this publicly, but you’re absolutely right.” But the lefties were on the same page to an almost frightening degree. I’ve never gone to a conference and given a presentation where everyone agreed with me. What’s wrong? What did I miss?

The bad news for the tech companies is that — I guess with the social acumen you would expect from a bunch of geeks — they have managed to make everybody hate them. They’re hated on the left. They’re hated on the right. It’s really actually astounding because their personnel lean very far left, so you would think they would naturally cultivate allies on the left to protect them from attacks on [the right]. No. They’ve blown it completely. The left hates them too. And there’s just a huge amount of common ground. So I think that they’re going to have to spend a lot of money on lawyers and lobbyists in D.C., and that may not be enough.

Ben Weingarten: You noted a couple of case studies in de-platforming where, essentially, because you have a handful of dominant players, it’s not just about not being able to put out ideas on Twitter or Facebook, and you get shadow-banned or banned altogether, but then you get pulled off of payment processing services, and all the way down the chain. Do you think that we are ultimately going to get to a place where we have, effectively, ideological segregation in civil society, because that seems to be the trend especially given the dominance of the social justice warriors and their attacks on big businesses, writ large.

Glenn Reynolds: That may even be a best-case scenario to be honest, because the alternative is that we don’t have a segregated system, we have a one-sided system where people who aren’t politically correct are frozen out. We’ll see. There’s also been some talk in the Trump administration’s Treasury Department about using banking regulations to crack down on that, and I think that may very well happen. And certainly if I were a lawyer advising banks and payment processing companies, I would tell them to watch out, that they’re at real risk there — and in some states, maybe subject to state law lawsuits. A number of states like California, the District of Columbia and other places actually have laws that ban discrimination based on your political views, or political statements. They were passed to protect lefties. But you know, people tell you you can’t tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools, and that’s a bunch of bull—-. Those chainsaws and sledgehammers work just fine.

So, I actually would like to see a lot more lawfare on these fronts as well because I think there’s a real sense of impunity that leftist organizations have — that they can do stuff that they would consider Nazi-like if it was done by the right, and when they do it, it’s fine. And they can’t even imagine that anyone would ever want to hold them accountable. So, that means they’re sloppy about it, and that’s wonderful when you’re suing them and in discovery.

Ben Weingarten: Antifa probably being the best example.

Glenn Reynolds: Well, that’s right. They certainly don’t think they’re going to be held accountable, and I predict that they will wind up being so held.

Ben Weingarten: Recently there have been a couple of major separate but related debates going on in the House of Conservatism, one of them being about philosophy — namely this concept of national conservatism — and the other being the fight, sort of [an] intellectual, narrow fight, but with broader implications on more tactics and strategy — between Sohrab Amari and David French, who you mentioned before. Where does Big Tech fit into that?

Glenn Reynolds: There is the school of thought on the right that says, “We just shouldn’t be mean to these Big Tech companies because they’re big companies, and big companies are probably good.” And there is this weird — some libertarians are this way, some conservatives are this way, I have never been this way — sense that if a business does it, you’re not allowed to complain about it. And I don’t know why not. You’re allowed to complain about everything else. And I think when businesses decide to jump into the political game, and function essentially as 529s or Super PACs for one party, they deserve to get some blowback too.

David French is a nice guy, and I’m a fan of a lot of his writing. He’s very smart, but I have to say, he seems kind of unhinged on the subject of Trump. I read one of his recent pieces about Donald Trump, and I was like, “Where have you been?” It was one thing to maybe feel that way right after the election, when he had nothing to go on, and you could project this terrible future ahead of you. But I mean we’ve had two-plus years of Trump governing actually as a fairly cautious center-right deregulator, and all the nightmares we kept hearing about him [have] not materialized…And I’m sort of surprised.

Ben Weingarten: And arguably fighting to defend people who have the views that David French has.

Glenn Reynolds: Well, yeah, that’s what’s sort of funny. James Taranto said back in the early days that the Never Trump phenomenon is primarily an aesthetic phenomena, and I think that’s still true. I just don’t think there’s much room to be angry on the basis of policy. If you don’t like his tweets, you don’t like his tweets.

But I will say, well, if you think Trump’s approach to politics is sort of classless, low-brow, and — I don’t mean in a financial sense — at some level corrupt, that’s because that’s what our politics now is in general. And you may wish we had a better politics, where people were more thoughtful, courteous, and civil, but we in fact do not have that politics.

Ben Weingarten: Plus, look at who the opponent is.

Glenn Reynolds: Right. And that’s what always sort of surprises me — what gets people upset and what doesn’t. It’s like the lefties get a pass because we’re used to them being jerks…It’s sort of a mystery to me exactly what it is [regarding Trump], but I do think it’s mostly an aesthetic thing, at this point.

But I will say, one of the reasons our politics is so bad, to circle back to our conversation, is social media. It has rewarded people for saying things that get attention and lead people — we always had a few sort of provocateur types, whether it’s Abbie Hoffman or Ann Coulter, out in the general culture – with Twitter encouraging thousands of people, millions of people, to be that way. And that has not made our culture better.

Ben Weingarten: One of the things that Peter Thiel brought up at that recent National Conservative Conference, and in comments after it, is the idea that tech companies — and really all companies — have no specific allegiance to America necessarily, even if they were founded here, and even if they grew because of our capital markets and our citizens. What are the implications if we’re to think of tech companies as global citizens, transnational progressive [entities], rather than American companies?

