The Digital White Man’s Burden and Liberal Sanctimony Over Social Media

The musician Moby wrote on November 29: “This will be my last tweet. Last night, Elon Musk posted an alt-right anti-Semitic meme, a fake CNN story, and an image of guns on his bedside table. Twitter has become a cesspool of racism, anti-Semitism, disinformation, and dimwitted alt-right hate, and it’s time to leave.”

For which he earned, when I last checked, more than 67,000 likes — an indicator that Moby may wail, but not as many folks will jump ship as some believe.

Because what progressives seem to like more than the pointless, empty gesture of leaving Twitter in a huff is sticking around to keep bitching about Twitter on Twitter. The alternative platform Mastodon doesn’t seem to be happening, and whatever the next big alternative is ain’t here yet.

I inspected the Great and Powerful Oz’s tweets and replies, and I have to confess here and now that my blood didn’t curdle, and my lungs didn’t collapse from over-gasping. Nope, sorry, I didn’t race to a Victorian fainting couch over what Musk posted. Hallelujah, I survived. And so did you. As did all the other precious delicate flowers whining and sniping about this.

Stating this banal fact (and even being snarky about it) neither makes me a Musk fan nor a Musk apologist, and I won’t even bother telling you what I think about him because it’s besides the damn point. We keep having the wrong conversations.

Let me give you a clue as to what one of those should be. The Intercept ran a piece a couple of days ago titled, “Left-Wing Voices Are Silenced on Twitter as Far-Right Trolls Advise Elon Musk.” Okay, let’s be fair. the article raises valid concerns, noting how the accounts of journalists and leftist activists such as Chad Loder and Vishal Pratap Singh were suspended. Its lead was: “Elon Musk claims to be ‘fighting for free speech in America’ but the social network’s new owner appears to be overseeing a purge of left-wing activists from the platform.”

And depending on where you read it will likely indicate how quickly you recognize the problem. The article talks about free speech in America. Chad Loder and Vishal Pratap Singh are both in the States. So are the Intercept’s other account examples.

In fact, I can’t recall Western progressive critics having any serious discussion whatsoever on how the situation is far more nuanced for African and Asian users of Twitter. Certain liberals would be stunned if they bothered to check, because they would find millions of Africans are on Elon’s side, fed up with how the old Twitter management censored them.

I’m not African, I don’t live in Africa, and I haven’t formed a final opinion on Musk’s Twitter yet — I want to see how it goes. But having been in the online debate trenches over the Ethiopian war, I can tell you that I have no love and neither do my colleagues for Twitter’s previous management. For two years, we watched the old guard screw around with pro-Ethiopia accounts. They shamelessly kicked some of our top activists off the platform while letting the likes of Mukesh Kapila skate by with statements saying to the effect that “Ethiopians are horrible people.” The nastiest, most toxic insults against Ethiopia’s Amhara people were (and still are) allowed to stay up while Twitter management manipulated our likes, followers, and posts.

Where were these reporters for The Intercept as Twitter allowed pro-TPLF trolls to engage in outrageous platform manipulation? Where the hell were the progressives who believe so ardently in free speech when Twitter booted off high-profile activists for Ethiopia Nebiyu Asfaw and Simon Tesfemariam? Do they even have a clue who these gentlemen are? Where were they when Twitter tried to banish the #NoMore Movement? A movement created in the U.S. that demanded fair and balanced reportage on Ethiopia, but was smeared as a government propaganda campaign — even though it was nothing of the sort.

I have been a lifelong liberal — an atheist who’s pro-LBGTQ+ and pro-Choice, a defender of national health care, multiculturalism, and relaxed immigration rules — and it is infuriating to watch the parade of hypocrisy on the part of self-identified “progressives” over this issue. On the one hand, there’s outcry about leftwing accounts’ suspension; fine, good. On the other hand, many of these same critics probably didn’t hesitate to cheer when accounts they didn’t like were denied a platform. And that was okay, wasn’t it? Because hey, it was Donald Trump. He’s awful, right? No big deal. Oh, those guys were Nazis and white supremacists — screw ’em, they’re Nazis, for gawd’s sake.

Okay, you’re afraid that racists and anti-Semites might gain influence? So am I. But you join the extremists when you take our choices away and preemptively declare what is “hate speech” and what is “harmful.” It’s easy to gain a consensus on blocking Nazis. We know their crimes and horrors. The trouble starts when the censorship picks on someone else.

Given that all the major public forums — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube — are American-based companies, no, I do not trust that their management teams and moderators can parse the nuances of complex African and Asian issues and conflicts.

