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Do we need Caesar Elon Musk? The online war isn't about free speech

Hail Caesar (PATRICK PLEUL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Hail Caesar (PATRICK PLEUL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)


April 21, 2022   6 mins

In 1515, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull stipulating that all published material translated from Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Chaldaic into Latin, or from Latin into the vernacular, should be moderated by sensitivity readers. Without such precautions, the document declared, harmful content and fake news would flourish. Printers would be free to pollute the reading public with books “which not only fail to edify, but promote errors in faith as well as in daily life and the mores”.

Back in early 2020, media pundit Jeff Jarvis cited this moment in a critique of the UK Government’s proposed Online Harms Bill. “I value freedom of expression,” he tweeted. “I value voices too long not heard in mass media, finally able to speak. I value new perspectives.”

This enthusiasm for freedom of expression, new perspectives, and the amplification of unheard voices has travelled some distance in the intervening time. When Elon Musk launched his hostile takeover bid for Twitter last week, he explained that he was motivated by a desire to protect the platform as an outlet for “free speech”, which he views as “a societal imperative for a functioning democracy”. In response, Jarvis compared the site to a glittering bubble of freedom, on the eve of fascist rule: “Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany”.

No one could be faulted for experiencing mild whiplash here. For until recently, enthusiasts of digital culture thought of the internet not as a monster liable to turn fascist if left uncontrolled, but as another loosening of the strictures on knowledge and belief, a long easing that began with the Gutenberg Bible..

The story of that era was a growing pluralism of viewpoints, and the attendant democratisation of politics. When Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand declared in 1987 that “information wants to be free”, he drew on several centuries’ worth of knowledge overcoming censorship, in the interests of open discussion. As part of the same process, too, the Church’s failure to control doctrine resulted in a proliferation of religious dissent, which morphed over time into a growing body of resistance to the idea of faith full-stop.

But today, with observant Christianity in precipitous decline across the West, the kind of censorship Leo X sought to impose in the name of that religion is back with a vengeance — powered by the same liberals who not long ago cheered its decline. For as Covid has accelerated our transition from a print to a digital world, it is becoming increasingly clear that online publishing isn’t a push towards ever greater freedom of information. Rather, as the hyperabundance of opinion on the internet produces increasingly lurid real-world political effects, progressive public intellectuals are rushing to fill the moral vacuum left by the death of God. In other words: imposing order on the torrent of ideas.

Information liberalism was already in trouble in 2016, when Brexit and the election of Donald Trump made it clear that freeing information didn’t always produce progressive results. Perhaps, respectable voices began to suggest nervously, all this fake news and misinformation means more discourse isn’t always better.

Since then, ever more of our public life has been forced online. And with it, information management has intensified and grown more organised. Facebook has censored anti-vaccine content; UnHerd interviews and even British MPs have been removed from YouTube; “free speech” messaging app Parler was kicked off Apple and Android platforms after the Capitol riot; Donald Trump was banned from Twitter; what turned out to be a true story about Joe Biden’s son was censored at a delicate moment in Biden’s election campaign.

In the digital age, then, the right side of history no longer wants to free information, but to curate the right message. To that end, many erstwhile cheerleaders of free speech have pivoted to claiming for themselves the place of those bishops and inquisitores haereticae pravitatis Leo X tasked in 1515, with controlling what could be published.

Perhaps the first thinker to notice the contemporary re-emergence of coordinated moral management is the neoreactionary writer and ‘Jacobite’ Curtis Yarvin. In a more or less explicit nod to the world of Leo X, Yarvin describes what he calls “the Cathedral” as comprising “all the modern world’s legitimate and prestigious intellectual institutions”: the politicians, journalists, academics, creatives and the institutions that amplify and grant them authority.

From a Yarvinesque perspective, it’s easy to see why Twitter is being so zealously defended against the threat of Musk-imposed free speech absolutism. It’s home turf for this elite, a fact that gives the platform outsize influence, despite its relatively low membership compared with (say) Facebook. And by dint of its concentration of elite tastemakers, it is a key terrain where consensus takes shape on the political issues of the day.

As one journalist put it, “Twitter is where journalists congregate and do a lot of their work.” And this consensus-making machine really doesn’t want to be at the mercy of Elon Musk. But this isn’t because he might imperil free speech. Rather, the first problem is that he might enable it, making Twitter less capable of expelling ideological interlopers and propagating a clear moral consensus.

Washington Post columnist Max Boot gave perhaps the clearest expression of this view, when he confessed himself “frightened by the impact on society and politics if Elon Musk acquires Twitter”. Boot is frightened not because Musk might be too repressive, but because he might not be repressive enough: “For democracy to survive,” Boot believes, “we need more content moderation, not less.”

MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, meanwhile, said the quiet part out loud. Her concern was that Musk might use Twitter “to control what people think” — and that, she said, “is our job”.

But one crucial difference emerges between the information-managing popes and inquisitors of the postmodern age, and those of Leo X’s time. Clerics in the premodern world had a healthy appreciation for the role of earthly kings, as expressed in the New Testament injunction to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”. But if the reaction to Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter tells us one thing, it is that our emerging postmodern priesthood rejects out of hand the legitimacy of any individual earthly Caesar.

