If the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisMilo returns a blank stare, check your antenna, the future of politics is passing you by. ‘Milo’ is Milo Yiannopolous, a gay, self-described right-wing polemicist who delights in online scraps with feminists and ‘social justice warriors.’
Twitter created a self-induced ‘Twit Storm’ in January by removing Yiannopolous’s verified blue badge for unexplained terms-of-service violations. The move sparked outrage among his fans—the viral hashtag topped trends in Canada, the UK, and US. and rose to third globally.
As the end of conventional political messaging draws nigh, how government regulators react will profoundly implicate the nation’s commitment to free speech and debate. The internet’s unique character, providing instant—and ferocious—feedback to perceived unfairness renders government involvement unnecessary.
Traditional media hasn’t yet caught on to the impact of online communication; instead it spends inordinate ink fueling hysteria about so-called ‘dark money.’ Nonprofits and trade associations spend these “secret” funds on impotent political ads and large consulting fees. Marco RubioMarco RubioRepublicans giving Univision the cold shoulder: report Week ahead: Senate panel to vote on Trump's Labor pick Senators introduce new Iran sanctions MORE-supporting Conservative Solutions and Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise Super PAC waste millions battling on Fox News where the average viewer is 68—the youngsters gravitate to CNN and MSNBC (average age: 60). Gen X and millennial voters trust who they follow not who bombards them. And many of these voices exist exclusively as online personas.
The new paradigm has created a crisis of sorts at the Federal Election Commission. In 2006 the Commission exempted free Internet communications from its ambit. The result has been phenomenal. Candidates, advocacy groups, and citizens constantly flood cyberspace vying for voter attention. A true political marketplace determines public preferences.
But the feral online flow of ideas does not satisfy everyone. In 2014 Democrat Commissioner Ann Ravel made overtures toward a more regulatory approach to internet speech, stating the free-for-all landscape as a policy matter “does not make sense.” She eventually retreated following a concerted backlash but hasn’t given up the fight.
Ravel’s gesture inflamed an ongoing philosophical fight over the agency’s cyber authority, particularly between herself and Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman. And it will likely continue past their tenures and manifest in unforeseen ways. For instance, Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonObama should testify before Senate Intelligence Committee Live coverage: Senate intel holds first public Russia hearing Podesta demands Daily Caller correct article on financial disclosures MORE-acolyte David Brock announced last May his “independent” Super PAC would coordinate with Clinton’s campaign because its output would be free and exclusively online.
Ravel stoked the controversy last July when a questioner asked about the FEC’s role in keeping the online political arena “fair” from “disparate impact.” Ravel responded “it would be under the purview of the FEC to look at some of the issues that arise in new media and the impact of new media, in particular with respect to disclosure…”
This sentiment pervades academic and nonprofit circles. In 1993, when the commercial Internet was just blooming, current Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein sought a ‘New Deal for Speech’ where government would “improve outcomes and help move [political] judgments in appropriate directions.” The nascent information super highway’s unlimited promise didn’t sway his thinking. More recently a nonprofit-cabal has sprouted to encourage the FEC in its online speech-policing endeavors.
Pressure to impose “fairness” and “appropriate” online outcomes will continue to mount as new controversies arise. Marketplace signals, however, may render coerced remedies superfluous.
#JeSuisMilo embarrassed Twitter, mocking its professed commitment to free speech. And it provides a real-time lesson in the perils of meddling in fractious political debate. Twitter, however, remains defiant, announcing a “Trust and Safety Council” tasked with filling the Internet with “compassion and empathy.” Critics panned the move as speech-policing. The long-term implications are unknown but a reputation for censorship likely won’t help its tanking stock price.
In 1964 the Supreme Court declared “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks…”
The Internet fulfills that commitment in ways the Court could never imagine. And it will continue in ways we presently can’t fathom. That doesn’t mean debate will be rational, respectful, or fair. Online platforms evolve toward market forces; people don’t want polite debating forums. And in free societies, it is they and not government that must make those choices. The FEC should remember that when tempted to fish for online fairness.
Jossey is a campaign finance lawyer and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Compeittive Politics.