It would be interesting to see how long those who want content flagged and rigorously policed would last if they were at the mercy of others’ enforcement mechanisms. Maybe if they lived my past two years, they would gain valuable insights. Over 2021 and 2022, I was called a “genocide denier.” Trolls for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the terrorist group that was fighting the Ethiopian government up until a peace deal was signed in Pretoria, relentlessly reported my tweets. I was routinely cleared by Twitter time after time for more than a year… and then Twitter reversed itself and suspended me for a brief bit — over a set of tweets they previously found didn’t violate its rules.

To whom could I appeal? There was no appeal. It’s a Western media company — deciding how I and my African colleagues and friends could express ourselves about an African conflict.

The link to my article debunking the Axum Massacre was available for about a year as well… until it wasn’t and was deemed “harmful.”

What changed? Nothing, except Twitter’s moderators blatantly chose to take the side of the TPLF.

And where could I appeal that? Again, it’s a Western media company — deciding how we could express ourselves about an African conflict.

Twitter’s old guard could get away with it because of the dominance of the U.S. media and American/Western culture, which established what public narrative was acceptable. And in such situations, no one thought to ask, “Hey, what do Ethiopians think, both at home and in diaspora communities? Not just the government, but people in Addis Ababa and Gondar and Dessie, and hey, let’s talk to Ethiopian folks in DC and in Chicago and London.” Instead of: “Gosh, what does Amnesty International think? What does Crisis Group think? Let’s call up the UN.”

We had that disastrous interference in Ethiopian accounts because the TPLF managed to infiltrate Twitter; this, I know for a fact from sources in the tech sector, and frankly, it was one of the worst kept secrets for the diaspora. It demonstrated that content moderators could be blind to the self-interests of employees who claimed to properly represent ethnic or national communities. The tokenism isn’t much different than the way Western media wants to pretend Nima Elbagir of CNN or Jemal Osman of Britain’s Channel 4 have integrity just because they’re Africans covering Africa.

It’s now known that Twitter hired “a host of former feds and spies” from the FBI and the intelligence community to help it determine who’s a problem account and how to curb those accounts’ influence. That means “free speech” only stays free if it fits the U.S. realpolitik agenda of the moment.

Think about that for a moment. An ex-intelligence worker deciding if your opinion must be muzzled while you’re halfway around the world in Vietnam or in Cameroon. That should scare the hell out of you. So, when Musk earned headlines for his massive firings, did anyone stop to consider how many ex-FBI agents and spies may have got to keep their jobs? Can we talk about that?

But there is nothing new in free speech going through a corporation. After all, who do you think owns newspapers and broadcast networks? Social media is “Letters to the Editor” writ large, but in the days when papers were more ink and paper than pixels, at least you didn’t have those letters read first by folks who came straight from the FBI.

So, why is no one talking about that?

And before you reflexively think that somehow content moderation is “safer” when done from the U.S. or Germany or Ireland — which by the way has taken a vindictive hardline stance towards Ethiopia — let’s point out that your free speech rights are just as vulnerable in Washington as they might be in Mogadishu. The fat orange buffoon who led a coup d’état on the United States Capitol is allowed to walk around in the open air, and the mainstream media doesn’t question at all that this guy wants to run for President again.

So, if you’re going to insist on content moderators, let’s have a discussion on whether your moderators — and their supervisors — have informed knowledge of African and Asian history and culture, and whether they’re truly impartial. Because until we have that crucial chat about decolonizing social media, until we stop all the oxygen in our global town hall getting sucked out by American dialogue, no — no damn way there’s equality on Twitter, whoever owns it.

***

I would argue we don’t need content nannies at all. The case example of Ethiopia shows how badly the system can fail and be abused. If you can’t recognize that, it’s because your own political bias won’t let you. The mind boggles at how those outraged over school boards in the U.S. banning Young Adult novels with gay themes and discussion of Critical Race Theory delighted in Trump getting the boot off Twitter.

Hey, to be honest, I didn’t miss him either. I can’t stand the racist creep. Yet no one pointed out that NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, etc. all merrily went on reporting whatever brain fart or mumblings he passed along to the world. They deemed it “news” and gave it priority. It hardly mattered that Trump was evicted from Twitter.

So, when will we have a discussion over the complicity of major media brands in helping such monsters?

Why is it that when the TPLF cultists blocked a busy highway in Seattle, putting motorists and even ambulance patients at risk, at least one TV station rewarded these idiots’ downright dangerous behavior with air time?

The problem, in the end, is not the platform. The problem is our attitudes and values.