For I’m not the first person to have noticed that what Wesley Yang calls “the vertically integrated messaging apparatus” has a political counterpart: something that has been described as “NGOcracy”. That is, a layer of political agency that operates, increasingly overtly, above or prior to the democratic process.

Comprising extra-political structures such as tech firms, courts, NGOs, political treaties, foundations and international bodies, this governance layer operates by pre-shaping the political environment and Overton window via mechanisms such as regulation, funding bodies, nonprofits and supranational treaties.

This ecosystem is as dedicated as media and the academy to expelling ideological interlopers, as demonstrated by the howls of rage when centre-right political scientist David Goodhart was appointed to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission last year — or indeed the deafening four-year screech when Donald Trump was elected to the White House. As Yarvin describes “the Cathedral”, this supra-political NGOcracy coordinates apparently seamlessly to this end across countless ostensibly independent institutions. And this coordination it is inseparable from the matrix of digital consensus-formation — for which Twitter is a central crucible.

It is common today to see references to “democracy” as being threatened, for example by Putinist propaganda. But we only have to look at the acres of print devoted post-Brexit to questioning the judgement of the British electorate, to see that our moral betters don’t place much faith in the voting public. Waning elite confidence in electoral democracy is mirrored by popular cynicism about elected leaders. And widespread decline in trust for the democratic process is most pronounced among the young, a fact suggestive of our likely direction of political travel, as these young adults become mature people with serious power.

Against this backdrop, it is increasingly clear that the “democracy” under threat by, say, Putin or a Canadian trucker protest isn’t the electoral stuff. Rather, it’s the digital-era order of decentralised, self-coordinating, swarm governance. And from the perspective of “democracy” in this sense, the problem with Musk owning Twitter is not even that he might allow too much free speech on the platform. It is that there is only one of him: his authority is not distributed.

From this vantage point, the predatory investment firm BlackRock appears less malign than the world’s richest individual, simply because it is owned by shareholders rather than a named individual. Far better, as one commenter suggested, to have Twitter’s ownership in the hands of hedge funds than under the control of “one ultra-rich white guy”.

So the deeper battle over Twitter isn’t about free speech at all. That ship has long since sailed. Rather, it’s a fight for control of a key crucible of political consensus-formation, between those who prefer power to be vested in named individuals, and those who prefer to be ruled by self-organising swarm.

The lines are drawn between, on the one hand, those who hint — like the US Senate candidate JD Vance — at replacing what is left of electoral democracy with some kind of Caesar: perhaps, as Yarvin has suggested, even Elon Musk. And on the other, the artist formerly known as democracy: now an aggregate of pre- or supra-political institutions so averse to individual human authority it would rather see us ruled by a Twitter consensus, or by a hedge fund. Or, maybe, the most elegant solution of all: by an algorithm.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

As usual, another fine essay from Mary Harrington.
I must admit I didn’t know that journalists congregate on Twitter (probably because I spend less than 10 minutes per month on Twitter and that only because I have a couple of friends who use it). What on earth do journalists do there? Spend all day screaming their outrage? Surely that’s not where they get story ideas?
I have repeatedly complained that few writers address the thorny issue of how to push back on progressivism. Even on Unherd most articles about progressivism describe the phenomenon without suggesting what to do about it. My sense is Musk acquiring Twitter would be a sort of Black Swan event that would start to put a dent in woke progress–which, of course, is why the Twitter crowd are so alarmed.
Sad we’ve reached the point where we have to rely on the world’s richest man to (perhaps) ride to the rescue of freedom of expression.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I think that reading Twitter is where a lot of journalists decide ‘what is newsworthy?’

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

As Laura suggests, the news you get from other media has already been curated on Twitter. All the way from selection of what is actually newsworthy (and what should be ignored or derided) to what angle one should take on it.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
2 years ago

Tucker has done numerous hysterical video collections of all leftist media and politicians suddenly adopting the same names and adjectives to describe a current event, be it “mostly peaceful”, an “insurrection”, etc Twitter is where they coordinate and field test the descriptions – this won’t change if Twitter becomes free speech but the common-sense pushback will be allowed to a greater degree.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The reason that people go to Twitter is that you can follow someone and hear his thoughts that haven’t been filtered through corporate media. Well that was the original idea.

Terry M
Terry M
2 years ago

Which is exactly why the censoring by Twitter is so unacceptable.
I don’t use Twitter because when it started I thought to myself: Do I really want to read what some idiot is writing while sitting on the toilet?

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

me too!!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

They aren’t directly censoring Musk yet
 it is delicious. I don’t think they dare. He is yanking their chains and it is effing fabulous. Tell me how else you would get quickly to exactly what he is thinking besides a rubbish corporate media take or a long interview?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

And how do I know where you are sitting when you type your 3 lines hmmm? I’ll never look at you in the same way again


Stephen Makk
Stephen Makk
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Using Twitter is lazy journalism. It is better to interact with real people in the real world, than to interact with their avatar personas.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

‘Far better, as one commenter suggested, to have Twitter’s ownership in the hands of hedge funds than under the control of “one ultra-rich white guy”.’

