Social media despots

Helen De Cruz
6 min readApr 22, 2023

“The purpose of the state is really freedom” (B. Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise)

Elon Musk (CC license from India.com)

Sorry, Twitter users, you've been nerfed. The platform is getting worse by the day, the rollout of Twitter blue has been an unmitigated disaster, and there's nothing you can do about it, except voting with your feet.

Ok, let's migrate to Spoutible, the platform recently launched by Christopher Bouzy. He seems much more benevolent. He's a good guy. For instance, he asks the users for their opinion in polls.

Bouzy tweet — source https://twitter.com/cbouzy/status/1649793020202549253

That platform seems like it will not be welcoming to sex workers and other people who want to make sexually explicit content. You might not object to this or just don't care, but the problem with the policy is that it excludes a marginalized community, sex workers, such as Emma, who were not arguing against Bouzy in bad faith, as he implies.

Now Bouzy argues that he has a poll that shows an overwhelming majority against sexually explicit content. Problem is, you can't rule by poll (maybe Switzerland can, sort of, but they have lots of checks and balances to make their rule with referenda work). Implementing a "no sexually explicit" content policy will take a lot of work and consideration.

Like Musk, Bouzy is a despot — I mean this in a neutral, non-pejorative sense. He can do as he sees fit, molding the platform and our engagements on it to fit his values. There is no democratic oversight to social media platforms. Some (like Cory Doctorow) argue that capitalism is to blame. But the problem goes beyond capitalism. It's the problem of unaccountable, sole rulers who subject us all to their own, specific whims. This is why, in Spinoza's views, democracy is the best form of government.

Twitter is not the government, of course, it is a private company. But it is still a public sphere of some kind, where the public comes together and expresses their ideas. The public have interests that are generated by their common and divergent experiences. So, even in a private company it is useful to think about how we can best coordinate action in a public sphere, and that's what politics and political science is.

We can draw on Baruch (Benedict) de Spinoza's (1632-1677) ideas, specifically in Theologico-Political Treatise (1670). Though written over 300 years ago, this book helps us to understand why monopolies along these lines are harmful and counter to our aims of using them. In Spinoza's views, there are many advantages to living together and collaborating in a public sphere. We can achieve our desire to live in accordance with reason, and we can do things we'd never be able to do on our own, such as in the arts and in sciences.

Spinoza lived in a time and place (the Dutch Republic) where art, such as music and painting, and science, such as astronomy, made unprecedented steps. Telescopes and microscopes charted unknown aspects of the world. Living in accordance with reason and being able to make such pursuits happen constitutes a high degree of freedom. Thus, society offers us great potential for living free lives.

The Astronomer, by Johannes Vermeer (Wikimedia Commons) painted in 1668, roughly in Spinoza's time and space of the Dutch Republic, showing the amazing developments of the sciences during that period.

Unfortunately, people aren't entirely rational. They're driven by greed and by their emotions, such as envy or anger. As a result, we can quickly get into a miserable state where we "clash with one another in hatred, anger or deception, or deal inequitably with one another." Moreover, “if we consider that without mutual aid men must live most wretchedly and without any cultivation of reason, we shall see very clearly that to live, not only securely, but very well, men had to agree in having one purpose."

So, the aim of the Republic (or the state more generally) is to enable us freedom to fulfill these projects and freedom from fear of being assaulted etc by others. The ultimate end of the state is not to dominate its citizens, or to turn them into automata, but "to enable their minds and bodies to perform their functions safely, to enable them to use their reason freely."

This is how Spinoza sees both the functioning of the state and the role of free speech within the state, hence “The purpose of the state is really freedom.”

Although a social media platform is not a government or a state, it has a lot of similar features. It helps us to form society and to achieve aims we can only get by collaborating with others. It allows for the flow of information and for vigorous debate, which are essential for being better informed and thus living freer lives, not being in the grip of misconceptions and ignorance.

Now, Spinoza argues that a democracy is the best way to achieve the goal of freedom that states ultimately aim at. Because an individual despot is subject to his specific whims and emotions, he will likely land us in bad decisions. This is nowhere more evident than in Elon Musk, whose wrong ideas and inappropriate reliance on passions has led him to suboptimal decision making that will run Twitter into the ground.

Consider his initial decision to buy Twitter at the stunning sum of $44 billion. Musk believed he was calling the Twitter owners' bluff because he thought, incorrectly, that Twitter was in the grip of some sort of high-level conspiracy of "wokeness." This idea has its origins in antisemitic conspiracy theories, which holds that the increasing diversity we see in big companies (from Black little mermaids in Disney to LGBTQ+ content on Netflix to BLM statements in Amazon) are really the result of such a conspiracy. The prosaic truth is that these companies are, rather conservatively, responding to a diversification and greater recognition of diversity in their audience. We see this diversification for instance in the latest Census in the US (conducted in 2020).

So, there is no woke elite (if anything, elites resist the diversity and only grudgingly go along), which explains why Twitter accepted the high offer and even took Musk to court to keep him to it. Other bad decisions of Musk such as removing the legacy blue check are also informed by his wrong ideas about blue check accounts as being "bought" (i.e., followers were paid to follow).

We can see here in true Spinozist fashion how Musk is harming himself and his platform by being led by his passions and not living in accordance with reason. Worse, as a despot, he also pulls users of Twitter along with him. Spinoza believed democratic government was far superior to absolute monarchy for this very reason. Democracy, unlike monarchy, would guard against “absurdities” because it is in the self-interest of the rulers: “it is incumbent on them most of all to consult the common good, and to direct everything according to the dictate of reason. As Seneca says, no one continues a violent rule for long.”

Moreover, democratically elected people still have irrational passions and desires, but they would cancel each other out. "If the assembly is large, it’s almost impossible that the majority of its members should agree on one absurd action.” Clearly, Spinoza could not foresee what would happen with the GOP in the early 21st century. But I still think the point holds, as it is possible in principle for citizens to unseat these rulers, unlike Musk who cannot be unseated. As Spinoza writes, in a democracy "no one so transfers his natural right to another that in the future there is no consultation with him. Instead he transfers it to the greater part of the whole Society, of which he makes one." We have buy-in, and in a democracy, “everyone remains equal, as they were before, in the state of nature”, but with that difference that we do not need to live in perpetual fear of others committing violence on us.

This also explains why some content moderation is necessary (as Spinoza says, freedom of speech can never be absolute) and why social media platforms need to be run with care so they help us fulfill our aims. As long as they are run by despots with little accountability to the user, this is unlikely to happen, unfortunately.

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