As I draft this, BBC World Service and the Associated Press are running stories on how the Taliban have blocked the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Afghanistan. AP notes: “VOA and RFE are funded by the U.S. government, though they claim editorial independence.” Which is a hilarious crock, as the very reason for their existence in the first place was to broadcast propaganda to Axis-occupied nations in World War Two and later to those under the control of the Soviet Union.

Funny how those who would complain about the Taliban’s move were conspicuously quiet when the U.S., Canada and Europe banned RT, Russia’s propaganda network. I can’t shed any tears for RT, and I shouldn’t have to remind anyone that I squarely support the Ukrainian people; but let’s not kid ourselves over the double standard. We have no problem when the targets of our scorn are pushed out, we just don’t want our own sacred cows rustled.

And so, for Moby, Twitter is now “a cesspool.” What he forgets or willfully ignores is that no one is making him read Musk’s tweets or those of alt-right haters. You can ignore. You can block. No one is making you read the tweets of Nick Fuentes. No one will force your eyeballs to gaze upon Katie Hopkins and her bigoted drivel (for which I am eternally grateful).

Where liberal hypocrisy comes in with the needle slamming into the dial’s red zone is that these “progressives” don’t want anyone else reading the anti-Semites and racists.

And that is where I have a huge problem. Because you’re not really policing the message. You are policing my reading.

It’s an ugly type of paternalism. You’re not fooled by the Nazis, but you suggest I could be. Or you’re assuming my neighbors are morons. And maybe they are, and you — you “hero” — you’ll step in and “protect” them from themselves and what they might read and hear.

Facebook is still condemned by major media outlets for the role it allegedly played in stoking hate speech against Rohingya. Time magazine, for instance, recently relied on a report by Amnesty International — an organization which has been shamelessly biased in its coverage of Ethiopia. I agree that Facebook has a lot to answer for with Myanmar, but again, no one seems to ask the deeper questions. Such as… You can nod and think it’s a good thing for Meta to ban the Tatmadaw from Facebook and Instagram, but are you really that comfortable with a hugely powerful American corporation deciding free speech rights in a country in Asia?

They got it wrong before, terribly wrong, but the premise that social media is responsible as a driver of genocide treats people as children who need to be led; they are no longer individuals who must account for their own actions. People can act as a mob, but we don’t try people in court as a mob — we make each participant answer for his or her specific acts.

I don’t need you to tell me what I can or can’t read, and my friends in Africa and Asia sure as hell don’t need your patronizing values of censorship with what is really “Digital White Man’s Burden.”

I prefer to be able to spot the racist, to know where he is and what he says and have his toxic hate easily available for quick reference rather than have him banished. Why? Because he can still spew his hate in darker corners of the Internet but present a more “respectable” face on Twitter or Facebook.

If you want to fight what he says and writes, do it with ideas. Do it with arguments. I sometimes get folks rolling their eyes at that, which implies they think this isn’t enough. But I’m not the naïve one, they are — they’re showing me they don’t have confidence in rhetorical persuasion. The whole point of democracy and free speech is that talking and writing is preferable to torches and pitchforks. Let’s please try to remember that we didn’t go to war with the Nazis over what they said. We fought them when they stopped using words and began invading countries.

And right now, the most sinister extremists are not the idiots running around with Confederate flags or swastika patches. No, the real danger lies with the new improved racist in a suit and tie. Take the example of American Professor Bruce Gilley, who thinks that you as a Black person were better off as a British slave than as a free citizen in an African country; a guy who thinks we should bring back colonialism. He talks a big game, he offers (highly questionable) “data.” And yes, he’s regularly vilified as he deserves to be, but he is respectable, and there is no way to fight that kind of person except through demolishing his arguments. Racism and fascism have known how to disguise themselves for quite a while now, and you won’t make them disappear by denying them a platform.

The Holocaust denier is the easiest liberal target for a ban. But one of the most insidious cases of Holocaust denial was done by David Irving, who sneaked this poison into his books in the 1980s and Nineties while he was touted as one of the foremost historians on Nazi Germany. He didn’t get defeated by being banned. In fact, he was the one who tried to do the banning. He sued Professor Deborah Lipstadt in a British court for libel after she exposed his lies in a book of her own — she used the proper forum of academic study and refutation of intellectual claims. Irving lost in court and lost big. He was outed as a nasty little fraud, and forever he shall be. You might come across his tomes on Hitler or Goebbels now in a remainder bin or sometimes at a used bookstore, but no serious war scholar will ever take him seriously again.