The assumption here is that BlackRock is run by and for its shareholders or investors. That’s patently false. As the poison pill defense of Twitter’s Board shows, publicly held companies are not run in the interests of the shareholders, but in the interest of the “stakeholders.” In other words, the Board and employees come first. The shareholders would have benefitted greatly from Musk’s above market offer. The Board blocked it to preserve their own jobs, but they continue to run Twitter in suboptimal fashion. Twitter’s policy of canceling hundreds of thousands of conservative users absolutely destroys the value of advertising they could have sold with a wider audience.

It’s clear that the Twitter Board, and other Big Tech oligarchs, are doing political censorship to please themselves, or perhaps potential government regulators, not their shareholders. There’s nothing principled about the resistance to Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover. It’s all politics. The calls to preserve “our democracy” through content “moderation” are Orwellian. They show the left to be the tyrrants the right told you they are. The extent of the meltdown shows that the left doesn’t believe their arguments can survive in uncensored competition with the rational right.

The Babylon Bee pointed out the greatest irony. Musk was born in South Africa. The left is discriminating against an African American businessman, based on race.

Paul Snaith
Paul Snaith
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Not sure why the author describe Musk’s bid as ‘hostile’. The board hold a very small proportion of shares and the offer was nearly double the the share value when made. ‘Generous’ would have been more accurate.

Kerry Davie
Kerry Davie
2 years ago

‘MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, meanwhile, said the quiet part out loud. Her concern was that Musk might use Twitter “to control what people think” — and that, she said, “is our job”.’
Well, she hasn’t learned her lesson: I actually saw a video clip back in 2016 of her saying virtually the same thing, except about then Presidential candidate, Donald Trump. I fear she really believes it.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Kerry Davie

I followed the link and noticed the first comment was “do these people hear themselves?” I think the next one was also derogatory.

I don’t do Twitter, but take from that, that it isn’t completely monolithic in its opinion forming.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Kerry Davie

It’s just not MSNBC journalists. It’s almost everyone with a degree. There is a belief in the US that possessing a college degree makes you superior, both intellectually and morally, to those without one. As such those without a credential are given very little opportunity to have a say in political or cultural matters unless, like those that joined BLM, they somehow further a progressive cause.
Despite their claims of speaking truth to power, most of what progressives want is to have power over truth, which is why they are now going into paroxysms about Elon Musk’s possible takeover of Twitter.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

And the irony is those very same people imagine themselves to represent and champion the cause of those they hold in contempt.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
2 years ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

There are exceptions. I have two Master’s degrees, but identify as a redneck. At that point, commenters seem to doubt that I really have the degrees, because I’m a Republican who voted for Trump.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

I’m in the same position, except I’m more British council estate than redneck. I have, however, lived in a very rural redneck part of the South for a long while and really enjoyed it. Became a US citizen a few years ago and promptly voted Trump. Will vote for DeSantis in 2024 if he throws himself into the presidency.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

All true but what about not using their vocabulary when describing them.
There is nothing “progressive” about their views and politics.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Kerry Davie

You can see this clip on LibsofTikTok – it would be funny if she wasn’t serious. And stupid of course.

Paul Dean
Paul Dean
2 years ago
Reply to  Kerry Davie

It appears to be the same clip and not about Musk at all. It’s a valuable and revealing clip, but for writer to say it’s talking about Musk is careless when a cursory investigation reveals it isn’t.

Zirrus VanDevere
Zirrus VanDevere
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Dean

Yes, it does seem lazy to not recognize that the info was incorrect, and it was manipulative of the original twitter poster to incorrectly attribute it as a comment about Musk. The clip would be relevant enough if it were more clear, but every instance where the truth is obfuscated leads to less trust in each other on the whole.

sarah hubert
sarah hubert
2 years ago
Reply to  Kerry Davie

I thought that was an actual recycled clip from 2016??

Matthew Povey
Matthew Povey
2 years ago

Great essay. The most important thing Musk has proposed is simply to publish the moderation policies and the algorithms used for automatic moderation. Possibly the most pernicious aspect of modern content moderation is its opacity. By making the policies and algorithms open, it’s possible to trust what’s being done. But of course, openness also means the loss of the power to apply arbitrary control and so will be fought tooth and nail.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Povey

Arbitrary control is the entire issue. Only moderating conservative or non-leftist information is hypocritical at best and malignant at worst.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Povey

If they really wanted you to comply, they would publish guidlines, or at least more meaningful error messages. “Your post violates our guidelines,” tells you exactly nothing about what to do to fix it. “Hitler, Nazi are prohibited words,” tells you how to fix it.

Emre Emre
Emre Emre
2 years ago

This was rather complete and insightful – thank you. I’m not sure I take the final dichotomy as a conclusive one, perhaps it comes down to what the aim of progress is. Is it the perfectability of human nature? One thing I often notice here is that, in polite circles, it’s not possible to highlight that Nazis were progressives. Despite how many progressives see Nazis as Bible thumping conservatives, Nazi leadership was a firm believer in social Darwnism and thought themselves as following “the science”. If Nazis were progressives, then where’s progress headed would be my question in the context of this article.

Philip Tisdall
Philip Tisdall
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre Emre

Quite right. I have yet to meet someone in America who can tell me what the “z” in Nazi stands for.

