Republican policy failure is harming free speech and their own chances

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS — There’s a link between the Republican Party’s disappointing showing in the midterm elections and the drama around Twitter in the wake of Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s recent $44 billion purchase of the social media platform.

There has long been this sense among Republicans that social media is biased against the right. Well, duh. Nearly the entire U.S. tech community is based on the Left Coast. Musk is on a crusade to reduce censorship that tilts the playing field for political discourse, typically in favor of the left and the establishment. But anyone on the right counting on Musk to enact a seismic political shift that alters electoral results in favor of Republicans is dreaming. That’s their own responsibility, and they’ve shirked it.

Just consider the response that Musk received on the platform recently when he Tweeted that “the bird is freed,” in reference to Twitter’s logo, and European Union Internal Market Commissioner, Thierry Breton, replied, “In Europe, the bird will fly by our rules.”

The censorship here in Europe of both online and traditional media makes it feel like the new East Berlin amid the current reboot of the Cold War. Nothing screams freedom and democracy like coming back from overseas, where everything online was easily accessible, and having to download tools that route web traffic through countries like Brazil or Vietnam just to access information in France. Not just information or platforms far too conveniently censored without recourse under the guise of “national security” amid the Ukraine conflict, but also American media that isn’t deemed in compliance with European data privacy.

It’s easy for Americans to brush off this censorship as a European problem, but it should really be viewed as a Western establishment problem that’s prone to worrisome mission creep in service of an increasingly coordinated common agenda that plays up common threats to serve as justification. Fifteen years ago when I first moved to France, no one in the mainstream seemed too disturbed by journalists and other public figures being criminally charged with “discrimination” or “invitation to racial hatred” within the context of raucous public debate. The general consensus was that people should watch what they say, and pay the price when they don’t. Over time, the lack of virtually any pushback on these crackdowns has now resulted in successive waves of increasingly authoritarian policies governing ever-widening swaths of public debate, particularly online.

U.S. President Joe Biden is already talking about Musk’s Twitter acquisition in national security terms. “I think that Elon Musk’s cooperation and/or technical relationships with other countries is worthy of being looked at,” Biden said in response to a press inquiry about Saudi Arabia’s longstanding major stake in the platform — which apparently wasn’t a problem until Musk came along and started openly advocating for free speech.

Censorship is often abused for the purpose of gate-keeping establishment narratives on everything from Covid-19 to foreign conflicts — a phenomenon which is now becoming flagrantly and shamelessly militarized. The Canadian government deployed military-grade propaganda tools from the Afghan war to shore up public opinion amid the pandemic. Likewise, French President Emmanuel Macron just announced that “influence” would be added to the military’s five other strategic defense functions.

Republicans would do well to pay attention to how free speech is rapidly eroding across the Western world as a result of fear-mongering, and to come up with some solid policy measures to safeguard it. But instead, they’re busy sniping at Democrats on Twitter and on media platforms as though that’s a viable substitute. It’s not. Which is why Democrats managed to do relatively well in the midterms despite the fact that Biden is perhaps the least social media engaged president in history. Even when he speaks publicly, he says about five words from a teleprompter like some sort of late-career Clint Eastwood movie character. What matters far more is that Biden is nonetheless churning out policy — from the Inflation Reduction Act to student loan relief. It’s policy that shaped Twitter into a tool that serves the establishment, not complaining. Right-wingers may not agree with any of it, but they’re failing to seduce voters with a coherent vision of their own. When was the last time you could cite a Republican Party policy initiative that didn’t just consist of opposing Democrats?

The fact that so many on the right are counting on Musk to single-handedly fix freedom of expression in the Twitter town square is pathetic. Where has the GOP been with proposals to protect speech as an absolute right, regardless of the prevailing political winds? Why have Republican lawmakers not advocated in favor of sanctions against the creeping authoritarianism of European officials, both inside their own counties and against U.S. citizen Musk and his American platform?

As with so many other issues, the GOP establishment has been too busy whining about it all on Twitter rather than putting in the diligent backroom work on the policy planks of an attractive alternative vision. Until they get around to doing some heavy lifting, not only will Musk’s hands remain tied — but their uphill battle for voters will persist.