I have to admit to a fleeting moment of sadness when I clicked on The Hill recently only to discover that the center-right political news site had stopped running comments on all its articles. The Hill didn’t give any reason for the springtime shutdown, merely suggesting that readers head to Twitter or Facebook if they wanted to “participate in the conversation.”
What conversation? I took a daily dose of the The Hill for years and can fairly report that the comments feature was a free-for-all of invective and abuse from all parties during the Trump era—especially after January 6, when an escalation in the rhetoric of maximum denialism delivered with minimal intellectual vigor was the rule. More recently, brief articles of, say, 800 words would be overwhelmed by comments that ran into the thousands—with pages upon pages of deleted comments signaling that so much bitter back-and-forth had led to outright threats, and that the moderators had at last stepped in.
The Hill’s decision to offload comment moderation wasn’t really surprising—you have to pay someone to moderate all that bile and hate—but does highlight how the advent of the online-first media model and social media platforms have bigfooted the print press and engendered a culture of agenda-driven journalism and commentary where “Tweet first, ask questions later” now trumps the old Hearst rule of “Get it first—but get it right!” The fake-news phenomenon that dominated Trump’s term was in plain view in The Hill’s comments section: From Trump to Fox to The Hill, the talking points trickled down like polluted rain, facts be damned.
Still, the comments did offer the rest of us an opportunity to gain insight into the minds of far-right extremists without having to directly engage with them. Any armchair sociologist could take a spin and get some clarity into the great American unraveling. Reading The Hill’s comments was like spending an evening watching Ken-and-Karen public freakouts on YouTube, where catharsis met schadenfreude met rubbernecking. Harmless fun—until the speech is weaponized under the Maoist principle that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and a recently radicalized 18-year-old white man goes and kills 10 African Americans in the name of Tucker Carlson’s fact-free “great replacement” theory, complete with livestreaming and an online manifesto.
The Hill’s comment feature made a mockery of the Louis Brandeis free speech maxim about sunshine being the best disinfectant: the belief that the more free speech is out there—however hateful or untruthful it may be—the better the chance the truth will prevail. Brandeis’s theory looks great on paper—and of course Americans should be free to say pretty much whatever they want, short of “I’m going to murder you tomorrow, snowflake”—but, unfortunately for the late Supreme Court justice, the truth never prevails on comment boards. Overwhelmed by facts on The Hill, the MAGA scribes would simply move to the next article to deploy their arsenal all over again: LOL a lot, own the libtards with frequent mentions of “PedoJoe,” driven home by versions of the schoolyard taunt, “I know you are, but what am I?”
When search-engine-optimization is the guiding journalistic principle at news outlets controlled by billionaires or Wall Street investors, muckraking journalism of the “afflict the comfortable” variety inevitably takes a back seat. To that end, Elon Musk’s corporatist ideology around free speech absolutism is inexorably tied to the bizarre but widely accepted notion that Americans consume the news in the manner of devouring a hot dog. The news is then “digested,” and Facebook, Twitter, and comment sections like The Hill’s do their part by providing the free speech toilet. With lots of Google ads.
The Hill’s comment feature also provided a clear signal, blinking redder by the day, that there’s a sizable minority in this country who believe a second civil war is already underway and that January 6 was a historical hinge moment similar to abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry: It may have failed, but look at what happened next.
“We’ll be waiting for you when the SHTF, libtard,” was a common refrain. Now, The Hill has offloaded comment moderation to Mark Zuckerberg and, if things go as planned, Musk, who pledged to remove the tweetstorm shackles from Trump if and when he acquires Twitter. (The former president was banned from the platform after he incited his supporters to deploy the Mao strategy on January 6.) The insurrectionists have meanwhile promised to bring more guns to D.C. next time, while Musk has emerged as a hero to the locked-and-loaded free-speech-grievance crowd.
In an opinion column on MSNBC following the recent racist massacre in Buffalo, former FBI agent Frank Figliuzzi observed that it doesn’t make a difference whether Musk “intends to turn Twitter into an even more harmful platform for rapid radicalization…or if he is [merely] perilously naïve to the threat and oblivious to the gray area between benign speech and clear violations of law such as direct threats of violence or threats of life.” Either way, Figliuzzi argues, Musk should not be allowed to buy Twitter.
This all reminds me of the Beat poets, who had a saying, usually attributed to Allen Ginsberg: “First thought, best thought.” Ginsberg may have coined the phrase to signal the arrival of a spontaneous and unstifled poetics detached from academia and social norms, but, in our hyper-reactive era of instant outrage on Twitter and other platforms, the maxim demands a recasting to meet the moment: “First thought, worst thought.” As in, belay that thought. As in, maybe keep it to yourself.
If Pythagoras is more your style than the bop prosody of the Beats, I’ve always liked this aphorism—and sometimes even try to live by it: “A fool is known by his speech, and a wise man by silence.” Whatever the fate of his $44 billion Twitter gambit, Musk really needs to wise up when it comes to his views on unfettered free speech.