James Volk
James Volk
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Tisdall

Okay, I give up. What does the “z” stand for?

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  James Volk

James Volk is the best Volk 🙂

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  James Volk

It doesn’t stand for anything. “Nazi” is a slang term for:

“Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP)”

Wikipedia has it that “the first use of the term “Nazi” by the National Socialists occurred in 1926 in a publication by Joseph Goebbels called Der Nazi-Sozi [“The Nazi-Sozi”].

John McKee
John McKee
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Tisdall

NAZI is an acronymfor ” nationalsozialismus”. The z in German is pronounced like the “ts” in cats. “GESTAPO” is an acronym for “geheimestaatspolizsei”.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Tisdall

It doesn’t stand for anything. “Nazi” is a slang term for:

“Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP)”

Wikipedia has it that “the first use of the term “Nazi” by the National Socialists occurred in 1926 in a publication by Joseph Goebbels called Der Nazi-Sozi [“The Nazi-Sozi”].

Terry M
Terry M
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre Emre

Exactly. Nazis are usually painted as right wing. They were anything but. Some will say they were the rightists fighting the leftist Soviet communists. But that was really an internecine squabble between National Socialists and International Socialists.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

Extreme nationalism is usually described as Right wing. Some parts of the NSDAP were more (national) socialist inclined, especially the SA under Rohm; this cannot be said of Hitler in power. You may recall what happened to the SA and the ‘Red’ Nazis in The Night of the Long Knives. Hitler knew he had to accommodate big business and the Army, which threatened to overthrow him if the SA street thugs were not controlled. Hitler was also very uninterested in economic affairs; they were entirely subordinate to his aims of domination of Eurasia.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre Emre

Progressivism never stands still. To me, it just keeps moving on to the next red herring, all the while keeping people in the dark and unmoored to anything, which makes them easier to persuade.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre Emre

Yup, the Nazis were a type of progressive taking the latest progressive insights related to Eugenics, as they interpreted it, to its logical conclusion.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre Emre

It serves the cause of the progressives to try and lump right-wing thought in with the Nazis, but there is a whole separate tradition running back from Carlyle through Jouvenel and de Maistre and Evola. Academic Agent is your hub for this kind of thing.

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago

Perhaps journalism was better – and more professional – when they congregated in wine bars rather than Twitter ?
Others have no doubt also noticed the explosion of basic spelling and factual/historical errors in modern journalism. The error rate was much lower in the days of lead typesetting when automated spell checking was not available …
Modern media seems to be more about quantity than quality – Phil Space (Private Eye) got there first !
I found myself re-watching Alan Partridge’s “Monkey Tennis” sketch earlier today. Many of the increasingly ludicrous program ideas he came up with were actually made later …
I suspect there are only a quite limited number of top quality journalists around at any one time (shall we call them “Harringtons” ?) and the expansion of media space to fill makes a decrease in quality and professionalism inevitable. As well as creating openings for agenda pushers to pose as journalists.
I don’t remember TV presenters and newsreaders in the 1970s ever explicitly making their personal views known or pushing some political agenda.
Final point – please can we stop using this meaningless term “progressive”. It doesn’t really mean anything and is just used to try to discredit other groups. It’s a perversion of language worthy of the the Bolsheviks.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

Yes, but the same factor applies as has been observed in the comedy space: the traditional broadcasters who used to commission, fund and develop comedy shows at considerable effort suddenly found themselves in competition with kids able to make a clip in 30 seconds and get it round the world in a day.

The reason journalists rely upon Twitter isn’t just because they may be lazy or determined to discover the liberal-orthodox position on any issue as opposed to a rounded view (although they may well be those things as well): it’s also that the budgets of news outlets for old-school investigative journalism have mostly vanished in the modern age where information is almost entirely digital.

As the old saying goes, you can have something that’s good, quick, or cheap – choose any two of those, but you can’t have all three.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Partly agree.
However, there’s plenty of very high quality, well-researched stuff on YouTube which clearly has not had a lot of money thrown at it.
It also doesn’t go through a whole load of editorial moderation, which often just raises the cost and lowers the quality.
My own experience is that start-ups (I would include mnany YouTube creators here) don’t carry the overheads of large legacy organisations like the BBC and consequently their productivity can be 10x (or more) greater. You see exactly the same with tech startups – I know, I worked for one. If you want innovation and speed, go small. Forget HR, diversity and all that stuff. Just do it.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

The problem is that Youtube will contain “high quality, well-researched” content that appears to prove conclusively one of either side of any controversial debate, and there is no obvious means of deciding which is correct other than being smart enough oneself to discern fact from fiction.

This is why the degradation of the BBC from its position of trust is such a tragedy, among other things.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

Dear Mary, your final para suggests you’re fence sitting! Personally, I’d far prefer a single strong minded individual to hold the ring at Twitter, than a bunch of faceless and unaccountable hedge fund managers. At least then I’d know who to throw rocks at when he effs it up, if he did. And as for shareholders controlling Twitter, who are they? It turns out Saudis may already hold a larger share of Twitter stock than Musk. What control are they exercising, and why?

Philip Tisdall
Philip Tisdall
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Yes, great editors make for great news.

