Jack Dorsey is leaving his platform in the hands of Parag Agrawal, the company’s chief technology officer, a man who last year said Twitter’s “role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation,” and to “focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.”
Agrawal’s false binary, between healthy discourse and the First Amendment, is alarming but unsurprising. It indicates Twitter is set to devolve further from a company that seeks to decentralize the discourse to one that bolsters its corporate gatekeepers.
Setting the First Amendment—both as a legal and cultural norm—at odds with “a healthy public conversation” is obviously en vogue with culturally leftist elites. The mentality has informed a host of damaging decisions in media, entertainment, tech, and business in the last decade, especially in the wake of racial unrest in 2020.
It’s also based on postmodern nonsense. A “healthy public conversation” must include all perspectives so the correct and moral ones can emerge and prevail in the court of public opinion, rather than being adjudicated by elites and protected with force from criticism. Twitter is a private company, but Agrawal was clearly arguing against the norm of the First Amendment as the philosophy for our discourse.
The left now sees the First Amendment as an obstacle to a “healthy public conversation” because it sees anti-progressive speech as psychological violence. This is predicated on the idea that bigotry should be defined as all dissent from progressivism, and that all dissent on these questions poses a threat to safety.
That’s unhealthy. It shelters bad ideas from necessary improvements, disproportionately empowers corporatists, and wrongly conditions people to see themselves as victims. Agrawal’s approach to the “public conversation,” articulated just last year in his capacity as Twitter CTO, is very harmful.
Over at the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney argues that for all of Dorsey’s flaws, he functioned as something as a bulwark, preventing the company from a total takeover by the illiberal left. Glenn Greenwald and Saagar Enjeti made similar points. I think they’re right. In that sense, Dorsey’s transfer of power really exposes the arc of Silicon Valley, which promised to bring about decentralization and is now eagerly facilitating the very opposite. That’s set to worsen under Agrawal, who now controls a platform that dominates our media and politics.
The most important thing to know about Twitter is that nobody uses it. Those of us who use it more than once a day are vastly outnumbered. That’s both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that most Americans aren’t hooked on another corporate dopamine manipulator that distorts our culture. But it’s bad because it means Twitter users are in bubbles that encourage groupthink among powerful people in politics, media, and business.
We should not want anyone who accepts the premise that “free speech” is an outmoded ambition to control major corporate platforms. It accelerates our divorce from norms—legal, cultural, and both—that made this country a force for enormous good.
To the extent executives are still persuaded by their financial interests, and to the extent consumers are still able to influence those financial interests in monopolistic sectors of the economy, mounting public rejection of philosophies like Agrawal’s may ultimately make a difference. Twitter is struggling. Doubling down on anti-speech fantasies of a “healthy conversation” won’t help.