History has been on our side all along over the Holocaust; the evils were scrupulously investigated, both in the immediate aftermath and by proper historians later. But history has not always been on the side of gay people, trans people, leftists, Africans, African Americans, or women. You who are so sure, so zealously convinced you’re right over Ethiopia’s conflict, I ask you to think about how your bans and content enforcements methods will be considered when new facts come to light? Because we have already learned that the narrative was dangerously skewed when it came to the Rwanda Genocide and Darfur.

Those who don’t like what Musk is doing with Twitter lately have revived the argument for social media to be a public utility, which I think would beat the hell out of dealing with a corporation where there is no appeal and hardly any accountability. We should have that discussion.

But please recognize we’ll still have issues, and I would say go take a hard look at WeChat, China’s social media and mobile app. It’s control. It’s surveillance. It’s the Beijing regime’s alternative to Twitter and Facebook, and it has more than a billion users, all of whom the government can keep a close eye on.

And again, I ask, where will these utilities be based, given that they serve a global audience? Who watches its watchers?

***

We are the fools who handed over our power, because we let ourselves give up being the consumer to be the product. We are the rubes who “sell” our stories online, our selfies, our casual remarks, our private moments we now make public, even our “publicity stills” of our daily lunch. And do they pay us? No, of course, not! Because like the amateur idiot at the comedy club’s Open Mike Night, we’re grateful for merely having a brief spotlight. We’re addicts for attention, we’re junkies for likes, and as with every junkie, we’re hypocrites who can rationalize shooting up.

William Burroughs wrote for his introduction to Naked Lunch, “The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.”

Elon Musk, whether you like him or not, simplified the client. In taking over Twitter, he pricked the bubble of progressives and embarrassed them with the blunt reminder that they were not here for themselves but to help him make money.

While his blue check pricing was portrayed as a fiasco, I loved how it ripped away the hypocrisy of privilege. Under the old system, you waited for the platform to “approve you” and grant you its blue badge. The practice was absurd on its face and automatically meant some animals were more equal than others. The often-repeated defense is that it assured users how “it lets people know you’re you.” Then why not verify everyone if it’s so vital?

Its defenders causally forget that all the blue check brahmins — the “verified” doctors, journalists, think tank analysts, mega-celebrities and so on — were still perfectly capable of passing along unverified claims, distributing misinformation and occasionally making stupid, insensitive, racist remarks. The truth was that the blue check helped you with follower numbers, and it gave users more characters to work with — special privileges. All while certain establishment media could keep appearing legit when their laziest, sloppiest work gets challenged.

But oh, yeah, I forgot — no one wants to look too closely at those media accomplices either. The ones who have such T-Rex footprints that they can ignore stories in Africa altogether or who have such clout that if they say “black is white” in Eritrea or Mali, other news organizations fall into lockstep.

Banning, account suspension, whatever you want to call it, is ultimately not about controversial speech but an attempt to silence the voice altogether. It inevitably becomes about the individual. And sometimes even the target of outrage plays a shell game of misdirection.

When Jordan Peterson — a professor and self-help huckster trying to pass himself off as a great intellectual — rocketed to fame in 2016 by refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns, I always felt that people missed the point. Peterson is a pompous boor. Whether you agree with gender-neutral rights or not, it’s plain bad manners not to refer to people the way they ask you to. It’s like getting the pronunciation of someone’s name right; make the damn effort. My judgment over whether you have a great name or not doesn’t matter, just be polite and call people what they prefer to be called.

Peterson gets away with playing the free speech martyr today because we’re treating bureaucracies, even corporate ones, like nannies — so it was left to Twitter to suspend him and YouTube to demonetize a couple of his videos, none of which reduced his power or influence in the long run. Those regular measures are the clubs that pound down us ordinary mortals. Thanks to his being raised to a different league by a fawning media that loves an enfant terrible as long as he doesn’t go too far, he is still chased for interviews, and Barnes & Noble will still carry his books. His star might have been dimmed early on had someone just eloquently, surgically called out his obnoxious behavior and flim-flam tactics, but instead, the go-to liberal move was to gather the torches and pitchforks — exactly the kind of reaction he could capitalize on in his quest for fame. Like Bruce Gilley, there is only one way to curb his expansion.

Fight words with words. Argue the ideas, bring the facts, and expose the fool’s gold of what your adversary is trying to sell. It’s an approach that lets ideas and a figure’s popularity — or collapse of that fame — find a natural equilibrium and evolution. It leaves the door open for better ideas or maligned individuals to be re-examined. It allows historical events to get a second hearing.

I and millions of Ethiopians know damn well that the Axum Massacre needs further investigation. Declaring that some of us are “genocide deniers” or slapping a “harmful” label on my article link is no different than the Turkish government outlawing the assertion that the Armenian Genocide happened. The only difference is that the TPLF played the Western media for a gullible rube and gambled on its timidity over “atrocity denial.” The effect of suppressing information is the same.