David Jennings
David Jennings
2 years ago

Yet another wonderful article by Mary Harrington who combines fine writing with incisive analysis. But perhaps the issue is not only “individual human authority” vs. “consensus” but the perceived qualities of that individual. If Obama or other progressive noteworthy bought Twitter (with debt serviced by bestowed tribute (“book deals”)), the present howling would change to an angelic chorus. One only need to look at the “consensus” acceptance of other individual billionaires involved in media who give little concern to the NGOcracy: Zuckerberg, Gates, Bloomberg, Soros, Buffett, Bezos….. But Mary’s central point is absolutely correct. Our culture has been moving away from having somewhat accountable authority to having authoritarianism. While Musk is not without warts, he is a refreshing tonic to that drift.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  David Jennings

I think her central point was accountability, just as it is Yarvin’s. If a monarch is in charge you know who to blame, if the cathedral is in charge where do you go?

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

It’s too late. The cat is out of the bag as far as information is concerned – modern experts and scribbling classes will have to live with the idea that people might do their own research, in the same way clerics had to come to terms with people who read the Bible themselves and came to their own, rather than canonical, conclusions.
Ownership of Twitter is pretty irrelevant in the scheme of things, given the tide-streams of information flowing through other media. But it’s symbolically important, as it represents the home of the media clerks who thought they owned the interpretation of the news. If Musk doesn’t buy it, it still has to change or it ends up strangled by its own moderation culture.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

I hope that you are right, but I doubt it. Most of us do not do our own research.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Well, we read and comment on UnHerd, which is perhaps a start

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

The important part is that some people do, and more can, and so expertise has to stand on its merits, not on its authority.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

I agree with you.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Whilst Pope Leo X was obsessed by censorship in 1515, further north things were far worse.
In that year Geneva managed to burn 500 witches in a mere three months.They only stopped because they ran out of fuel.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

…when does the new season start do you know?

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

One wonders.

Bronwen Saunders
Bronwen Saunders
2 years ago

An interesting piece and I love the coinage NGOcracy. But I disagree with the conclusion. The trouble with Elon Musk is not that there is only one of him, it’s that he is “problematic” – i.e. a conservative.

Jon Guy
Jon Guy
2 years ago

Maybe.
“A conservative is a liberal who got mugged the night before.” – Frank Rizzo

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago

What makes him “conservative” to The Cathedral is that he is liberal — he believes in the marketplace of ideas.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Perhaps they are afraid of Musk becoming what Bezos is to the WAPO. Can’t have that, can we?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Musk is socially liberal and fiscally conservative
 exactly my roots.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

Excellent article.

There is one thing I want to say though, and it’s only tangential to the theme, but still vaguely relevant. A few years ago the Daily Telegraph ran an April Fool story about how you could power your home for a whole day off a potato. They also made it especially easy to guess that it was a spoof by describing the inventive step as a Flair Loop electrode that was to be plugged into the potato.

It was one of the articles that permitted reader comments and, sadly and predictably, there were quite a few responses that appeared to take it all seriously alongside the usual climate-zealotry that often attaches to anything related to energy use.

The thing is, I’m not convinced that climate zealots are all this stupid (some, maybe, but not all or most), and I have to conclude that what was really happening here is that there are teams of people whose job it is to find articles on the web from any source and peddle the standard agitprop in response without really bothering to read the articles at all.

Elon Musk is exactly the kind of innovator who would be able to combat this ludicrous debauching of the core purpose of online debate through clever innovation that would permit people in general to identify trolling without having to be experts in the subject at hand. Personally I hope he takes these bastards to the cleaners: they are well overdue to take a serious soaking.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  John Riordan

The purveyors of the “information” are not stupid. The consumers of the “information” are. That is the entire point.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

“Vox populi, vox Dei,” the voice of the people is the voice of G_d, used to be a liberal slogan about the superiority of the people to the divine right of kings in the early 1700’s. Today, even with almost universal education, the cult of the “expert” says that the people are too stupid to make decisions for themselves. “Experts” must make decisions for them.

The cult of the “expert” is profoundly anti-democratic. It says that government by the consent of the governed is impossible, because the governed are too ignorant and stupid to give informed consent.

“Experts” are not bound by the rule of law or any Constitution, written or unwritten. As a result, rule by “experts” tends to be chaotic, because “experts” have trouble making up their minds.

Anglo-Saxon law has developed over hundreds of years to protect people from over powerful government. The cult of “experts” asks us to throw it all away, because they know better. It’s a big hoax. The “experts” just want unlimited power for themselves.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
2 years ago

The richest man in the world is taking a stand for individual freedom and the rights of ordinary people. The left is aghast. If Musk were American born he could get elected president.

Paul Snaith
Paul Snaith
2 years ago
Reply to  Bryan Dale

I think he’s aiming to be King of Mars, which seems all of a sudden to be quite plausible.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Bryan Dale

As an African-American, you don’t need to be President to still be King. We shall see.

Jim R
Jim R
2 years ago

Social media is really Plato’s ‘ship of fools’. Those who can manipulate the ‘swarm’ and the foolish ship owner are exalted and rise to the top – those who speak of the knowledge of storms, tides, navigation and the discipline need to run a complicated ship are all but ignored. I don’t know about anyone else but i’ve got a bad feeling about where this ship’s headed.

