Matt Taibbi

Twitter: From the Wild West of Free Speech to a Colony of Elite Censorship

9 December 2021

4.3 MINS

Twitter once called itself “the free speech wing of the free speech party”. In recent years it has abandoned this mission, interfering in the U.S. election and banning a sitting President from its platform. Journalist Matt Taibbi has written a brilliant analysis on what Jack Dorsey’s retirement as Twitter CEO means for the future of the company.

News broke last month that Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey was resigning his post as the social media company’s CEO.

Over recent years, Dorsey’s name recognition has grown in parallel with the platform’s success. He became even more well known after televised congressional hearings in which he answered for the censorship of conservatives, interference in the 2020 U.S. election, and the controversial de-platforming of Donald Trump.

But as Dorsey hands over the reigns to the new, potentially more censorious CEO Parag Agrawal, commentators across the political spectrum have expressed concern over the platform’s future.

Agrawal has previously argued that “times have changed” since the First Amendment was written and that Twitter should “focus less on thinking about free speech”.

On Agrawal’s first full day in the role, Twitter announced it would no longer allow users to post images or videos of people without their consent. Critics warn that this policy will be subject to the same partisan enforcement that saw Trump banned while allowing Ali Khamenei — Iran’s supreme leader and a terrorist sympathiser — to still tweet today.

Matt Taibbi’s Take on Twitter’s Trajectory

Following the news of Twitter’s leadership transition, one of the best analyses has come from the pen of Matt Taibbi, a former Rolling Stone editor. Writes Taibbi,

[Jack Dorsey’s] departure is the latest plot point in a long-developing Internet tragicomedy, which has seen what was supposed to be a historically democratising technological tool transformed into a dystopian force for censorship and control.

Taibbi praises Dorsey among the constellation of social media CEOs, writing that he “not only has a conscience but appears to consult it more than once every few years”. He also fondly recounts the noble goal of the platform Dorsey helped create:

The original concept of Twitter was egalitarian, flattening, and iconoclastic: “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas, instantly, without barriers.” That mantra fit with then-CEO Dick Costolo’s 2010 claim that “We’re the free speech wing of the free speech party.”

Not so anymore. Matt Taibbi argues that the events of the last few years have bent Twitter into an unrecognisable shape:

In the end, Twitter’s explosive growth has forced it to embrace something like the opposite of its original mission. Like the Internet generally, instead of a machine for speech without “barriers”, Twitter is becoming, precisely, a mechanism for tightened elite control over expression, a thought-policed platitude sanctuary.

Enter Stage Right: Donald Trump

The path trodden by Twitter in latter years cannot be understood without reference to its most iconic user: President Donald Trump.

Trump understood Twitter’s egalitarian, without-barriers mission, and he used it to successfully circumvent the corporate media’s intractable hatred for him and win enough votes to become the leader of the free world. Taibbi explains:

Trump didn’t need the news media to amplify his message. He was expressing himself in a way that defied contextualisation, on a Twitter account that essentially became the country’s most-followed media network…

Whether he was being dumb or smart, petty or cutting, incoherent or inscrutable, Trump had a way of expressing himself that automatically gave his tweets superior reach to news stories about his tweets. This put him permanently ahead of the news cycle…

With this power, a politician was now able to communicate directly with voters, and even the collective displeasure of the entire self-described political establishment could not stuff that genie back in the bottle.

When Twitter Crossed the Rubicon

It was precisely Donald Trump’s intuitive use of Twitter that so upset the political establishment. “The real problem Trump represented for elite America,” writes Taibbi, “had less to do with his political beliefs than the unapproved manner of his rise.”

While conservative lawmakers put Dorsey in the spotlight to demand greater free speech on the platform, less publicly there were more powerful forces driving Twitter in the opposite direction:

Democrats pushed the firm to enact ever-stricter controls on speech, first as a bulwark against Russian “disinformation”, then later against disinformation generally, then finally against Trump himself.

Twitter’s metamorphosis from “the free speech wing of the free speech party” to tool of elite censorship was made complete during the final weeks of the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign.

The New York Post published a series of bombshell stories that laid bare the contents of a laptop hard drive belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter. The evidence was clear: the Biden family had been involved in high-level corruption in Ukraine, China and beyond. Hunter acted as the bagman while Joe Biden monetised the office of Vice President, under Obama, to grow the family’s empire.

Read the full story here: Biden, Trump, and the Greatest Scandal in American History.

A scandal that should have brought any presidential campaign to its knees was instead censored to protect Biden’s reputation. The New York Post had its account locked by Twitter, a move that prevented users from sharing the tell-all articles.

A week later, Joe Biden was elected to become the 46th President of the United States.

Another Great Analysis From Russell Brand

Matt Taibbi’s brilliant analysis can only be read in full by subscribers. To catch the rest of it, you can listen to British radio host Russell Brand read and discuss the article on his YouTube channel:


Brand’s insights are equally incisive. He begins his show by asking, “How did Twitter — an intended tool for democracy — become its mirror, its inversion, a tool for censorship?” He argues that:

It’s not so easy to apportion public opinion now that there is social media without, of course, taking control over social media — which is precisely what’s happened. The Wild West of the social media has now become institutionalised. That’s why censorship is rife.

While Twitter was once a “slightly wild, whacky place… a realm of possibility,” Brand laments that it is now subject to the whims of the political establishment:

There are powerful elite structures that just saw it like another territory that needed to be colonised. And that colonisation is about coercion. That colonisation is about closing down individual rights.

With Dorsey now gone, the fate of Twitter appears grim. And the need for free speech protections is greater than ever before.

Image by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash.

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