A Ray of Light

It’s probably fair to say that most of the posts by the Machine taste at least somewhat of whine. More broadly, that’s a human condition as well. We tend to be more vocal when we are not happy. That’s probably also why most of our favorite songs are sad, many review sites skew toward the negative, and equivalents of the angry emoji carry the most weight in social media algorithms. So when the opportunity to say something positive arises, carpe diem. Yeah that’s right, the Machine just whipped out the Latin.

To put it succinctly, November and December of 2022 have been very good months for the preservation of American democracy. What makes this positive moment even more striking is its contrast with the preceding six years of assault on the foundations of that democracy, beginning with the still unpunished meddling of Russian social media bots in the 2016 election, and peaking with an attempted coup in January of 2021. While it is certainly disquieting that so many people and politicians still vote in philosophical alignment with those events, it is equally encouraging that enough people examined their consciences to rise up against it in the waning weeks of 2022.

The good news began with the midterm elections, and not because the heavily forecasted “red wave” didn’t happen – that’s part of a different and historical political dynamic between the parties, and it’s perfectly acceptable to have a different view of it depending on what party most closely matches your personal ideals. The most important outcomes of the midterms were the near unanimous rejection of 2020 election deniers that tried to obtain positions of power over elections themselves. In the most critical battleground states from 2020 – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – people with dedication to the rule of law and the American Constitution won the elections for Governor and Secretary of State. This was a bipartisan victory for democracy – the Republican Governor and Secretary of State from Georgia are among that group with the Democratic victors from the other states. This means we can expect those people in those positions to do their jobs the right way in 2024.

But you never want the fabric of our republic to be dependent on who fills a given role at any given time. That is why what just happened moments ago in the House of Representatives was so critical: HR 2617 was passed – a bill that nominally lays out spending through fiscal year 2023, but much more importantly includes the Electoral Count Reform Act. The Machine summarized that act two posts ago, but it’s worth restating the key elements here:

  1. Slates of electors can only come from the Governor of a state, except in extreme circumstances. This means state legislatures controlled by the party that lost the election can’t just throw together alternate slates and send them to Washington, unless they’re willing to go through the court system, which proved itself very resilient two years ago in throwing out ludicrous claims of fraud with zero physical evidence.
  2. The language surrounding the role of the Vice President has been cleaned up, so nobody can concoct the absurd notion that the VP has any role other than to count the votes that have already been certified from the states. The degree to which that notion inflamed the events of January 6, 2021 cannot be overstated.
  3. The threshold for objection to the slate of electors from a given state has been substantially raised. Before now, only one member from each chamber was required to raise an objection. Now, it will require one fifth of each chamber – a threshold probably and admittedly easily to attain in the uber-partisan House, but a lot tougher in the Senate, where even in 2021 the final tally fell well short.

The events of late 2020 and early 2021 nearly toppled the peaceful transfer of power that defines our democracy. But the Constitution was just resilient enough to survive it, and that same Constitution gave us a mechanism by which we could make it stronger for the next go-round – and now we have.

This is not to say the threat is gone – far from it, and who knows what form those ominous clouds will take next. But for today at least, the Sun is shining on the stars and stripes.

Tweety Pie

Due to circumstances not really beyond the Machine’s control, it has not generated any activity on Twitter since October. But plenty else has happened since then to keep folks entertained. Twitter became an institution in a fairly short amount of time, and yet the world has moved fast in many other ways during that time as well. When Twitter was first founded in 2006, the first Avatar movie was still 3 years away. Mike Shanahan was still coaching the Denver Broncos. The iPhone was a future gadget. And people were still signing checks dated 2005 by accident.

That’s a long damned time after all.

Over the course of those sixteen and counting years, Twitter has morphed into many different things. It has become a way to hashtag some otherwise meaningless word or phrase into immortality. It has served as a means to ruin one’s reputation in 280 characters and 60 seconds or less. It has become a breeding ground for bots that mess with everything from “who should be CEO” polls all the way up to American Presidential elections. And of course, now it has become the central battleground in the latest dizzying debate about freedom of speech and what that even means.

Twitter is, above all else, a business. One can question the business practices of its current CEO, but businesses are never crystal clear domains for free speech, regardless of who is in charge. The problem is, its current CEO made “free speech” a central tenet of why he should take over Twitter. And at least so far, there are indications that however free speech might be on Twitter right now, it was freer in the past – particularly when noting it’s no longer “free” to have a verified account, which is now likely to be a requirement to participate in Twitter polls, or at least those run by its CEO.

Even outside of a business, freedom of speech is not absolute. You can’t say absolutely anything about absolutely anyone with impunity. Slander is a great go-to example there. Lying under oath is another example. Lying while not under oath, on the other hand – well, just take a look at how different Rudy Giuliani’s language was under those two different environments in late 2020. And this is where arguments about free speech on Twitter go completely off the rails.

Twitter has, in the past, made an attempt to curtail the “freedom to lie”, for example with the spreading of misinformation about vaccines. Of course, many of the folks spreading that misinformation actually believed what they were spreading, so they think their freedom of speech was in fact what Twitter was curtailing (again, also ignoring that Twitter is a business and therefore not subject to all the same standards on “freedom of speech”). In that light, these folks view the current CEO as some sort of hero for rolling back such restrictions.

Even more recently, the current CEO has come under fire for what some view as curtailing freedom of the press by banning several journalists. The CEO’s argument is that these folks were linking to information about his whereabouts and therefore endangering him and/or his family – a practice known as “doxxing”. It’s unclear to what degree those journalists were actually doxxing the CEO, but it seems more than coincidental they have also routinely been criticizing said CEO. Is Twitter really going after any and all instances of doxxing, wherever they may be and whomever they may be endangering? The Machine has not seen any information indicating that to be the case.

In the end, the CEO of Twitter, whether it be the previous, the current, or the future incarnation, has a vast leeway in the range of things he or she can do (or not do) to make Twitter feel more (or less) like it’s a bastion of free speech. And as such, it is therefore not a bastion of free speech at all. We will all have to continue to find ways to retake ownership of that fundamental freedom, and leave everything else to the birds.