N T
N T
2 years ago

Something has to break the way of freedom of information, or UnHerd is going to be the only place we can go. Hopefully some major outlet will get it.

Terry M
Terry M
2 years ago
Reply to  N T

Reason magazine and website reason.com is pretty good.

Cantab Man
Cantab Man
2 years ago

It’s quite rich that progressive journalists revere the “Progressive Hierarchy” (curating and curtailing the central information exchange) that they’ve established in Twitter land. They have their assigned virtual desks and blue checks and lines of authority. And one must not question their Hierarchy – this is blasphemy of the highest order that results in one being cast into Outer Darkness as a spawn of Satan.

Goes to show you can take the progressive out of the “Patriarchal Hierarchy” but evolution dictates they’ll just make another dastardly hierarchy in its place.

Musk is suggesting that he’ll cleanse the temple grounds of the moneychangers. Maybe make the censoring and ranking algorithms visible to everyone to level the playing field. Toss out the high priests and priestesses so that they’re no longer in their safe-space hierarchy filled with self-affirmation.

With their privilege and hierarchy gone, these progressives will need to pick up their soapbox and compete in Hyde Park for followers just like any other preacher. And this scares them more than anything. They might just have to compete in a virtual world chock-full of ideas where their ideas are really quite ordinary…mediocre even.

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

― Eric Hoffer, The Temper of Our Time

Last edited 2 years ago by Cantab Man
Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

“For democracy to survive,” Boot believes, “we need more content moderation, not less.”
The most revealing quote ever.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Really strikes home that the redefinition of democracy is complete. The democracy Boot dreams of has no conservative voices to compromise with. He imagines the mob to be of one opinion, his.

Jon Guy
Jon Guy
2 years ago

I like how Mary Harrington makes me think about issues a lot deeper. Thanks, it’s like training up a disused muscle — pampered by too much traditional media.

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago

When the Arc of History doesn’t seem to be bending to the left, liberals as a group break out the crowbars.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  William Hickey

Well said.

Alex Cranberg
Alex Cranberg
2 years ago

A simple summary for both corporate and government democracy: can owners control their agents or will the agents take increasing control? Since the big 5 index funds funds control corporate America and their fund owners have no real stake in individual company outcomes we already have the Caesars at the door.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
2 years ago

Of course it is not forming a political consensus, it is establishing what the elites are willing to accept enabled by the journos who go on to report it. The political consensus only has one chance every five years or so to be visible as it was for the anti-votes of Brexit (didn’t want elite Brussels) and Trump (didn’t want more woke corrupt Democrats). I’m sure these “mistakes ” will not be allowed to happen next time. What will happen when the public feel powerless against a few hyper-rich, arrogant, superior, elites trying to control them ?

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
2 years ago

“Mistakes will not be allowed to happen next time.” Mistakes by who? Who “didn’t want elite Brussels”? I presume you mean those who voted for Brexit. But if so, why a mistake?

John Croteau
John Croteau
2 years ago

How is this any different than Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post? If Elon does what he claims — and he has always been forthright (good, bad or indifferent) — he will install a Board, management team and company policies that enable free and transparent operation of the Town Square. His PE investment partners will likely re-float the company ASAP with greater valuation, doubling demand with investors who currently feel marginalized by Twitter policies. This is not about a Caesar imposing his own will. It’s about a benevolent leader who wishes to lead society with sustainable energy, space exploration and truly Democratic, free speech.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  John Croteau

Many people think he is on the autism spectrum – very high functioning without certain filters which makes him the forthright genius that he is. If I were younger I’d have a pitch at him.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Rather like the original Gaius Julius Caesar, it must be said.

Mike Fraser
Mike Fraser
2 years ago

MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, meanwhile, said the quiet part out loud. Her concern was that Musk might use Twitter “to control what people think” — and that, she said, “is our job”. WOW!! That arrogant statement says it all. Well. Not quite. Add “For democracy to survive,” Boot believes, “we need more content moderation, not less.” ï»ż

Last edited 2 years ago by Mike Fraser
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Well, I suppose that last evening in the Berlin nightclub was in a smoke-free one. Maybe he meant that. Are they non-smoking? I don’t think they had been in 1932 or thereabouts.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

The fascinating element to Musk is at to how he has, like some latter Pied Piper of Hamlin, ” persuaded” the entire investor community and thus capital markets industry to abandon, or perhaps circumvent all financial yardsticks of valuation, debt rating, asset, and profit, metrics. Tesla is this deemed to be some way more ” valuable” than Toyota, that sells many more cars, at vast profit, has a huge cashpile, and stellar credit rating.

He has literally persuaded the world that a 50 cent coin is more ” valuable” that a $5 bill……. It is disturbing delusion….

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Something is only worth what someone is willing to pay. Therefore, Tesla stock is valued at what the market is willing to pay. In all honesty, I think the price is absurd, but I also thought Google and Yahoo’s stock prices were absurd at one point. I am poorer as a result. I also think $30 trillion in debt is absurd, but we keep printing money.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Another Robert Maxwell MC, perhaps?

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago

His businesses’ value is very-much determined in a political marketplace, which makes his interest in controlling that marketplace through Twitter all the more comprehensible.