Glenn Reynolds: Well, it’s not a good thing for America, if that’s the case. It’s funny. I just ran across something Henry Kissinger wrote over 20 years ago, where he said, we have a global transnational boom and prosperity, but most of the working class is still tied to their locality, and that’s going to be a source of conflict in the 21st century. Well, Henry Kissinger’s a pretty smart guy. And that’s sort of where we are now. It’s true. If you’re Google, it makes sense to suck up to the Chinese. If you’re Hollywood, it makes sense to suck up to the Chinese. But it’s bad for America. And the question, as we always say, is how far do we let companies go in doing things that are bad for America?

In a way, it’s sort of like — in the environmental world, we say companies externalize their costs — they have a factory, they make a lot of money, and then they externalize some of the cost they get by dumping pollution all over everybody. This [what we are witnessing with modern multinational corporations operating as global — transnational progressive — citizens] is sort of political, or diplomatic cost externalities that they’re generating. They are doing stuff to make money by cooperating with say, China or Saudi Arabia or somebody, and then the costs are borne by other people.

Ben Weingarten: So let’s throw another monkey wrench in the conversation which is that there have been a number of federal rulings recently pertaining to social media regarding, for example, politicians not being able to block people from viewing their accounts and the like. Where does that factor in, if at all, to your thesis?

Glenn Reynolds: I’m not sure it factors in to my thesis particularly, but it definitely illustrates that lawyers win no matter what. It’s always nice to have more work for lawyers. In my day job, I’m in the business of selling law degrees. They sell better when people can get a nice job on the other side. And for example, antitrust law used to be sort of a moribund field, and now all the big law firms are staffing up because they expect it to be happening again. And I think Trump, President Trump, likes the idea of being like Teddy Roosevelt and being a trustbuster. I think that’s one rich loud mouth New York president who busted trusts, and now another rich loud mouth New York president who busts trusts. It’s not a big departure when you think about it.

Ben Weingarten: Speaking of that political aspect of this, what did Big Tech learn from the 2016 election?

Glenn Reynolds: I’m tempted to say they’ve learned nothing, and forgotten nothing. Ironically, Trump’s people had a lot of help from Facebook. If you’re a big advertiser, or a big client, Facebook sends you people to help you craft your ads and target them and stuff. And they sent people to Trump, and Trump’s people use them, and very effectively. They offered them to the Clinton people — the Clinton people had Robby Mook who thought he knew more about data than anyone else, and basically said, “Get lost. We got this.” They also said to Bill Clinton, the best politician of the last several decades probably — he was worried they might lose the white working class — and they were like, “Well, we’ve got our metrics. Our data analytics say we’re fine. Go away old man! What do you know?” So, hubris and nemesis.

But I think they definitely have decided to put a thumb on the scale this time. They did a little bit in a few cases in 2016, but they’re just all in for 2020. And I think that’s super risky for them for two reasons: One is, they might fail. And in fact, I think they’re likely to fail because while they have power, they have less power than they think they do. Like Robby Mook, they think their data analytics tells them more than it really does. You think the trust-busting is bad, but if they lose to Trump after trying to kill him – you know the old saying, “If you strike the king you must kill him” — Trump remembers, and he’s not gonna let bygones be bygones.

But the second thing is, if they succeed, they become like the Praetorian guard of American politics. Now whoever wins has got to control them. And I promise you that if any Democrat, really, wins, they are going to make sure those companies are thoroughly under their control and under their thumbs in ways that the companies will probably turn out not to like very much.

Ben Weingarten: One of the most basic I think long-term problems — and you write about this in your book — that has resulted in no small part because of the technology that we have is that people’s attention spans are shorter than they’ve ever been. People have trouble grappling with ideas for more than a second. Very few of us are able to sit down with a book, read the book, absorb it, digest it. Long-run, what are the implications for our society, and what can we do to change it?

Glenn Reynolds: Well, it’s bad. If you look at primitive humans, they kind of had by modern standards ADHD — and with good reason because you didn’t want to get too focused on a task because a saber tooth tiger might be creeping up behind you. So you kind of wanted to get distracted and look around every little while.

There’s an interesting book on the internet and attention by Nicholas Carr called The Shallows. And basically, he says as books came out, people actually learned to think, write, and reason differently by being able to set out arguments at great length, and then support them; to read them, and think about them. And people’s brains actually changed as a result of that kind of exposure. And now, we’re kind of back to the Stone Age in terms of our attention spans.

And people who teach will tell you that students complain about reading assignments that would have been [considered] short. I get that from my students sometimes. I tell them, “Wait till you’re a lawyer. These long assignments will not seem long.” But it is absolutely true. And some literary stuff you just can’t assign anymore because students won’t read it. There was a wonderful woman who’s a neuroscientist who decided to test herself by reading some of the long books by Thomas Mann and people like that whom she had liked, and she said she can’t do it. Her attention span is too short. You start reaching for your phone, or whatever.

And I’ve noticed that in myself. In fact, I mention in the book, I really enjoy reading on a plane. Why do I enjoy reading on the plane so much? The reason is I’m too cheap to pay for WiFi, so on the plane I have no devices, and I read like I used to read before. So now at home, at night, I try to quit working about 9:30, and I get a glass of wine and a book, and keep all my devices out of reach so that I can zoom in on it a little bit. And I think it helps.

I think it’s [dwindling attention spans] just part of the move toward Idiocracy. People think in hashtags. It’s not even bumper stickers anymore.