The first major counteroffensive in the information war is underway.
On Monday morning, Elon Musk announced he had acquired a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter for around $3 billion, becoming the social media company’s largest shareholder. The stock jumped 25 percent, its market value rising to $39 billion from around $31 billion on Friday afternoon. On Tuesday, Twitter added Musk to its board of directors, and the stock jumped another six percent.
Musk had been dropping hints of his entry into the war. On March 25, he polled his Twitter followers, asking: “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” Of the 2.035 million votes, 70.4 percent said “no.” The next day, he followed up: “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done? Is a new platform needed?”
Particularly galling for Musk was Twitter’s banishment of the Babylon Bee and its searing satire. No one more perceptively skewers the culture’s lunacy and the Beltway’s incompetence. The new central organizing tactic of the ruling class outlaws all criticism and alternate views as “misinformation.” Clearly, the hilarious and highly effective Bee had to go.
The stakes, however, could not be more serious. Several years ago, social media’s creeping censorship belied an emerging illiberal attitude. Today, however, this illiberalism has metastasized into a full-blown epistemic crisis. The censors pretend the problem is on the fringes, which will always exist. The new, real, and far bigger problem, however, is the self-blindfolding of the supposedly sober decision-makers themselves. By banning alternative sources and views, the illiberal fantasy class has lobotomized itself and endangered the world.
In a recent article, I argued that the war on “misinformation” led directly to the many cataclysmic policy choices of the Covid era. Big Tech, Big Media, and Big Medicine amplified friends who were catastrophically wrong – and silenced scientists who turned out to be right – about the probable origin of the virus; the inefficacy and cruelty of blanket business and school closures; the availability of cheap, effective early treatments; and the huge unintended consequences of vaccine mandates, among many other mistakes.
The war on so-called misinformation, exemplified by Twitter’s censorship of eminent scientists and physicians, now stretches across nearly all information platforms and institutions and all fields of science, culture, and public policy. It will continue to wreak havoc on our economy, health, and yes, as Musk says, democracy itself.
Musk’s attempt to reform Twitter from the inside is heroic but will be fought ferociously. The anti-free speech forces’ recent capture of the information landscape is seductive. They will not give up this newfound power easily. The new battles are not about policy but legitimacy. Who can speak? Who can participate? What information is real? If you can disqualify opponents and inconvenient ideas, you can advance unpopular, untrue, and self-serving agendas.
Of course, we need curators, editors, aggregators, and critics. Perhaps now more than ever. Overwhelming floods of information require wisdom to navigate. The problem with the new regime is that the editing comes way too high in the stack. Too early. Top-down editing isn’t discretion. It’s censorship. It is presumptuous consensus and premature falsification. It is “pre-information.”
Until then, we have Musk, who knows his physical inventions on road and in outer space depend on the abstract foundation of free bits and free people.
Covid was an example of punctuated illiberal policy collapse. Over time, however, censorship will also erode the pace of technological and economic advance, and prevent course corrections in social policy. The devastating results may be less acute and obvious but just as large.
Misinformation is the natural state of the world. It is everywhere, always. We need facts, logic, arguments, and experiments to replace misinformation with information.
In information theory, entropy is the potential for surprise. Information is the resolution of uncertainty, the surprising revelation. Where there is no entropy, no uncertainty – when Twitter or Google or Dr. Fauci claim omniscience – there can be no future information, no progress.
Or as the great physicist David Deutsch put it, “The unpredictability of the content of future knowledge is a necessary condition for the unlimited growth of that knowledge.” Only open societies offer the unpredictability needed for freedom, innovation, and cultural sustenance.