Russ W
Russ W
2 years ago

“But if the reaction to Elon Musk’s bid for Twitter tells us one thing, it is that our emerging postmodern priesthood rejects out of hand the legitimacy of any individual earthly Caesar.”
Is it simpler? The postmodern priesthood’s ideology is subjectivist and thus essentially incoherent at its core. Its’ nihilism, clothed in identity politics, is not new. When allowed to flourish in the past it has bred chaos, violence, and death. To end the chaos a dictator has always arisen and a new power structure stabilizes.
Perhaps some want to get ahead of this recurring historical pattern via illiberal controls, aka a strong man. This also won’t work well.
I get that Mary may not know or want to say “let’s do this” but she and we will lose the right to dissent if we don’t stop the navel-gazing and start working these problems out. We can do it!

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago

Musk has been incensed at Twitter’s efforts to define and remove any dis/mis/mal- information. We can see important information is being treated as such. Some things that were conspiracy theories suddenly become actually true. Important voices are silenced because they dared to mock certain incongruent thought of the left, mockery is the tool of the left. The new Twitter CEO seems intent on shrinking the platform which may harm it’s future.
Given Musk’s ability to innovate perhaps he can find a way to make Twitter profitable which expanding the platform. Perhaps he can find less ideologically driven fact checkers. Perhaps he wants trolls managed like they were managed in the days of Usenet newsgroups. I wish him well. A noble quest.

Vilde Chaye
Vilde Chaye
2 years ago

Better Musk than Dorsey.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
2 years ago

When JournoList was uncovered and shut down, it just migrated to Twitter.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Big Brother would probably approve of death by algorithm.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

‘So the deeper battle over Twitter isn’t about free speech at all. That ship has long since sailed. Rather, it’s a fight for control of a key crucible of political consensus-formation, between those who prefer power to be vested in named individuals, and those who prefer to be ruled by self-organising swarm.’ I disagree. There are hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of Musks, most of them quite poor like me. Far from some weird adherence to a ‘power of named individuals’, we want our democratic traditions, traditions of freedom and intellectual honesty and the rule of law, to be maintained. The ‘self-organising swarm’ of which you speak is a huge criminal conspiracy to replace nation-states and proper governments with a self-appointed cabal of know-it-alls and better-than-yous who have been tasked by the woke borg to run everything ‘for our own good’ because we’re too stupid and selfish to do it ourselves.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Lale
Neil MacInnes
Neil MacInnes
2 years ago

“The artist formerly known as democracy” now there’s a quote we all wish we had come up with.
But there is definitely a problem with equating Brexit with the election of Donald Trump.
In fact there is a problem with referenda and democracy in general.
When Trump was elected 4 years later democracy got another chance and he was voted out.
After Brexit, how long will we have to wait for democracy to get another chance?
The same problem exists with the Scottish independence campaign. 20 minutes after the result was confirmed the Scottish separatist movement was demanding another referendum because “things have changed”.
Should we have a referendum every 20 minutes? Clearly not. But clearly, also, there is a democratic deficit contained within referenda in that there is no specified time for democracy to get another chance.

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
2 years ago
Reply to  Neil MacInnes

Agree there is a problem with equating Brexit with Trump but my beef is that some believe they are related because they were derived from the same forces. Not so. To think otherwise, especially if you and Mary believe the Brexit outcome was not democratic, is proof of remaining to be remainders. The main thing Brexit and the election of Trump have is common is that they were both the result of democracy in action.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Rick Lawrence

Democracy only works when you agree with the outcome. Otherwise, it’s undemocratic.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 years ago
Reply to  Neil MacInnes

“After Brexit, how long will we have to wait for democracy to get another chance?”
What about circa 35 years?
That how long it took to have another referendum on EU membership.
Your views are similar to my Guardian reading acquaintances.
They believe in Democracy when they are in control.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Neil MacInnes

How do you know that Trump was actually voted out, rather than being declared the loser by the process?
On every single non-ballot metric Trump was the winner, and yet he lost. Biden’s victory broke new ground in all sorts of ways, fewest counties, lowest voter registrations, smallest crowds but yay! still the biggest vote. Voter swing towards Trump amongst African-Americans and Hispanics everywhere across the country except for Democrat controlled cities in swing states.
There’s real grounds for wondering about the 2019 result, and there’s been no sort of investigation to fortify belief in the result.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

A fight is on between those who would curate expressed opinions and what is and isn’t allowed to be said as the author is describing, and those (like me) who would let all free speech rip, in any direction anyone chooses, no matter what the cost, no matter how much it distresses swathes of humanity. But it is not clear to me that we lose to the neo-religionists – we are fighting this right now, there are not a few of us, and we ain’t dumb. This enclave of UnHerd is proof that we have platforms to fight this, and we have access to the same technologies and automated scaling as do the mass platforms who have in effect been forced into the role of defacto thought police, and a mightyly poor job they are making of it, because they are instinctively loathe to lose the buy-in of any potential groups of customers as of course that runs counter to making money off those people. I clarify that I’m talking about the West here, and not places like China, where technologies just make the job oppression a lot more efficient – at least for now.