The irony, of course, is that genuine victims, such as the innocent Tigrayans plagued by the TPLF and Tigrayan kids turned child soldiers, as well as a tide of Amhara and Afar victims and internally displaced persons, wait for their stories to be told. They wait for their accounts to prompt outrage and for the justice they’re owed. But those who want to control speech rarely think beyond their adversary or target. They never consider that denying speech or a platform to one could do harm to others. They want the rewards of the moment — much like that junkie who needs that high. Gimme the fix first — not him, not her.

Censorship is the enemy of history. So, as much as I detest that the University of Toronto hosted the recent farce of TPLF cultists warping the record on Tigray, or Carleton’s journalism school letting Nima Elbagir show her “greatest hits of mendacity” in 2021 and call it a lecture, or Alex de Waal still working at Tufts University, I wouldn’t ever join the protests to stop these abominations. Let the liars have their turn — and then we should get ours. Which is how civilization is supposed to work.

I believe in the power of free speech and history. You said it, you live with the consequences of saying it. I reject the Content Nannies who seek to pretend something was never said, the words never existed. When we have a whole record, we have something to work with… or against.

***

I keep a paperback edition of a book put out first in 1992, Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee by the late Nat Hentoff, one of the greats of the much-missed Village Voice newspaper. If you can get your hands on a copy, I urge you to do so. Hentoff, so firmly liberal on many subjects was anti-abortion but not fanatically so; still, it gave him insight into the contradictions of the “progressive” mindset. Being an American, he wrote an American-centered book, but there is so much that is relatable in his examples and arguments, with cases of zealous censors going back to the 1960s and 1970s.

This is why all the blather about Musk and just who owns Twitter is so much misdirection and wasted air because we’re not having the real discussions over our attitudes and values. Hentoff’s book reminds us that Twitter and Facebook didn’t invent these problems — the issues were always with us.

He mentions an interesting case. During the apartheid era, the Georgetown Law Journal realized that one of its subscribers was the University of South Africa, so its editorial board cancelled the subscription. But Randall Robinson, the African American activist, pointed out, “We need a free flow of ideas. As a matter of fact, South Africa can only benefit from knowing what is thought about it by American law students and scholars.” Eleanor Holmes Norton, then an activist lawyer and now a member of Congress, also thought this move was wrong because it could only serve to help the apartheid regime keep information out of the country.

A case of pre-Internet “account suspension” in a way. But just as shortsighted, just as sanctimonious and just as sure to get unintended results.

Such a shame then that Eleanor Holmes Norton’s signature can be found on that cynical letter sent by members of Congress to President Biden in April asking for Temporary Protected Status for Ethiopia over the war — a sign that Norton unfortunately hasn’t availed herself of reading Ethiopian points of view and taking advantage of that “free flow of ideas.”

“I know the authoritarian mind well,” writes Hentoff in one chapter of his book, “having grown up in a neighborhood abounding with Communists and certain wholly inflexible Trotskyite sects. My first reporting was as an infiltrator into various fascist groups while I was still in my teens.” Those who do a double take over that line should know that in a bygone age in the West, becoming a reporter — no kidding — could sometimes be done before you had the right to drink or vote. “And in the years since, I have had to deal with true believers among radicals, Zionists, PLO-types, educators, parent, blacks, Hispanics, the National Organization for Women, Operation Rescue, and homicide detectives.”

“Whatever his sanctified line, the true believer is wholly convinced he or she is acting in the very best interests of both the proximate and ultimate truth. And if he is on a newspaper, it is his responsibility to see to it that the readers are told what to think; that they are not distracted by ambivalences and ambiguities; and that no language be used that could possibly offend any group whose side the paper should be on.”

Tell me: what has really changed?

Only a paragraph later, Hentoff recalls how one editor advised a colleague, “You can’t use that reporter on this piece. She doesn’t have the right line.” And I guarantee you nothing has changed there.

We’ll have maturity in the discussion of free speech online when the talk isn’t only if reporters can criticize their African governments, but if they can also direct their outrage at how Western media covers Africa — and be listened to instead of shunned, smeared and blocked.

We’ll have more progress in the global town hall when the sledgehammers knock down a few walls and let in more voices from Asia and Africa — without getting marginalized and ignored.

And we’ll have more wisdom when certain zealots recognize they can’t speak for all — that values evolve, and they properly evolve from discussion, not a steady monologue.

The proper decolonization of social media can’t start soon enough.

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Jeff Pearce

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.