But there is a more fundamental reason why attempts to control opinion formation are ultimately set to fail – it is innate to the nature of all information that it will inexorably proliferate. Although that does not of course mean those who want to create new orthodoxies and coerce others into buying into them, can’t inflict pain on the rest of us for years in the meantime.

Last edited 2 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago

Very good article.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago

Best thing you’ve written on this site. You’ve digested such a wide range of arguments and then you crystallise the issues for us in words that make sense.
Thank you.

Elena Lange
Elena Lange
2 years ago

Um, I see, so this has nothing to do with ideology and politics at all. Harrington elegantly circumvents the problem of elite power, the only thing that censorship serves. I agree this is not about “free speech”, but it is very much about politics, or, to be more precise, the fear of a Donald Trump comeback that Elon Musk’s takeover would automatically mean. They know that they can’t afford Trump mass building, which is why elite/legacy media lived so comfortably in the last two years. Musk’s hostile takeover could change all of that.

Molly O
Molly O
2 years ago

I don’t really agree with this – I think if Elon Musk was signed up to wokeness they wouldn’t have a problem with him. It’s the fact that he mightn’t carry on the current policy of banning/limiting the reach of “conservatives”/non-woke and of deeming the expression of certain ideas “hate speech” etc. that really bothers them.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

On second thought, I had a more appropriate comment. The problem with twitter is that it trivializes public discourse.
The very important issues of our time . . . say, how to deal with Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump, cannot be effectively analyzed in 280 characters.
Viewing twitter occasionally may be helpful for noticing which way the wind blows, but probably not so helpful for solving the real problems of several billion people inhabiting a small sphere.
For instance, consider the prospect of achieving a workable consensus about how to collectively minimize the pollutants that we constantly spew into the atmosphere. This is a project that would be more effectively governed by persons and institution who are actually gathering the data upon which our strategies are decided.
I would not trust Twitter to be helpful in achieving a working strategy to minimize planetary emissions.
Unless the tweet is: Give a hoot; don’t pollute.
Which could also be read as: buy an electric car.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
2 years ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

So Trump and Putin are equivalent? Based on what exactly? The Steele Dossier and the Alfa Bank allegations that Durham is ready to prove that the Clinton Campaign fabricated? Two impeachments that had no evidence admissible in any federal court? Anonymous rumors that have yet to lead to a single indictment, even though the “walls are closing in” for the last 5 years? Trump ran and won, then he ran, Democrats changed a lot of election rules, contrary to state law, and supressed the Hunter Biden laptop story, and he lost. You can claim that the 2020 election, with lots of Zuckerberg’s money buying get out the vote in Democrat areas in swing states, was the most perfect election in history. Other opinions differ. But Trump left office. So what’s your problem?

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

I think for Christianity to survive, we need more content moderation, not less.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

yes – thanks for the correction.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago

There is truth in that statement, but perhaps not the truth that your detractors read into it. Or perhaps that you intended.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago

He could be agreeing with you: All dogmatic forms of thought, including religion and progressivism, need content moderation if they are to impose themselves upon us.

Last edited 2 years ago by polidori redux
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Good point

Neil MacInnes
Neil MacInnes
2 years ago

Sending a human to earth to deliver your message is an extremely stupid way for any “GOD” to behave.
But pretending you have been sent by “GOD” is a very clever way for humans to behave who want to convince the rest of their people that ‘GOD’ has sent them to deliver his message and that everybody should listen to and follow them.
If we’d had content moderation a couple of millennia ago we might have saved ourselves a lot of problems.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Neil MacInnes

Sure. The message of love your neighbor as yourself, and of redemption, has led to so many problems for the kings and rulers throughout history.

Dave Corby
Dave Corby
2 years ago

Actually…the change from the old Covenant to the new Covenant was from a rules-based system to a heart-based system.
Rules are no good at controlling things, you have to teach truth and put across good arguments and change people’s hearts – and not be too concerned if people do not agree with you.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

And just exactly how does the heart acquire its rules? The rules by which it operates a “system”?
Thinking about that question will lead you to the reasons why we need content moderation.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

A sensible article from Harrington for once. She needs to spend more time away from the anti-trannie cool aid.
NGOcracy is a new one to me and I’ll be using it.

Last edited 2 years ago by David McDowell
Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
2 years ago
Reply to  David McDowell

deleted

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Raiment
Brooke Walford
Brooke Walford
2 years ago

Although NGOs are unelected and possess nudge power on governments at least they are supposed to be experts trained in whatever particular field as opposed to politicians who know nothing apart from what their unelected advisors tell them.

William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago
Reply to  Brooke Walford

The secular Cathedral is a response much like the medieval Church’s after some of the individual popes of the medieval Papacy.

Better that the Curia rule than one man, especially because one man can be taken captive.

Dostoyevsky: Better the Inquisition than the Gospels, especially if Christ should suddenly show up in town.

Last edited 2 years ago by William Hickey
Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Brooke Walford

“experts”. Now that’s a good one. Another word is “science”. Both have completely lost their meaning in the last 2 years.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago
Reply to  Brooke Walford

The test for success as an NGO is not actually expertise, it is something more like convenient for the regime, given how much of their funding comes from government these days, or just possibly how sympathetic the ignorant general public finds their message to be.